Updated: Jun 2, 2019
Children need help learning how to first connect with themselves-understand their emotions, their thoughts, their sensation-, to then be able to move closer and connect to others. This blog post summarizes Chapters 5 “The United States of Me” and Chapters 6 “The Me-We Connection” from “The Whole Brain Child.”
To start, children need to become aware of the inner place of the mind, called the hub. This is where we become aware of everything that is happening in and around us. In this process of becoming aware of the hub, children can learn to differentiate between their “I feel” statements and “I am” statements. These can get confused, even for adults, because things that are temporary states (like feelings) can seem to be more like traits. In this growing awareness, we can teach children that they have choices about what they focus on and where they place their attention. When we each learn how to direction our attention in a new way, this creates new experiences that changes brain activity…which then shifts the actual structure of the brain. Dr. Dan Siegel says, “by directing our attention, we can go from being influenced by factors within and around us to influencing them.” That sounds great, doesn’t it? It makes us AND our children aware of what we have control over. We don’t have to let outside influences bully us around!
Chapter 5 walked through two different strategies for the connection to self. They are:
Let the clouds of emotion roll by
In this strategy, we teach children that emotions come and go. They don’t stay forever and they definitely don’t define us as a person. They are states, not traits. On average, an emotion comes and goes in 90 seconds. I was blown away when I heard that! We move through emotions rather quickly, so we can help children see that any feeling they are experiencing rolls by just like the clouds in the sky.
Pat attention to what is happening inside with SIFT
In this strategy, we are teaching children about what is going on inside them. We are teaching them to pay attention to….
Get back to the hub
By getting back to the hub, children are getting back to their core and learning that they don’t have to be victims to their sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. They can decide how they think and feel about their experiences. In this strategy, children can practice a mindfulness technique of visualizing a peaceful place if they get overwhelmed or bogged down with emotion.
These strategies are great kick-starters to helping kids prepare to shift from a “me” connection to a “we” connection. We find happiness by being connected to others, all while maintaining our own unique identity. The skill of empathy is the ability to recognize the feelings, desires, and perspective of another. This skill, like other skills, takes practice! But the good news is that we are really wired for the “we”, despite the times we might think otherwise, especially when our children are refusing to share or think of others. The truth is, however, that a key factor in well-being is devoting one’s attention and passions to the benefits of others...AND we are wired for this!
We are wired for connection, but learning how to connect can be hard, especially when find differences between ourselves and those in our core relationships. Interpersonal integration is when we can honor differences all while cultivating connection. We do not need to be exactly alike to have close connections. What we need to do is honor the ways we are different, appreciate those differences, and that in turn forms a sense of intimacy. We are wired for this type of connection in part because we’ve been given the gift of mirror neurons. Those neurons show up very early on in life. If you’re stressed, that energy can translate into your kids being stressed. If you walk into a group and they are laughing, you might automatically laugh even without hearing the joke.
I’ve talked about attachment before, but it’s important to include in this discussion on connection. Here are a few key things to remember about attachment.
-Attachment in childhood gives a model for how relationships work. Do children see a sense of sacrifice, sharing, and trust?
-In early interactions, children learn whether relationships will leave them feeling alone and unseen, anxious and confused, or felt, understood, and securely cared for
-If there is not safe attachment, children learn to “go it alone.” They shut down the part of the brain designed for connection
The good news is we can help children be receptive to relationships rather than reactive. Here are two strategies to help your child integrate self and other:
Increase the family fun
This is making a point to enjoy each other, because it’s all too easy as parents to fall into the trap of just disciplining and being your child’s private taxi driver to and from their planned activities. By giving a fun and loving atmosphere you’re providing the space to experience what it means to be in loving relationships with others.
Connection through conflict
Even as parents and adults we don’t always know how to “do” conflict. We can help children argue with the “we” in mind. Here are some tips…
-See through the other person’s eyes. For children to recognize the other point of view, we must first show an awareness of their feelings. When they receive what it’s like to have their feelings acknowledged, they will better be able to offer that to others as well.
-Listen to what is NOT being said. With this tip, we are helping children tap into the non-verbals. Your child’s friend might say they are not upset, but by looking down and removing themselves from an activity might mean they are actually sad about the situation.
-Repair. By repairing, kids are learning to make things right after a conflict. This goes beyond saying sorry. Sorry shouldn’t be minimized, but often times repairing requires going a step further and righting what has been wronged. This requires empathy and teaching children how to understand the other’s feelings.
You might be able to see from these tips how important it is to work to build the connection to self before steps can be taken to really build meaningful relationships. “To become a part of a well-functioning “we,” a person needs also to remain and individual “me.”” -Dan Siegel.
May we help our children develop their ability to stay authentic to who they are, all while building strong and loving relationships within our families and with close others.