Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lego Faces Get Angrier

The classic smiley faces of Lego figures are being increasingly replaced with more angry faces. Dr Christoph Bartneck, a robot expert at the University of Canterbury in NewZealand studied 3,655 figures produced between 1975 and 2010.  He concluded that the company was increasingly creating more themes based on conflict.  
On one hand, I’m pleased that the new faces represent a greater range of emotions; on the other hand, I’m concerned that this increase in emotional faces is skewed towards negativity.   If there were an equal representation of caring emotions, like compassion, sympathy, and love, I’d welcome the change.  When the increase in emotions is predominately negative, it makes me wonder what impact it will have on kids play.  Will it lead to more scenarios focused on aggression and conflict? 

I’m not opposed to having negative emotions on Lego figures; in fact, I think it could be helpful. Kids need ways to process the anger they feel and the conflicts they observe. My play therapy room has always had aggressive toys. When kids need to discharge angry feelings they regularly play with guns, swords, a punching bag or dart board.

Adults can talk out things that bother them, but children act out their angry feelings through play. They engage in imaginary games with themes of good and evil. How these games are played out has a lot to do with the society children grow up in. They model what they’ve been exposed to. Even kids from the most loving households, see that the larger society’s take on anger is most often represented as out of control aggression. Movies and games are full of this violent, hurtful behavior. We simply don’t have models for anger that represent healthy assertiveness. Assertiveness is standing your ground in a respectful way. It’s not wimpy; it’s just not with the intent of destroying someone else.
How about a new Lego character named Master Negotiator. He’s the embodiment of healthy assertiveness and fairness. Though he is strong and powerful, his status is derived by never creating an enemy. He is known for his uncanny skill at seeing both sides. He looks for common ground and is never undone by criticism. He easily admits when he’s wrong and always apologizes. His focus and determination are unmatched in finding creative and novel solutions. Wow!  That would be a hero I could get behind!

Wouldn’t we want kids to emulate Master Negotiator? To think that creative solutions rather than revenge and retribution were the right skills to cultivate? Ah, fantasy. Do I wish we were this focused on creating superior interpersonal skills? That we were emotionally intelligent and able to manage our angry impulses to find win/win outcomes? Of course I do-- it’s less showy than violence and destruction. But, in reality it probably won’t sell many movies, even though it’s much harder and requires more intellectual and emotional control than out of control aggression.  

Oh well, one can dream.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Whole Brain Child, An Exciting New Book

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.