Often times parents know more about their child’s physical well-being, their bodies, than anything else. They know what type of food they need before bedtime and when they might be running a fever. But what they might not know about is the child’s brain, which is rather interesting because the brain is the root of discipline, self-awareness, success in schooling, and how they thrive in relationships.
To begin to understand this, we must start with the word “integration.” Integration can be defined as using each part of the brain and melding them together to create a whole. The brain can be broken into the following parts:
Left side: Logic, Literal, Linguistic, Linear, Lists
Right side: Emotions, Non-verbal, Big picture, Intuitive, Experiential
Reptile: Ability to act instinctively
Mammal: Moves individuals towards connection and relationship
By integrating, it makes these different parts work as a whole. An integrated brain will lead to better decision making, better control of the body and emotions, more self-understanding, stronger relationships, and more success in school. Problems arise when only one hemisphere is being used. Relying too much on the left side leaves denial of emotions and individuals lose a sense of perspective. On the other side, relying only on the right side can lead to feeling lost and chaotic because the child will be swimming in a sea of emotions.
So how do we help children work from both sides of the brain? Two strategies are laid out by author Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”:
1) Connect & Redirect
· Logic WON’T WORK unless the caregiver FIRST connects to the right brain emotional needs
· Have the child “feel felt”…meaning, you are showing empathy for the emotions they are bringing to the table, even if their logic does not seem “valid.”
· Connect with non-verbals: physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, nurturing tone of voice, listening non-judgmentally
· After doing these things, you can then redirect the child to the left side of the brain…bringing in logic
· Ex: Your child comes crying to you because they want it to be Christmas but it’s only June. They are crying saying “it’s not fair!” For some of you this doesn’t sound too far off of something your child has cried about. First, connect with the emotional. DON’T start by saying “Of course it’s not Christmas right now, it’s June, Christmas isn’t until December”…you will lose them because they are over in right brain and you immediately went to left brain. You could bend down closer, maybe offer a hug and say “it’s really hard, isn’t it? It feels unfair…” After a few minutes of soothing, you can use logic to explain and help bring in a sense of why Christmas is not in June. Or even come up with strategies for fun things to do in June while you wait for Christmas to come again.
2) Name it to Tame it
· Telling stories helps calm emotions. Retelling helps bring the left and right brains together
· Don’t pressure the child to share. Just like you might need some time to recollect yourself and don’t always want to talk about things, children need that space too. Pressuring them will only backfire. Revisit it another time if need be
· What’s the science behind this? The right side of the brain processes emotions and memories, and the left side makes sense of it all. By telling the stories the children really “own” their stories in a healthier way
· ***Sometimes parents avoid talking, thinking that it might resurface painful feelings for their children. This is understandable, but talking it through helps them process through the scary or painful experience to have a sense of mastery over the situation***
The interesting invitation in parenting is that we might start to see areas in our own lives we can grow. Are we cut off from our emotions? Or, do we get swept up in an emotional wave? It’s hard to offer guidance to children if we have work to do ourselves. This might be an opportunity for us to look at what we’ve learned in terms of balancing the left and right sides of the brains and how we might become more integrated caregivers. It’s easier to offer wisdom from a place we’ve traveled, so it might mean it’s time to look at what you’ve been taught in this area.