We all want to be the best parents we can be for our children, but there is often contradicting advice on how to raise a confident, caring, and successful child. How often have we wished that there was a parenting manual?
Our book club recently finished reading Dan Siegel’s “The Whole-Brain Child”, and the book has lingered with me thanks to all of its amazing resources! The book offers age-appropriate strategies for dealing with common parenting issues such as anxiety and tantrums. Dr. Siegel spoke about everything from the brain anatomy to the essence of what we term as “mind”; from the definition of mental wellness to practical applications of the latest brain science to parenting. It might not be a manual but it sure has some very helpful tips.
The prefrontal cortex and its function in the brain
At a birthday party, your toddler has a tantrum. Your preschooler refuses to eat breakfast. Instead of playing on the field, your older child sulks on the bench. Your teenager is having mood swings. Do children plan to make their parents’ lives difficult on purpose? No, it’s just their maturing brain making decisions and attempting to make sense of what they’ve experienced. Dr. Siegel explains the anatomy of the brain. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the area of our brain that coordinates all of these functions. It is the thinking part and it enables us to be emotionally balanced and self-aware, to be responsive rather than reactive, to be deliberate with our bodies, to be compassionate, and to be intuitive. This was intriguing to me since it related children’s relationships with their caretakers to their brain structure, not merely learned habits of conduct. How we treat our children socially and emotionally has a physical influence on them.
The Well-Being river
Dr. Siegal described mental health as a flowing river, limited on one side by rigidity and chaos on the other. When we’re not performing well, our brains go to extremes, which are represented by the banks. The left and right sides of our brain can be compared to the two banks of a river, down which we float in our own tiny boat daily. All too frequently, though, as we journey throughout the day, we are drawn closer to either bank of the river and become stranded. When this happens, we lose touch with our emotional and mental health and become less able to respond to stressful situations and challenging thoughts and feelings. This knowledge helps us to help our children when they are stuck on the two sides of this river. When our children are not in the flow of their own river and are either too chaotic or too rigid, we face difficulty as parents. For example, not sharing toy results in rigidity, and when another kid takes the toy away it results in chaos. This applies to older kids too; not being invited to a friend’s birthday party, other children having the latest iPhone, and so on.
Using the four “S’s” to promote secure connection
As parents, we can foster secure attachment if we remember the following 4 “S”s. Dr. Siegal says children need to be :
- Seen — This is more than merely seeing with one’s eyes. It includes feeling them deeply and empathically – understanding the thoughts behind their behaviors.
- Safe — We avoid behaviors and reactions that would frighten or harm them.
- Soothed — By being there for them we support them in dealing with tough emotions and events.
- Secure — We empower them in developing an internal feeling of well-being.
The Whole-Brain Child’s message is that families — both children and adults — are not stuck. Parents can influence their children and change the circumstances by changing how they respond and relate, and in doing so, they can help to transform their child’s (and their own) brain. Here are some of the tips from the book :
- Connect and Redirect The idea of “Connect and Redirect” among numerous practical suggestions for aiding kids with mental integration. This recognizes that when our children are in a “right-brain” condition, dominated by emotion and physicality, addressing them with words and reason or a left-brain approach will backfire. To show them that they are “seen,” we must first engage emotionally, using touch, tone, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and correct intensity. We can then refocus our children with our left brain tools, such as planning what to do next or clarifying boundaries, once their right brain state has been “met.”
- Name It to Tame It: Control raging right-brain activity with left-brain storytelling and reasoning. Naming the big emotions and using various calming down strategies to help your child regulate their emotions. What kids need, when they are experiencing intense big emotions, is for someone to assist them in using their left brain to make sense of what is going on—to put things in order and identify these large terrifying right-brain feelings so they can deal with them successfully.
- Engage, Don’t Enrage: This section explains the upstairs and the downstairs brain. At birth, the downstairs brain is fully grown and is in charge of basic reactions, impulses, and emotions. The upstairs brain, which is in charge of decision-making, does not fully mature until we are in our mid-20s. This information empowers the parents to support the enraged and angry child. The goal is no tantrums, but understanding the differences between your child’s tantrums might assist you to improve the situation rather than exacerbate it. When your youngster “flips their lid,” their upstairs and downstairs brains are not cooperating. The downstairs brain has taken over, and you must engage the upstairs brain for your youngster to move on from their tantrum.
- Move It or Lose It: Use physical activities and practice to help your child change his or her emotional state. This is through giving them opportunities to make choices and decisions. We can change our emotional state by changing our physical state, through relaxation and exercise. So next time your child is about to lose it, support them by moving. You can play a game, do jumping jacks, or dance.
- Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a point to enjoy each other. Playful parenting is one of the most effective methods for preparing your children for relationships and encouraging them to interact with others. This is because it provides them with great experiences. Fun and joyful experiences are beneficial to our children’s brains because they release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is similar to the chemical of “reward.” In essence, our brains reward us for having fun. So get out there and have some fun with your children!
Our children’s minds are everything – their personality, character, intellect, abilities, actions, resilience, and judgment are all shaped by their minds. We have the capacity and responsibility as parents to help our children’s mental health and growth. How we connect with them has a significant impact on this. Dr. Siegel through his book has shared with us a tremendous resource to help us make the most of these everyday situations. Remember that there is no single correct approach to raising a child. Do your best, be confident in yourself, and enjoy the company of the little person in your life.
- The Whole-Brain Child Approach:https://youtu.be/Jbg8RFuYQRs
- Whole-Brain Child- Refrigerator Sheet:https://411d9f10jrjx30gr072v5el2-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Whole-Brain-Child-Refrigerator-Sheet.pdf