I just finished reading The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson and I keep telling all my friends and family members about it. The book is all about teaching kids how to practice healthy mental habits while also better understanding their own neural processes.
According to Siegel, fostering mental health is like paddling down a river. On one bank is “chaos” and the other “rigidity”. Fostering mental health, in both adults in children, involves maintaining a balance between these two banks. This is done by using their “whole-brain” or helping the parts of the brain to become better integrated. In The Whole-Brain Child, they explore a variety of ways to better integrate the brain.
Left and Right Brain Integration
While the left brain is “logical, literal, linguistic (likes words), and linear, the right brain is “holistic and nonverbal… intuitive and emotional” (pg. 15-16). Siegel and Bryson explain that when a child is reacting in a way that seems irrational, it may be because their brain has been “highjacked” by the right side.
In order to actually bring a child down to a place where we can even begin to logically reason with them, it is essential to reach out to them and affirm their emotional state. Since The Whole-Brain Child is written specifically for parents, it suggest hugging or cuddling your child until they have calmed down, and then slowly bringing logic and reason into the conversation. This is a strategy the authors refer to as “connect and redirect”.
When it comes to potentially traumatic or emotion-laden events, they suggest parents “name it to tame it”. Rather than redirecting a child’s thoughts away from a traumatic experience (their example was a car accident), Siegel and Bryson allowing the child to retell the traumatic experience, but follow up by assuring the safety of everyone involved. In their example, where a child and babysitter were in a car accident, the parents consistently retold the story with the child, but consistently reminded the child that when they had visited the babysitter after the accident she had recovered and was safe. This way the parents helped bring closure to the event, and prevent it from coming an unconscious source of anxiety.
Upper and Lower Brain Integration
Siegel and Bryson explain the upper and lower brain like a house. Downstairs is the brain stem and limbic region. These lower areas are often described as “primitive” because they handle basic functions like breathing, and “innate reactions”, (fight, flight, freeze) and “strong emotions” like anger and fear (38-39). Meanwhile, the upstairs brain is made of the parts of the cerebral cortex. The authors focus particularly on the middle pre-fontal cortex “where more intricate mental processes take place, like thinking, imagining, and planning” (40). The authors explain that without upper and lower brain integration, it’s almost like there is a baby-gate keeping the child in their fight or flight.
I also found this helpful infograph on the Blissful Kids blog and thought it expressed those basics in a helpful/accessible way.
Siegel and Bryson explain that kids sometimes throw tantrums because they are trapped in a lower-brain reaction. They emphasize that there are certain differences between upper and lower brain tantrums; upper brain tantrums are an intellectual attempt to manipulate, while lower brain tantrums occur when kids aren’t able to access their higher thinking processes. They also provide a few strategies for dealing with a lower-brain tantrum, which I’ve included below.
“Engage, don’t enrage”: This strategy involves helping a child intellectually engage with their feelings. For example, if a child shouts “I hate you” you try to get to the root of their reaction BEFORE you explain that their behaviour in inappropriate.
“Use it or lose it”: This strategy involves training kids to engage their upstairs brain by involving them in decision making, discussing emotions and self-regulation, having conversations about how to be empathetic towards themselves and others, and generally delving into discussions about morality and what is right.
“Move it or lose it”: This strategy involves exercising the body in order to nurture the mind. For example, running or exercising when anxious, smiling even when you don’t feel happy, mindfulness exercises, etc.
Further Integration Techniques
The Whole-Brain Child goes on to explore a variety of other ways to integrate the brain, including “Integrating Implicit and Explicit Memories,” “Integrating the Many Parts of Self,” and “Integrating Self to Others.” While I won’t be exploring all these elements of the book in this post, the video below summarizes the other key strategies for teaching integration for kids.
If you are a parent, or work with children in any capacity, I would highly recommend reading this book. I found it an accessible read, and it even provides a variety of helpful tools like this Refrigerator Sheet, which sums up the main points of the books.