Scientific studies of the human brain have a lot to tell us about childhood development and how the various parts of the brain work together. By understanding the concepts of the left and right brain, the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain, and interpersonal integration, we can consciously guide the physical development of our children’s brains so that they can be happier and healthier, both now and into adulthood.
The Whole Brain Child offers strategies for handling the everyday challenges of parenting, including children’s struggles with themselves and conflicts with others, so as to not only survive the difficult moments but use them to guide the development of your child’s brain toward personal insight, empathy, and integration.
Here’s what you’ll learn about in this summary:
- The whole-brain perspective allows parents to harness daily parenting challenges and to not only survive them, but use them to teach our kids to thrive.
- The brain is “plastic,” or moldable, and our experiences change the physical structure of our brains even into old age. This means that at any age we can rewire our brains.
- Teaching your child how to integrate the many parts of herself will help her develop into a happier, healthier adult in control of how she interacts with others.
“Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting—and life—are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.”
“Once they understand about integrating the many parts of themselves, they’ll be able to comprehend themselves much more deeply and actively choose how they interact with the people around them.”
“When you’ve become the active author of your life story and not merely the passive scribe of history as it unfolds, you can create a life that you love.”
Use the daily challenges of parenting to develop your child’s whole brain integration so that they not only survive but thrive.
THE BIG IDEAS:
1. You can influence your child’s brain-growth towards integration by using everyday moments as teaching opportunities.
“Harmony emerges from integration. Chaos and rigidity arise when integration is blocked.”
As adults, and as adolescents and infants, our mental state is a lot like a boat riding down a river, with one bank being “chaos” and the other “rigidity.” Now, in order to be happy and healthy, we’ve got to consistently keep our boat riding along nicely, right between both banks.
When your child hits either one of these two banks, you can help guide him/her back into the flow of the river — back into a nice, harmonious state of mind.
- Examples of the “chaos” state might be: crying, yelling, and hysterical fits.
- Examples of the “rigidity” state might be your child’s refusal to share a toy, or intentionally ignoring/pretending not to hear you when you call out her name.
When your child veers into either of these “banks,” it presents an opportunity to help her thrive and grow towards being healthier and happier… But how?
The authors tell us we can help our children guide themselves towards the direction that’s best for them in any given moment through what’s known as “horizontal and vertical integration of the brain.”
If your child is in a chaotic or rigid state, then it’s safe to say they’re outside of the ideal state, which is a state of “integration.” Our role as parent is to gently help them get into an integrated state of mind on a consistent basis…
By recognizing when states of chaos or rigidity begin to arise, and applying the whole-brain strategies we’ll cover in our upcoming Big Ideas, you can use these otherwise negative moments to help your child become more integrated and therefore more emotionally and mentally healthy. The key is to be present with your child and look for these moments of opportunity.
2. Help your child to integrate the left and right brains—horizontal integration—by using the “connect and redirect” technique.
“In order to live balanced, meaningful, and creative lives full of connected relationships, it’s crucial that our two hemispheres work together.”
The brain is divided into two hemispheres—left and right—that influence us in different modalities. The left brain is associated with linear thought, logic, words, and literal thinking. The right brain is nonverbal, intuitive, and holistic.
The right brain hemisphere is also the source of “gut feelings” and is more directly influenced by the body and “lower brain” (which we’ll get to later). The right brain receives and interprets emotional information. And it’s also where autobiographical memories are kept. Very young children are entirely right-brain dominant, but you can see the left brain starting to kick in when a toddler asks questions that begin with words like “why”, “how”, or “how come.” Some quick examples:
- “why is the sky blue?”
- “how come some colors are bright and others aren’t?”
- “why is the President’s hair so orange?”
To foster your child’s emotional wellbeing, the authors tell us it’s important that we become horizontally integrated—meaning that both the left and right brain hemispheres are working together.
When a child is upset, for instance, it’s usually useless to appeal to the logic of the left brain before we’ve attended to the emotional needs of the right brain.
Our job as parents is to help our children reign-in their left brains in order to gain some perspective on the emotions coming from the right brain. You can do this by using a strategy the authors refer to as “attunement” to emotionally connect with the right brain:
When your child is in a chaotic, emotional right-brain state, communicate by acknowledging your child’s emotions and using nonverbal communication such as physical touch, facial expressions, and tone of voice and by being an open listener.
Once you’ve connected with the right brain and helped calm your child’s emotions, you can redirect with the left brain by using logical explanations, planning, and decision making.
- Your child gets angry for no apparent reason. He cries out loud and throws his Lego blocks all over the floor, flailing his arms and hands across the table of Legos, sending the blocks in every which direction, chaotically clanking as they randomly hit the floor. You notice the tears streaming down his eyes… What do you do?
- Start by quickly (within a few seconds or less) assessing the situation and taking the first step towards attunement with your child. Clearly in this scenario, you’d immediately recognize that your little one is incredibly upset and his emotions are high, which means he’s in a a mental state of chaos – his right brain has taken over.
- A sensible step to take at this point would be to simply kneel down and embrace/hug your child while saying something like, “I know sweetheart, I know… you’re really frustrated right now.” The goal is to let him know—in a cool, calm, and empathetic tone of voice—that you understand where he’s coming from and that you’re there to help him cope, rather than yell at him for throwing the legos.
- Once your child feels safe and understood (thanks to your genuine empathy), then you may find him calming down. He’ll stop crying and/or become less emotionally charged… This is how you’ll know you’ve connected with your child’s right brain.
- Once you’ve established a connection with your child and helped him come back to a positive state of calm, you can then begin redirecting with the left brain hemisphere by saying something such as “So buddy, what happened here?” or “Let’s talk about what we can do next time…”
3. Name overwhelming emotions to tame them.
“When we can give words to our frightening and painful experiences—when we literally come to terms with them—they often become much less frightening and painful.”
Overwhelming emotions can be tamed when they’re named and transformed into stories.
When your child is affected by fears and anxieties from past events (which reside in the right brain), you can help her by engaging the left brain to put the details of the story in order.
It’s important to help kids tell their own stories. Storytelling integrates the left and right brains by bringing words, order, and logic into our autobiographical memories, associated emotions and bodily sensations—which, in turn helps us understand ourselves and our world.
When the left brain works together with the right brain to tell our own autobiographical stories, we experience healing and are no longer overwhelmed by the negative emotions from past experiences.
You can help your child tell a story about something that happened in her life that is troubling her by encouraging her to share detailed accounts of her experience, and by then asking non-threatening follow-up questions about those details.
Naturally, you may have difficulty getting her to talk about an experience, especially if it is a source of very negative emotions. Here’s a simple tip the authors share to help your child engage in open-dialogue: children are more likely to share/chat while they are doing something else, such as playing with building blocks.
Alternatively, if you’re having difficulty connecting through conversation, you might also try encouraging them to talk with another caregiver, a friend, or even a sibling.
Bottom line? The key to helping your child tame their past negative emotions is to name them, talk about them, and create stories about the past experiences that are at the root of the negative/fearful/anxious emotions they’re experiencing. Name them to tame them.
4. The “upstairs” brain and the “downstairs” brain.
Perhaps one of the most powerful Big Ideas from the book is about understanding the difference between your child’s “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain.
This concept goes a long way towards helping your child understand how their own brain works.
Additionally, developing an awareness of the upstairs and downstairs brain, and when and how to respond to each one can make us much more effective parents when it comes to exercising drama-free discipline with our children.
So here’s how this idea works…
Just as the brain has a right and left hemisphere, it also has an “upstairs” and “downstairs.”
- The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and limbic region. It is considered to be the more primitive part of the brain and controls basic functions such as breathing, innate reactions, impulses such as fight/flight, and strong emotions such as anger and fear.
- The upstairs brain is more evolved and controls analytical and higher order thinking, such as decision making, planning, empathy, self understanding, conscious control of the body, control of emotions, and moral reasoning.
The goal of the parent should be to help build the “staircase” between the upper and lower brains so they can work together, or become vertically integrated. While the upstairs brain can help keep control of the strong emotions, impulses, and innate reactions of the downstairs, the upstairs needs to consider the emotions and physical feelings coming from the downstairs brain in its decision-making and analysis.
Side note: It’s important to remember that in children, the upstairs brain is very much under construction and will not always be available, so as parents you must keep your expectations reasonable when it comes to vertical integration.
Another important factor in vertical integration is the amygdala. The job of this little gray mass located between the upstairs and downstairs brains is to process strong emotions, particularly fear and anger…
For instance, sometimes, we need to react before we think—which is necessary in moments where the danger is immediate—like when running away from something big and scary (especially if it wants to eat you!) Moments like these are when it is the amygdala’s job to take over and direct immediate action without getting the upstairs brain involved to slow things down (for example: to think about what your three most strategic courses of action could be).
However, this is not good in normal situations, and if we are not truly in danger we do need to think before we act.
In children, especially, the amygdala tends to jump in too often and block the stairway between the upstairs and downstairs, like a baby gate. In those moments, you’ll need to help your child calm the amygdala so that it will open that gate back up and give your child access to his developing upstairs brain.
5. Recognize “upstairs” tantrums and address them appropriately by setting boundaries and having rational discussions on acceptable behavior.
“You’re teaching her that respectful communication, patience, and delayed gratification pay off—and that contrary behaviors don’t. Important lessons for a developing brain.”
Although there are times when kids are simply biologically incapable of accessing their upstairs brains, they do have the capacity to do so.
You can learn to tell the difference between when the child is trying to use a tantrum to get what they want because they’ve decided in their upstairs brain that this will work, or when the amygdala really has snapped the gate shut and they are unable to control their behavior.
When the child is having an “upstairs” tantrum (having a tantrum on purpose as a tactic to get her way), that is a moment to teach the child that appropriate behavior and rational, respectful communication are rewarding, and tantrums are not.
6. Address “downstairs” tantrums by first soothing the child and shifting her attention to get the amygdala to open the baby gate again, allowing for vertical integration to happen.
With the downstairs tantrum, the child is in a state of “dis-integration,” and trying to communicate with the upstairs brain won’t work because they do not have access to it. The amygdala has taken over. He’s “flipped his lid.” The first thing you need to do is calm the amygdala so that it will open the gate to the upstairs brain. This calls for a completely different response from an “upstairs” tantrum. The response should be nurturing and comforting. The first thing to do is connect with the child. Use a soothing tone of voice and physical touch. You may have to hold him close and talk him down.
Once you have done this, you can then begin to address the issue using logic. By waiting until the “gate” is open and the upstairs is accessible, you ensure that the child can internalize what you are saying.
One way to help kids calm down or regain control is to get them moving. Suggest a game or some other activity that will get them physically active. Moving the body is an excellent strategy for gaining control over the mind. We can actually change our emotional state by changing our physical state, as much of the emotion we experience actually comes from the body.
7. Engage and exercise your child’s upstairs brain.
“Your goal here isn’t perfection on every decision right now, but an optimally developed upstairs brain down the road.”
The upstairs brain is just like a muscle that must be exercised. The right brain is responsible for the functions of decision-making (executive functioning), controlling emotions and the body, self-understanding, empathy, and morality.
By guiding your child to engage their upstairs brain, you are helping them to develop these functions.
One way to do this is to by encouraging the child to talk about a conflict using precise words, by asking questions and suggesting words that can be used to describe it. Ask her to come up with her own ideas for a solution that works for both everyone in the conflict. By doing this, you engage the upstairs functions of analysis and decision-making, which helps them learn about consequences and appropriate behavior as well as thinking about what other people need and want.
8. Use narratives to help your child transform implicit memories into explicit memories that have meaning.
“It is in this transformation—from implicit to explicit—that the real power of integrating memory brings insight, understanding, and even healing.”
Memory is not so much a file cabinet where memories are stored to be retrieved later, but really an association machine. Memory is association. The brain actually experiences something in the present, such as a smell, an emotion, or an idea and then associates it with an experience from the past. Whenever we have a first-time experience, the brain connects it with another experience. So when we call up a memory, the brain activates a cluster of neurons that is similar to but not actually identical to the one that was created at the time of the experience. Which means that memories are distorted.
There are actually two kinds of memory: implicit and explicit. Implicit memory is the automatic memory that allows you to do things such as type or ride a bicycle without having to think about it. It encodes our bodily sensations and emotions. It creates “priming,” the way that your brain anticipates the world and gets ready to react in a certain way. It helps us to act quickly and automates responses to certain situations. Explicit memory, on the other hand, is the recollection of a past experience, such as remembering the day you learned to ride a bike.
Implicit memories that we are unaware of consciously can be very painful and create fear, avoidance, and other negative emotions and even sensations in the body. However, making implicit memories explicit by shining a light on them can turn them into sources of power and self-understanding. The job of integrating implicit and explicit memories is that of the brain’s hippocampus. Integrating implicit and explicit memory helps us to become active in writing our own life stories. Storytelling integrates implicit and explicit memory. Telling our own stories brings together the scattered puzzle pieces of implicit memory into something whole—a story—that has clarity and meaning.
Implicit memories affect our sense of who we are at the moment and influence the way we deal with the world. Integrating implicit and explicit memories means integrating past and present, and when children can do this, it helps them regulate their behavior and thoughts, reducing irrational responses to the present that are really reactions from the past.
One technique for replaying and addressing painful memories that a child doesn’t want to talk about is thinking of the memory as a movie on a DVD and giving the child a “remote” for the DVD so they can fast forward and go back and forth in the memory, skipping ahead to the outcome where everything is okay, then going back to the frightening or painful parts and playing them again.
Another way to use storytelling is to make recollecting events part of a family routine. This gives children a chance to tell their stories and make meaning of them. Recounting basic facts of events develops your child’s memory and her ability to integrate explicit and implicit memory. When done with pleasant memories, it reinforces a sense of well-being.
9. When a child becomes fixated on one point on their rim, teach them mindsight exercises that help them get back to their hub and show them that they can decide where their awareness is focused.
“By directing our attention, we can go from being influenced by factors within and around us to influencing them.”
Mindsight is the understanding of our own minds as well as the minds of others. The key concept of the first aspect is personal insight. You can teach your child about this concept using visualizations and exercises that help them understand and control their own minds. For example, you can use a visual aid such as a windshield with dots and smudges on it to explain to your child that that there are many parts of themselves, like smudges on a windshield, that they can focus on.
Another visualization is the “wheel of awareness.” The wheel of awareness is a model that can be used to visualize how our minds work and understand how we can better integrate the whole brain. The hub of the wheel is our awareness, or our executive brain, where decision-making happens. The various points around the rim are various aspects of ourselves, such as memories, emotions, and physical sensations. We can choose how much attention to give each point and which points to focus on.
When children experience a particular emotion at a moment in time, they may tend to define themselves by that feeling rather than recognizing it as a feeling of that moment: I am stupid rather than I feel stupid right now.
They perceive a state as a trait.
However, by learning to shift their awareness to other parts of the wheel and see the whole picture of who they are beyond that one emotion or experience, they can see that this is not true and not confuse states with traits.
Where we focus our attention actually changes the physical structure of the brain. Our brains are plastic and can be rewired through conscious effort. The tool of the wheel of awareness helps kids shift their awareness and actually change how their brains are wired, so that they not only survive a negative moment but learn to thrive by having their brains wired for a sense of well-being. We can direct our attention to other points on the rim and thereby be active participants in deciding what we think and how we feel.
Another exercise is using the SIFT model. To develop mindsight, kids need to first learn to become aware of what they are experiencing. They can do this using SIFT, which stands sensations, images, feelings, thoughts. To use the SIFT model, guide you child in scanning her mind first for physical sensations that she is feeling, then for images present in her mind, then for feelings or emotions, and then finally for the thoughts that she is having.
To guide children in the SIFT model, ask them questions such as, “What do you feel in your body right now?” and “What pictures do you see in your mind?” Thoughts are different from the others in that they reside in the left brain.
Direct your child to understand that they do not have to believe their thoughts just because they are having them at the time. They can evaluate a thought using other things—other points on the rim—to decide if it is really true. All of the points on the rim influence others and work together to form our present state of mind. Teaching children to SIFT helps them recognize all the different aspects of their “rim” and learn to integrate them in the hub, thereby gaining more insight and control. It also helps to teach kids that their emotions are like clouds, that they can just let them roll by, because they will. An emotion comes and goes in 90 seconds, on average.
10. Look for opportunities to encourage children to develop the second aspect of mindsight, the ability to see and connect with the mind of others, so that they can experience meaningful relationships.
“Mindsight is the basis of both social and emotional intelligence. It allows children to learn that they are part of a larger world of relationships where feelings matter and connections are a source of reward, meaning, and fun.”
The essence of mindsight is the ability to see your own mind as well as the minds of others. While the key concept of the first aspect is personal insight, the key concept of the second aspect of mindsight is empathy.
Insight and empathy together make up mindsight. Meaning and happiness comes when the “me” joins the “we.” Brains are neurologically built as social; the structure of the brain is wired for interpersonal integration, the ability to cultivate connections with others while honoring and nurturing our differences. The individual brain is built to relate with the brains of the people we interact with, just as the different parts of the brain are made to work together. Through “mirror neurons,” our brains are hardwired to “mirror” both the behavioral intentions and emotional states of those around us.
Our mental life is comprised of both our internal neural worlds and the signals we received from the external world, including the neural worlds of others. We actually soak in the internal mental states of others into our own mental worlds. Thus, we need to help kids understand how they connect to those around them, including their family, friends, classmates, and communities. Children need to learn the mindsight skills to connect with others to share, listen, forgive, and sacrifice so as to build meaningful relationships. We can help children do this by looking for opportunities to encourage them to develop these mindsight skills.
There are two states of mind: open (or receptive), and closed (or reactive).
The reactive state of mind is that of the fight/flight response of the nervous system. The receptive state of mind comes from our upstairs brain and allows us to connect with others and feel safe. We want to help our children develop mindsight skills by responding to the downstairs brain’s reactivity in a way that calms it and allows the child to then access the upstairs brain and exercise mindsight.
We can use conflicts as teaching opportunities to teach kids to argue with a “we” in mind and recognize others’ points of view. Teach them to watch for nonverbal communications to attune themselves with the feelings of others and to make things right after a conflict.
You can also use family activities to develop receptivity and feelings of connection. Think of building long-term relationships between your kids as a math equation in which you want the amount of enjoyment and connection they experience with each other to be greater than the amount of conflict they experience.
Those experiences of connection and safety develop the upstairs brain’s receptivity to other relationships throughout their lives.
By teaching your children how to integrate the many parts of themselves through whole-brain strategies, you help them understand themselves more fully and learn to actively choose how they think, feel, and interact with others.
- Use difficult moments as teaching opportunities.
- Recognize the different parts of your child’s brain at work.
- Help your child understand her own brain.
- Teach your child mindsight exercises she can use on her own.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
- Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. is the Director of the Mindsight Institute and a clinical professor of psychiatry a the UCLA School of Medicine. He is an author, educator, and practicing psychotherapist who works with children, adolescents, adults, couples and families.
- Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, founder of The Center for Connection, is a practicing psychotherapist a who offers parenting consultation and therapy for children and adolescents. She is also the Child Development Specialist at Saint Mark’s School in Altadena, the Director of Parenting Education at the Mindsight Institute, the Director for Child Development for Camp Chippewa in Cass Lake, Minnesota, and the Child Development Director for Lantern Camps.
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