My wife Heather and I often look at things from a very different perspective. It’s not surprising that opposites attract, but sometimes those opposites can begin to push people in two different directions. It didn’t take us very long into our dating life to realize that my wife seems to naturally operate out of the left brain, and I the right brain. I appreciate her attention to details and she appreciates my attention to the big picture and the dreams I get caught up in. In the post, Parenting with the Brain in Mind (Our Kid’s and Ours), I joked a bit about how my CPA wife and I often operate out of very different sides of our brain. In reality though, it’s not as cut and dry as that…depending on the situation, different sides of our brains light up.
Though it might seem like we tend to be wired to operate more exclusively out of one side of our brain, the goal in living and engaging in a holistic life is to bridge both your right and left brain together, so that you can bring the beauty of both to each and every situation.
And this ability to connect the left and right brain is a task that we as parents need to begin to help our children with.
As we continue looking at the great book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, I want to start this post with this passage from Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel:
“Your left brain lives and desires order. It is logical, literal, linguistic (it likes words), and linear (it puts things in a sequence of order). The left brain loves that all four of these words begin with the letter L. (It also loves lists).
The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Instead of details and order, our right brain cares about the big picture–the meaning and feel of an experience–and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories. We get a “gut feeling” or “heart-felt sense” from our right brain. Some say the right brain is more intuitive and emotional.”
…..You might think about it this way: the left brain cares about the letter of the law (more of those L’s)….The right brain, on the other hand, cares more about the spirit of the law, the meotions and experiences of relationships. The left focuses on text–the right on context.” (pp. 15-16)
Strategy #1: Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves
Last week my son Hudson (who is 3) was having one of those days were it just seemed nothing was going right. He woke up in a frustrated mood and that continued most of the day. He seemed overtired and was having a hard time expressing how he was feeling, as well as difficulty in self-regulating his own emotions. As a parent I was become increasingly frustrated myself (frustrated is actually a pretty vague feeling word — what I was really feeling was helpless and powerless) because nothing I could say or do was working. And the more this feeling of mine increased the more I began to instruct him on how to behave. Literally, I was trying to negotiate with a 3 year old who wasn’t having any of it.
You can relate to this, right?
So I decided to use this first strategy of the Whole-Brain Child. I simply walked over to my son, sat by him and just put my arm around him. We just sat there not talking. And the longer we sat together the closer he moved to me. And the closer he moved to me the more calm he was becoming (I could literally feel it in his breathing). As time passed and he felt cared for and secure, I was able then to talk with him about his behavior and about some toys I wanted him to pick up. And you know what, he responded by saying he was sorry and by picking up the toys I earlier couldn’t get him to pick up.
What I realized in that situation was that he was just being a three year old, operating out of his “reptile brain” like we talked about earlier….and his amygdala was probably hijacked. He wasn’t being a defiant and oppositional kid, he was just overwhelmed and I needed to step in and connect with him first, before I could redirect him.
“When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs. We call this emotional connection ‘attunement,’ which is how we connect deeply with another person and allow them to ‘feel felt.'” (pp. 24)
Let’s Talk Strategy
In this first strategy there are literally just two steps.
Step #1: Connect with the Right Brain
“It’s also crucial to keep in mind that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our child’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our child. It’s vital that we treat them as such in our response.” (pp. 24)
You can do this by putting your arm around your kid, sitting with them, or helping them identify and talk about their feelings. And in the process validate the experience they are having. That’s what I tried to do with my son.
Step #2: Redirect with the Left
“We understand that it’s generally a good idea to discuss behavior and it’s consequences after the child has calmed down, since moments of emotional flooding are not the best times for lessons to be learned.” (pp. 27)
Siegel and Bryson remind us in the book that there are times where safety is first and there may not be time to connect with the right brain first. Or there are certain situation where the behavior is inappropriate to your family rules, or someone might get hurt. As a parent, our brains need to be functioning well so that we know the difference between an intentional tantrum of defiance and one that indicates a child is just overwhelmed–which many kids are until their brains fully develop and they learn how to emotionally self-regulate.
I have found this first strategy to be very effective in my parenting of my six year old daughter and three year old son. And I have found this strategy helpful in my marriage personally, and with the couples I work with (but that will be for a later post in this series).
So give it a shot and see what you think.