Book Summary - The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Dan Siegel
Much like our own, our children's brains are composed of many intertwining parts, each of which serves a unique function in day-to-day life. While we often think, talk, and listen without recognizing the particular areas of our minds that are being stimulated, a general awareness of brain biology and cognitive psychology can offer key insights into not only our own lives but the lives of our children, too. As parents, it is our responsibility to ensure that our offspring utilize their brains to the fullest extent possible in order to succeed in a challenging world.
Raising Healthy Kids
Due to the predominance of social media, new parents are bombarded with advice from every possible source. If it isn’t sustainable parenting groups on Facebook or blogs to show off and share your progeny, it is books that are chock-full of advice for raising the modern child. Not to mention all of the unsolicited suggestions you are receiving from your friends and family who have “been through it before”, no doubt.
So, how do we filter out the critical information and separate that from the noise?
It all comes down to nurturing your child’s brain.
And, in order to do this, you must be willing to nurture your own brain first. Children emulate their parents.
So, using the whole brain? It starts with you.
The human brain is made up of two hemispheres. The left hemisphere develops more slowly than the right hemisphere and it is responsible for both language and logic. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, develops quickly and allows for the development of nonverbal signals, images, and feelings.
Until a child is three years old (roughly), he or she is right brain-dominant.
Do you ever find yourself trapped in a circular argument with your two years old who is unable to distinguish right from wrong?
This is because the child is unable to see logic and rationality. Reasoning skills come with left-brain development, a process that takes place later on in childhood.
Once your child’s brain hemispheres have both fully evolved, it is important that you teach your child not to rely too heavily on one side at the expense of the other.
Here are two strategies:
The first strategy is referred to as connect and redirect. Essentially, when your child is having an emotional outburst, engage your empathy skills to calm his or her right brain. Then, redirect the child to the logical left brain by catering specifically to his or her ability to reason.
Consider the following example.
Your child is terrified of dogs.
When she sees a dog and begins screaming, ignore the urge to yell at her for being scared. Instead, take the time to put yourself in your child’s head--the fear of dogs obviously feels rational to her. Once you have empathized with your child and calmed her down by lowering your voice slightly and acknowledging the validity of her fears, work on channeling a logical perspective into your child’s mind. For instance, you could talk about the fact that while you always want to ask the owner before petting an unfamiliar dog, most dogs will not hurt you as they are biologically inclined to form strong bonds with humans.
The second strategy for engaging both the right and brain hemispheres is referred to as name it to tame it. Whenever we give a name to the feelings and emotions that we are experiencing, they quite literally become less powerful. Our brains decrease activity in the areas associated with emotion.
In the example above, you, as the parent, could ask the child what she was feeling in the moment she saw the dog. She would probably say she was scared. The very act of vocalizing her emotion in the situation would likely de-escalate some of the associated fear.
Higher and Lower (Primitive) Function
So, your child has a temper tantrum. He is kicking and screaming on the floor for the third time this week. You have done everything you can think of to console him, but nothing has worked. In this situation, who is truly in control--the child...or you?
In order to answer this question, we look to the higher and lower functioning aspects of the brain.
The primitive functions of the brain are those necessary processes that keep us alive (i.e. breathing, impulses, and strong emotions). When your brain is being controlled by its primitive functions, that’s when you act erratically and become upset.
So yes, while it does not feel like it, even your screaming child is in control of himself. It is just that rather than being controlled by his whole brain, his behavior in this moment is dominated by his primitive sphere.
Your higher brain functions come from your cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex is in charge of impulse control, thinking, planning, and self-awareness. This part of the brain takes much longer than the primitive parts to mature, which is why kids are generally much more in tune with their primitive behaviors than their higher-level ones.
So, what do you do when your child engages his or her inner demon (aka primitive brain)?
We recommend that you take three steps.
- Ask your child what caused him or her to get angry. Have him or she identifies a specific problem that led to the tantrum. And then, ask the child to identify a potential solution. By asking the child for a solution, you are encouraging them to engage their higher (logical) brain function.
- Encourage your child to use their right brain any and every time they come to you about a problem or express dissatisfaction with a situation. Help them use their own thinking skills to arrive at a solution. Repeating this behavior makes it into a productive pattern.
- Diminish the power of your child’s lower brain by engaging them in regular exercise. For instance, if Henry is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of homework he has, let him take a few minutes to run around in the front yard before getting started.
Memories, even the ones we don’t like, impact our actions.
When a negative memory strongly impacts our child, it is likely that implicit memory is to blame. Implicit memories are the ones that are not conscious, but they still play a strong role in many of our interactions.
For instance, maybe your child had a traumatic medical treatment as a baby and while he doesn’t remember it, he refuses to use the bathroom at school. This could be because his brain unconsciously associates his memory of the medical procedure with the smell of this particular bathroom. His brain is making connections, but not ones that he is aware of.
Explicit memory, on the other hand, refers to the memories that we do remember.
As a parent, there is a key strategy you can employ for combatting and controlling negative memories:
Ask your child to narrate their troubling memories as if they were talking about a movie. Pretend that he or she has a remote control and can use it to skip over the tough parts or to pause if he or she needs to. Talking about your memory in great detail can create awareness of the memory and the role that it may play in a child’s life.
Our minds have many aspects. In order to fully understand the functionality of these aspects, we must develop an awareness of the ways in which our brains exist. In order to develop this self-understanding, you should work with your child to cultivate mindsight or an awareness of every aspect of one’s self. Through mindset, the child can learn where to place his or her focus in difficult situations.
In order to help your child develop mindsight, you must teach the child that emotions will come and go. The average emotion lasts approximately 90 seconds, so even the bad ones will pass.
You should also make your child aware of the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that he or she is feeling at any given time. Be sure to emphasize that all of these individual feelings and bodily sensations matter, as they compose his or her personal experience.
Brains have plasticity. Basically, this means they can experience change and respond accordingly. One way in which the brain can be reshaped is through social interaction. We thrive (or not) based on our relationships with others.
In fact, if we see another person yawn, we are likely to yawn. If we see another person taking a drink of water, it is likely that we would feel thirsty too.
In the example above, it is not just that we are understanding that someone else is tired or thirsty. We are actually feeling what they are, too.
When this phenomenon occurs, our brains are engaging their mirror neurons. We are naturally inclined to mirror and mimic people that we like.
On the subject of socialization, make sure that you are giving your child sufficient time to interact with peers. While we are currently living in a Zoom-dominated world, it can be hard to find ways to connect in a social setting, especially if you are worried about health risks, but face-to-face peer interaction is critical for developing socially aware children.
And don’t be afraid to engage in playful parenting! Show your children how to laugh, have fun, and play games. Being able to enjoy experience is often a skill to be developed, like anything else!
The Main Take-away
While our brains are the most complex organ we have, we can use our biology to our advantage, especially when it comes to parenting. By applying tested strategies (such as name it to tame it and connect and redirect) to our children’s behaviors, we can begin to see our children--and their brains--through a wider lens.
No longer are temper tantrums simply signs of an overtired kid. They are actually indicative of the brain’s primitive functionality and speak to a child’s lack of rational cognitive development.
No longer are children (and adults) right-brained or left-brained. Instead, in The Whole-Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel demonstrates exactly how it is possible to place equal value on both hemispheres. There are strengths and weaknesses associated with each.
In order to best raise our children, we must leverage both sides of the brain in our own lives, too.
About the Author
Dr. Dan Siegel was born in 1957. He is a trained clinical psychiatrist, author, and professor of psychiatry who teaches at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he is also the executive director of Mindsight Institute. After receiving his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and training in pediatrics as well as psychiatry, Dr. Siegel went on to study attachment, autobiographical memory, and emotions and behavior. Throughout his career, Dr. Siegel has published multiple articles, book chapters, and other texts. His most recent book, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, was released in 2018.