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Raising Your Child’s Whole Brain

12 strategies to foster thriving.

Key points

  • Nurturing thriving may require understanding how the brain functions.
  • Adults can help themselves and their children thrive.

Do we want our children to thrive or just survive? Certainly, aiming for survival would be appropriate in a war zone, but parents can aim for thriving in other contexts.

In their book, The Whole Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson encourage parents to aim for thriving. They provide some essential information about brain functioning and its development but spend most of their time discussing parenting scenarios and how to approach them.

The book offers numerous slogans and comic strips to help parents imagine how to navigate their child’s development. One image depicts life as rowing a boat on a river where one bank is rigidity and the other is chaos. The goal, of course, is to navigate without hitting either bank. A child too flooded with emotion can crash into the chaos bank, too obsessive and they can crash into rigidity. The brain modalities need to be integrated to keep children in the middle way.

Siegel and Bryson offer strategies for raising children with integrated brains. An integrated brain has two meanings: right/left and primitive/executive (downstairs/upstairs). Right and left hemispheres communicate through the bridge between them called the corpus callosum. Neglected children have thinner bridges, which makes them more likely to flip between states (Teicher, 2002).

Integrated brains are also ones that allow the “upstairs brain”—executive functions such as planning, self-control, self-understanding, empathy and morality—to guide or restrain the “downstairs brain,” the survival-oriented emotions and self-protectionist mindset. It actually takes three decade of proper support for the upstairs brain to develop well, meaning that the downstairs brain is more dominant in childhood and adolescence. Hence the need for coaching from caregivers.

12 Strategies

Here are 12 whole-brain strategies (most of which can be used in every relationship) the authors endorse.

Connect and redirect is a technique to use to help a child with big emotions. Listen and acknowledge the child’s feelings, conveying empathy through body posture and facial expression. Once there is attunement, the parent can figure out what need requires attention or can redirect attention with logic and planning.

Name it to tame it. Storytelling can calm big emotions and fears. When a stressful event occurs, sometimes a child will develop fears around it. Helping a child retell the story multiple times, emphasizing how the child coped, can lessen the fear.

Engage, don’t enrage. This involves appealing to the upstairs brain of executive functions instead of reacting to the child’s downstairs brain. Adults need to pay attention to which part of their own brain is in charge. Children sometimes trigger the parent’s downstairs brain. This offers an opportunity to show the child how to calm down. When the parent is really upset, here are some ways to manage:

  1. Close your mouth (so you don’t say something you regret).
  2. Put your hands behind your back (so you don’t use them against the child).
  3. Remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself. Perhaps do jumping jacks.
  4. Then as soon as possible, return and repair the rupture in relationship. Apologize if needed. Get your relationship back on track.

Use it or lose it. This involves activating and exercising the upstairs brain. For young children this happens mostly indirectly, with the parent figuring out what need is not being met—e.g., HALT: Is the child hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?

One thing not in the book that is worth considering. Young children (before age 6) are best not pushed into a planning mindset. Their development is best focused on experience—whole body experiences. Young children learn self-control from the self-regulation and comforting behaviors of caregivers. They learn self-understanding and empathy through immersion in self-directed play with others. Around age 6 there is a cognitive shift (this is why schooling universally starts at this age). Then one can start discussing plans and moral decision-making with the child.

Move it or lose it. Moving the body can help a person get back in balance. Sometimes a child will become overwhelmed by responsibility, such as a great deal of homework. They can shut down. One way through such an impasse is to get active, like running or doing jumping jacks. The activity rebalances the brain hemispheres and opens up possibilities. It works for all ages.

Use the remote of the mind. Replay memories to review what happened and reinterpret them. This is especially useful when a child reacts in a way that surprises you. There might be an unresolved trauma that needs expression and working out.

Remember to remember. Daily family life can involve recollection together. One technique the authors suggest for younger children is to ask them to tell you two things that happened during the day, one true and one false, and you will guess which is true.

Let the clouds of emotion roll by. Children need to learn that there are many parts of themselves. They suggest a diagram called the wheel of awareness that includes thoughts, feelings, dreams, body sensations, perceptions, memories. The wheel can be used to review the day or why a child is feeling out of sorts. Using such a wheel teaches children that they have a choice about where they put their attention. Part of self-awareness that develops with maturation is the recognition that feelings come and go. Parents can remind children of this.

SIFT through the mind’s activities: Sensations, Images, Feelings, Thoughts. Using SIFT helps the child learn to pay attention to what is going on inside. S: What’s your body feeling? I: What pictures are going through your mind? F: How are you feeling about X? T: what are you thinking about?

Exercise mindsight. SIFT and the wheel of awareness can help children recenter themselves. These are “mindsight” exercises that support thriving. Insight plus empathy = mindsight.

Increase the family fun factor. Develop spontaneous ways to enjoy one another. Silly play can help shift children’s mindset out of defiance or anger. Siblings who play together as children get along better in adulthood. Play creatively, use improvisation or charades (e.g., acting out animals), make cookies, videos, or presents for grandparents.

Connect through conflict. Parents and children can learn to consider conflict from a viewpoint of “us.” When a child has a conflict with a sibling or peer, the parent can walk them through the viewpoint of the other. Parents also can help children learn to read nonverbal communications (e.g., when a friend might need cheering up).

The book includes charts for how to apply the 12 strategies at different ages. And the authors created an accompanying workbook with practical exercises and activities.

References

Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T.P. (2010). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. NY: Bantam.

Teicher, M. (2002). Scars that won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Scientific American, 286(3), 68-75.

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