Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Dryson’s new book, The Whole Brain Child, is a resource you won’t want to be without. It’s crammed full of information and helpful explanations of children’s behavior based on how their brains work. The book is reader friendly and translates complex neuroscience into clear understandable language. The authors explain how children’s brains are different from fully mature brains, and how understanding the difference can help adults have more realistic expectations of children and develop more effective interventions.
To begin, they explain how the two hemispheres of the brain work. These two sides are not only anatomically separate but they also function in very different ways. The right hemisphere is intuitive and emotional, while the left hemisphere is logical and literal. The reason being is the importantance to understand these distinctions as young children are right hemisphere dominate, especially during the first three years. Emotions rule and they live in the moment. They’re unable to use logic and words to express their feelings. It’s up to us to help them by listening to them with our own right brain. When we first hear their emotions they will then be receptive to reason and logic.
This, of course, is not true just for children. Think of the last time you were in the throes of a strong emotion and someone was trying to get you to be logical. I bet you didn’t find it helpful. When we’re very emotional we literally have difficulty processing information. Our system need to calm down first. An interesting research study illustrated this point. Subjects in the study were asked to look at pictures of angry and frightened faces. Exposure to the pictures increased blood flow to the fear centers in their brains. But when the subjects were asked to name the emotion on the faces, the fear centers calmed down with decreased blood flow to that area. In addition, blood flow increased in the right prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps us in regulating our emotions. Based on this research, we may conclude that just naming the emotion helps us calm down.
We may fear that addressing children’s emotional response to situations and naming what you think they’re feeling will make things worse. In fact, as this study showed, this will actually calm things down rather than stir them up. I think in our rush to help children calm down, we sometimes ignore or diminish how they are truly feeling. After we’ve helped them manage their emotions, we can help them access the logical part of their brain and in the process connect the emotional part with the logical part. We can then ask questions, consider what prompted the upset, help them see another’s point of view, and problem solve for new solutions. This integration of both parts helps us make good decisions and function at our best.
Another area of our brain where separate parts need to be integrated is what the authors call the upstairs and downstairs brain. The downstairs brain is our more primitive brain, which is intact at birth. Our upstairs brain is our reasoning brain; it is the upstairs brain that helps modulate our downstairs brain when we’re totally overloaded and lose it. Similar to the contrast between the right and left hemisphere, the downstairs brain, like our emotional right brain, can call the shots. In both cases we want the two parts to work in harmony. We want to be aware of our needs, impulses, and desires, but we also want some modulation so we make good choices and don’t later regret our actions. The book gives good explanations and cartoon vignettes that illustrate the way the two areas of the brain work best together.
There is also a discussion of tantrums, which is a hard problem for parents to deal with. The authors give clear guidelines about how to distinguish between an upstairs tantrum and a downstairs tantrum. The upstairs tantrum is a calculated bid for getting our way, and requires limit setting and consequences. The downstairs tantrum is a real meltdown and a temporary inability to manage ourselves. This tantrum needs your adult help and support.
A section about preventing trauma explains how fearful memories are laid down and how to prevent future problems relating to them. They explain the importance of remembering upsetting things rather than burying them and keeping them out of our awareness. Rather, they suggest that if we remember the fears, we give our brain a chance to learn and grow. If we avoid those problems, we risk experiencing the trauma over and over. This is especially important to me, since I see so many clients who have hidden upsetting experiences that still affect them. Too often we’ve been told to just forget upsetting things. The Whole Brain Child gives scientific explanations of why ignoring fears and trauma isn’t always the best policy. There are some very helpful, concrete examples of how to help kids work through, and not avoid, disturbing incidents.
The book points out the critical role adults play in helping children learn to integrate the different parts of the brain. We can help children regulate the downstairs brain by using their upstairs brains, and to help them use their logical left hemisphere to temper the emotional right hemisphere. Learning to use the whole brain wisely will ensure their best chance for intellectual and emotionally healthy development.
This book is important reading for anyone who lives or works with children. I recommend it highly.