Our brains are fascinating and very complicated! To really understand your child, it is very important to understand what is happening in their head, as best we can at times. This is the fun part, at least for me.
Our brains, very simplistically, are divided into the 2 halves. We have the right brain and the left brain. Each half has their own, very important function and each compliments the other. Understanding how to integrate these 2 halves will help you understand your child’s behaviors, and help your child grow successfully on their own.
Let’s start with the left brain. Left brain is the half that really likes logic, linguistics (words), is literal, and very linear (order, right vs wrong, sequences). Left brain really likes to see things that have “an answer” and can be right or wrong. Ever notice a 6 year old that gets very angry and breaks down because they cannot be as tall as his brother? This half is responsible for really being logical and can sometimes be a little rigid in that logic.
Right brain is the emotional part of our brain. It is very important in reading the response from the body and understanding the non-verbal communication. As the left side sees the logic, the right side is responsible for seeing the whole picture in context. Right brain makes your child lose it because their sock is crooked. It also helps the child understand that when you make “that face” it means something (although they may not understand what that its) about the way you feel and makes her feel a way as a response.
A great way to explore the differences is that the left brain is responsible for the “letter of the law” and the right brain is the “spirit of the law”. So, when your child argues they didn’t “bite” their sister, they just pushed their braces in her arm, he is just coming from the left brain. When your 4 year old says she will “just die” if she cannot go to her friend’s house, she is responding from the right brain. The fun part comes when your child starts to constantly ask “Why?”. They are trying to integrate the function of both sides.
I wonder what you will notice if you take a minute to consider all of this. What behaviors does your child demonstrate when she/he is feeling emotions that feel too much? Scream, cry, throw things? Now, what do you look like in response to those meltdowns? Who wouldn’t want to just stop the behaviors if they are disruptive? But how is your child reading your face or tone of voice? Are you coming from a right brain reaction or a left brained reaction? What is your body telling you when it is all happening?
Whole Brain strategy #1: Connect and redirect
First things first, we need to connect. When your child is in the middle of a complete melt down, this may not be the best time to try to use logic. Although the breakdown may be very illogical and way off, they will not be able to relate and attune if they do not feel “felt”, or the sense of connection and understanding. Kids read that feeling of connection through your facial expressions and your tone of voice. So, even though it is untrue that your child will die if their beloved blankie is not immediately recovered from Grandma’s house, doesn’t mean that your child is not scared or sad because they do not have the blankie. Using logic will enter you into a debate of the healing powers of blankets, and this is an argument you do not need to have at that moment. You may question your child’s motives at that moment, but coming from a stance of understanding the right brain connection is the most important part. Taking a moment to soothe the right brain through connection can save you time in the end and get the task at hand accomplished more easily.
Once you connect, you use the left side to redirect. When your child is calm it is much easier to use logic to get through to their left brain. Until then their left brain is essentially “off line” and cannot engage in a productive manner. In a much calmer state, the child is able to problem solve the way to help “blankie” and himself get through the night. Your child has already been able to ride the wave of their feelings to get their feet firmly planted in the solid ground coming closer to logic.
That absolutely does not mean you let your child manipulate you or change the rules because they want to. There may be a time when safety is prioritized before the connect and redirect process can even begin. If a behavior is “off limits” for your family, it remains that way even when they are riding high on the wave of emotion. In the heat of the moment is not the best time to discuss consequences though, wait until the wave has passed to take that up.
Whole Brain strategy #2- Name it to tame it
Emotions can feel so huge and overwhelming to kids. Often in those moments they attribute the feeling to something that may not be accurate. Your child may become sick at an amusement park and doesn’t even want to ride a ride again, even though she loved it before she got sick. Using a story here can help your child make more sense of what is happening in both the right and left brain to feel less stressed by it. Allowing the child to fill in details and tell the story as much as they want will help them “chew up” the information and integrate both logic and emotion into the story. Asking your child, “Remember when you were having so much fun riding the rides and then after lunch you got sick and threw up? That was very upsetting and you didn’t feel very good and were embarrassed. What happened next? Remember that you came and found me and we got you cleaned up and sat together until you felt better? “. You can help your child engage the feelings of being scared, with the success of getting through the situation successfully. You may have to pull some of the details from your child to get them to see a bigger picture, but it will continue to grow and develop a healthier context where your child can reason.
Practice with your kids and see how it looks. Allow the facts to come into the story, your child’s feelings, and the “lesson” they can take from the story. As we continue through the strategies in The Whole Brain Child, allow yourself time to practice and really understand what this means for you and your child. We will continue to understand more of the brain and how it grows and develops in future topics.
Siegel, D., MD, & Bryson, T. P., PhD. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child. New York, NY: Bantam Books.