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January 2012 -- Volume 3 / Issue 1                                                                                              



We all know how wonderful it is when our children are agreeable, adaptable and flexible, when they are in good moods and everything flows and they are able to handle life’s challenges and inconsistencies.  In these moments, parenting is a pleasure, and we get the type of feedback we need to feel like a good parent.

But then there are those times….and sometimes, depending on the temperament, lots of them….when children lose it. . . when they are incredibly sensitive to any change in their routine; or the experience of not getting what they want; or hearing the word, "No"; or not being able to accomplish a task.   In these moments, they will unleash their anger, frustration and tears, dig in their heels, and no amount of talking and reasoning gets them through it.  And at these times, parenting is not fun.  It is puzzling and difficult and we don’t feel like we are doing a good job.

Recently  I read a book, The Whole Brain Child:  12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, which is devoted to explaining this phenomenon by rooting it in neuroscience.   According to the authors, the emotional ups and downs of children can be explained by understanding the different parts of the brain. 

The left side of the brain helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, whereas the right side of the brain helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues.  In terms of development, young children are very right brain dominant and have not yet mastered the ability to use words and logic to express their feelings. 

The upper part of the brain, primarily the cerebral cortex, which they call the “upstairs brain” takes a long time to develop, well into a person’s 20’s.  It is responsible for sound decision making, control over emotions and body, self understanding, empathy and morality.  Children or teenagers are not going to have a mature, developed upper brain at their disposal for a very long time. As parents, we need to remember that the upstairs development is in progress and adjust our expectations.

The lower part of the brain, housing the brain stem and the limbic sytem, which they call the downstairs brain,  is often referred to as our reptilian brain.  It allows us to act instinctively and to make split-second survival decisions.  It responds to memories. All of our strong impulses, reactions and emotions originate there.

The authors contend that when children are stuck in using only one part of their brains, they become overwhelmed by their emotions. They will be confused and chaotic.  But when the adults in their lives can help them function from a more integrated, “whole brain” approach, their emotions are easier to control. They become open to problem solving. 

Tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression are the results of being disintegrated . . . as opposed to being integrated.   The most effective way that we as parents can help our children be flexible, adaptable and thoughtful is to guide them into utilizing and integrating their whole brain.

The question then becomes, "How do we help our children accomplish this intergration?" Siegel and Bryson offer some excellent suggestions on how you might implement this in your own families. I have seen these ideas work and am excited to share them with you.

1)     “Connect and Redirect”  

The parents I work with in my practice report amazing results when they remember to apply this.  Here’s how it works: 

Your child is melting down or blowing up emotionally.  Your instinct is to respond with logic and reason, explaining why she can’t have or do this or that.  But this never works because you are using left brain logic to respond to right brain emotionality. 

Instead, connect with her emotionally first . . . your right brain responding to her right brain.   Tell her that you understand that she is very disappointed or upset or angry, and it must be hard to have those strong feelings.  Validate her feelings in a calm, soothing and loving manner, connecting with her through your understanding and empathy.

Then once she is more in control and receptive (often the anger shifts to tears), redirect with problem solving and when necessary, setting boundaries.  In other words, the right brain emotional experience has to be validated before the left brain thinking can take place. 

A mother in my practice who used this technique with her tantruming school-age son, reported that he asked her for paper and pencil.  And then wrote her a note, which said, “I need food and water.”  When his mother responded to his right brain, the child was able to use his own left brain to tell her what he needed to be soothed.


2)     “Name it to tame it” 

When a scary or painful experience causes big and out of control emotions in your child, it is an opportunity to bring the left brain into the picture so your child can understand the experience and tame it, by diffusing the negative associations.  Storytelling helps with this process.  The right side of our brain processes our emotions and memories, but it is the left side that helps us make sense of them. 

One of the best ways to promote this kind of brain integration in your child, is to help him retell the story of the painful or frightening experience.  As the Whole Brain Child authors tell us, “healing from a difficult experience emerges when the left side works with the right to tell our life stories.”


3)    “Engage, Don’t enrage"  

Sometimes when we challenge our children and demand that they change their behavior immediately, we trigger their more primitive emotional downstairs brain and get instant pushback and escalation of negativity.  At these times, it is wise to appeal to their upstairs brain, by asking questions and helping them find an alternative way to think through the situation and come up with solutions.  The goal is to help children engage in critical thinking, instead of simply reacting to what they are feeling.

The authors are clear.  Sometimes there is no place for negotiation in parent-child interactions and the boundaries just have to be set and respected.  But there are many situations where we can work with our children to become better at thinking things through and problem solving. 

A good thing to say is”  “We have a problem.  You want this and I want that.  How about if we talk about it and see if we can find a solution that works for both of us?”  Or “I can see you are really mad at me.  Are you mad because I did this?  Here’s what’s going on for me.  How can we make this work for both of us, or do this differently in the future?”


4)     “Move it or Lose it" 

Research has proven that exercise affects our brain chemistry.  So when your child is stuck in his reactive and emotional downstairs brain, it can help to have him move his body.  Running around the block, doing jumping jacks or another form of exercise, can help him focus and regain balance.

So you when you are hitting a wall with your child, and the digging in of heels has begun, you might stop the action and play a  running, jumping, or dancing game.  It works best to do this at the beginning of the interaction, before tempers and intensity have escalated.  Then you can get back to getting dressed, cleaning the room, completing homework, or whatever the task at hand.


The Whole Brain Child is a parenting guide, but its theories and suggestions are also good information for modifying adult behavior.  It helps to know when our right brains need to be validated, and when we are stuck in our downstairs brain, reactive and out of control.  The authors emphasize the fact  that the latest research shows that the brain has plasticity….that it is constantly in flux and rewiring itself based on new experiences.  This is good news!  It means that at any age or at any stage, we have the power to change the way we think and function. 

I hope your new year is filled with new and positive experiences for your families!

Happy New Year, 



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When Parents Disagree
Feb 25, 2010

Jill Shugart, M.A., MFT - 910 Tulare Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707 - 510-528-0309 -
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