5 Ways to Help Children Use Their Whole Brains
By Beth Berkowitz, Psy.D, Director of Children’s Clinical Services and Child Training Institute at JFCS’ Parents Place.
We have all heard about left-brained people and right-brained people before. While it is true that many of us are dominated to some extent by one side or the other, there are ways in which we can help our children find balance.
In the book The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., the authors offer a goldmine of guidance for parents about how to encourage balance for their children and help them thrive. Drs. Siegel and Bryson speak extensively about a concept they call ‘integration,’ and it’s an idea we can all relate to.
Essentially, our goal should be to assist our kids to integrate the important facilities of each part of their brains, because we all perform at our best when the different parts work together in a coordinated way. For example, when kids become overwhelmed by emotion, they often become dominated by either a wave of chaos on one side or extreme rigidity on the other, which can lead to their being stuck (e.g., tantrums). An integrated brain results in better control of emotions, improved decision making, stronger relationships, and a deeper understanding of ourselves.
When we talk about using our whole brains, we are speaking of left and right hemispheres as well as the ‘upstairs and downstairs’ brains. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere is our emotional brain, and the left hemisphere is the logical brain. The downstairs brain is the more impulsive and primitive brain that is intact at birth, and the upstairs brain develops slowly from birth through late adolescence. It is our upstairs brain that controls our more sophisticated thinking, such as organizing, planning, and decision making. It’s important to be patient with our children as their upstairs brains are developing; as we know, this process does not happen overnight.
Here are some ways you can help develop your child’s brain integration:
- Connect emotionally during times of intense duress: stay close to your child; hold them if they allow it; empathize by telling them you can see how upset they feel.
- When they are receptive, help them tell the story of what has upset them. This will help them use their left brain to make sense of their experience and feel in more control again.
- Encourage “upstairs brain” thinking. Ask questions and ask for alternative behaviors, and engage their negotiating skills, if appropriate.
- In times of calm, provide opportunities to help kids make their implicit memories explicit. By narrating past events they can examine their behavior and think about how to make better and more intentional decisions in future situations. Remember this isn’t a time for them to feel shame about old behavior but a time for reflection and change.
- Provide opportunities to play “what would you do?” games where you present them with dilemmas. Try to avoid rescuing them from difficult decisions.
Children’s brains have tremendous capacity for social interaction, and by encouraging them to use their whole brains we can help them harness that. Parents and other important caregivers are in a great position to model positive relationships, which helps create children’s expectations about relationships that will affect and guide them throughout their lives. One of our greatest gifts to our children is to help them develop insight into themselves, as well as empathy for and connection with those around them.
Attend our interactive Parents Place workshop: The “Whole Brain Child” Approach to Parenting: Based on the Work of Dan Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., Wed, Jan. 16, 2019, 7-9 pm, Parents Place Marin.
Beth Berkowitz, Psy.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Director of Children’s Clinical Services and Child Training Institute at Parents Place in San Francisco.