Has your 2 years-old child thrown a tantrum in the middle of a store? Has your 4 years-old refuse to get dressed? Does your fifth-grader mope on the bench instead of playing on the field? Believe it or not, a lot of it has to do with the many parts of their brain.
Our right and left brain are not only anatomically separate, they function differently as well. Our left brain craves order; it is logical, literal and linear. On the other hand, our right brain is creative and nonverbal, focusing on the big picture rather than the details of a situation.
The brain is not just divided into two hemispheres; it also has an “upstairs” and a “downstairs.” Scientists identify the downstairs brain, made up of the brain stem and limbic system, as the part responsible for basic functions, such as breathing, blinking, instinctually reacting, and emoting strongly. The upstairs brain, with its cerebral cortex, is the place in which higher function mental processes take place, such as imagining, planning, empathy, and morality. We are at our best when our instincts are in line with our higher-level thinking.
The key to helping children be flexible, adaptive, thoughtful and all the other things we want them to be, is to help integrate these parts of the brain so they work well together as a coordinated whole brain. When all of the parts of your child’s brain work in together, emotions are easier to control.
When your child isn’t working from an integrated whole brain, he becomes overwhelmed by his emotions, confused and chaotic. Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting and life are a result of a loss of integration. In other words, these problems occur when your little one isn’t using his whole brain and also when you as a parent aren’t using your whole brain.
Then how can you make sure your child’s left brain and right brain work together? How can help your child integrate is upstairs and downstairs brain?
In his book The Whole Brain Child, D. Siegel (2011) suggests a number of strategies that can help parents help their children to become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way.
1) Connect and Redirect: If your eight-year-old is throwing a fit because he can’t believe his birthday isn’t coming fast enough, chances are that he is experiencing a lot of right brain emotional or illogical activity. Rather than responding to your child with logical questions, which he will not be able to hear because he is in the midst of a wave of emotional thinking, react to him with emotions. Hold him tight and tell him that you understand how frustrating that might be. Once he is able to calm down, you can help him work through the problem logically. In this way, you are connecting to him through his left brain and redirecting his emotions through his right. This will help him become better integrated.
2) Name It to Tame It: If your 10 year-old is dealing with bullying at school, he is most likely experiencing painful or scary moments. These moments can be overwhelming and can flood him with overwhelming emotions. One way to help bring the left brain of logic into this right brain dominated by the big picture, is to help your child retell the story of his pain. After retelling the story several times, the pain she experienced is tamed and less overwhelming.
3) Engage, Don’t Enrage. In high-stress situations, engage your child’s upstairs brain, which is where his higher-order thinking takes place. Rather than triggering the more primitive and reactive downstairs brain by saying “Because I said so”, ask questions, team up and even negotiate. The more you can appeal to the upstairs brain and engage him in critical thinking and processing, the more your child will think and act and decide, rather than simply reacting to what he’s feeling.
4) Get Active. If your child loses touch with his upstairs brain, help him regain balance by having him move his body. Running around the yard can directly affect his brain chemistry. Exercise allows him to work through some of his emotions in a healthy way, allowing him to focus on other things afterward. When we change our physical state we can change our emotional state.
This method will help you survive difficult parenting moments, and turn them into times where as a parent you connect with your child and contribute the integration of his whole-brain.
Adapted from a book by D. Siegel.
Dr. Baya Mebarek, Psy.D.,LMFT
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