the whole-brain child (chapter 2)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The intro post for this series can be found here.
Read along and give your opinions!

Chapter 2 is titled “Two Brains are Better than One: Integrating the Left and Right Brain”. I don’t know about you, but I feel like this is the part of the brain that I am most familiar with. We use ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ terminology in a variety of settings, so I already knew the left brain means logical, linguistic, and literal (all L-words, alliteration courtesy of the book). I knew the right-brain was the emotional, nonverbal, experiential, autobiographical side. (Also, the side that doesn’t care those words don’t begin with the same letter – thanks Drs. Siegel and Bryson for that amusing reminder.)

I also knew from experience that young children are right-hemisphere dominant (especially up to age three), but it helped to have that explicitly stated in this chapter. The question really is, how do I get my children to not allow their lives to be ruled completely by emotion and experience, but instead to use words and logic to help them learn and grow from those emotions and experiences? That’s where the strategies come in:

Strategy #1 – Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves
Step 1 is to connect with the right brain. Often logic will not work at all until we have responded to our children’s emotional needs. One of the main things I’ve learned as a parent is that once my children hit a certain non-rational, highly-emotional point, there is no amount of discipline or talking that will reach them until I help calm them down or allow them the space to calm down on their own. It doesn’t mean that I don’t eventually address the irrationality of the situation and the need for something logical to occur, but unless I spend some time calming and nurturing, the situation will never be remedied, or at least not effectively. Once I’ve connected with them, then I can move to step 2 – redirect with the left brain. Now’s the point you deal with the logic and perhaps discipline of the situation. This isn’t an excuse for inappropriate behavior, but a recognition of the fact that inappropriate behavior can’t be dealt with effectively unless you engage your child’s whole brain.

My own takeaway: This is a huge challenge for me since my natural tendency is to discipline or use logic before I connect emotionally. I can easily see the ineffectiveness of this approach – my kids don’t respond well, I don’t respond well, often behaviors aren’t changed, and everyone just ends up more upset and in a worse place than when we began. I have to make a conscious effort to implement this strategy more consistently.

Strategy #2 – Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions
Retelling the stories of hurtful, traumatic, important, highly emotional events allow us to help our children connect the facts (left-brain) with the feelings (right-brain). Kids need someone to help them make sense of their lives and their stories. Sometimes feelings can seem so big and overwhelming that children lose sight of what the story actually is. This strategy allows us to guide our kids in retelling their stories, integrating the logic and facts as they do so.

My own takeaway: The reminder for me is that I need to facilitate my children’s stories. My adult left-hemisphere logic is quick to dismiss the big feelings as misplaced, forgetting that to my children, it’s all they see and comprehend. Especially with my kids from hard places, I need to allow them the freedom to retell their whole story, even if I don’t think it’s factual, so that I can help them overcome those big feelings with an integrated brain, allowing them the space to heal as they process.


What did you learn about the brain from this chapter or my summary of it? Is there one of these strategies that you’ve tried or that seems more difficult to you? Do you have any suggestions for how to integrate these strategies more fully into your/my parenting? I’m eager to hear your feedback.

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