Monday, November 16, 2015

THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. (A Review)


Tough job being a parent, constantly in precarious equilibrium between surviving throughout the daily tantrums, the countless sibling quarrels, the uncontrollable crying fits, and raising our kids in a way that lets them thrive, become responsible adults, and feel good about themselves. In our over-busy, hurried life, the goals of surviving difficult parenting moments and nurturing our kids’ minds seem to be almost irreconcilable and choosing one parenting style over another, well, at times a brain-racking decision to make.

The use of the word ‘brain’ in this context is intentional, because according to what Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. claim in their book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies To Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, parenting is a ‘brain science’. When deciding whether we should just try to get through the day or do whatever we can to find the time to create for our children opportunities to live fulfilling and meaningful experiences, an understanding of some basic brain functions can be of invaluable help.

Contrary to what we normally believe, those parenting challenges (battles over sharing toys with siblings and playmates, homework, meltdowns, etc.) are exactly the opportunities parents and committed caregivers have at their disposal to teach their kids about reflective hearing, respectful communication, compromise, sacrifice, negotiation, etc. Can such meaningful teaching moments happen during a heated sparring between siblings or in the middle of a temper outburst? Incredibly they can, and the great thing is that we won’t necessarily need to carve out special time to help our children’s brains develop relationship skills - those conflicts, those tantrums will be the teaching tool.  We’ll get to that in a moment.  

The next fundamental step is to ask ourselves: What qualities do we hope our children develop and take into their adult lives? We would like them to be healthy, responsible, independent, caring, successful, resilient, and to possess a good self-esteem - we all agree on that. What might differ among parents is the idea of how to raise them to become accomplished and happy human beings.  As parents, we are wired to protect our children from any harm and hurt and many of us try as best as they can to shield them from failure and negative emotions, but sheltering our kids from life’s challenges and disappointments prevents them from learning and growing. What helps kids make sense of their lives is not only what happens to them but also how their caregivers respond to those difficult experiences: as they develop, our children’s brains mirror our brains, and our own emotional growth and health have an impact on our little ones.  

Not only does the brain play a central role in virtually every aspect of a child’s life, from discipline, to decision-making, school, relationships, and self-awareness, it is also shaped by the experiences we offer as parents.  Let’s take a closer look at how the human brain is wired:

  • the left side of our brain helps us think logically and organize thoughts into sentences; our 'left brain' loves and desires order; it is logical, literal, linguistic (it likes words); it likes to know the linear cause-effect relationships in the world and to express that logic with language
  • the right side helps us experience emotions and read nonverbal cues; it's holistic and non-verbal; instead of details and order, our right brain specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories
  • we also have a 'reptile brain' that allows us to act instinctively and make split-second survival decisions
  • our 'mammal brain' leads us toward connection and relationships

One part of our brain deals with memory, another one with moral and ethical decisions. The 'upstairs brain', the one in charge with emotions and decisions, is under construction until the mid-twenties. In young children, the ‘emotional’ side of the brain (the right side) overrules the ‘logic’ side (the left side): "In terms of development, very young children are right hemisphere dominant, especially during the first three years. They haven't mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment. [...] logic, responsibilities, and time don't exist for them yet" - it doesn’t surprise that kids seem to be so out of control at times. The great news is that this is not a permanent condition - the brain can be re-wired and so can behaviors. The key to help our little ones thrive and grow into calmer and happier children is the balance and coordination (often referred to by the authors as integration) of the logic and emotional sides of the brain.

Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, a clinical professor of psychiatry and a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, offer twelve key strategies to implement the integration of emotional and intellectual development: use the left-brain’s affinity for words and storytelling in order to calm emotional storms and bodily tension; help children pay attention to sensations, feelings, and thoughts so that they can make better decisions; use discord to encourage empathy; and many more strategies that will assist you in dealing with day-to-day struggles and help your kids reach their full potential.

[...] children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence  and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully. Shy children whose parents nurture a sense of courage by offering supportive explorations of the world tend to lose their behavioral inhibition, while those who are excessively protected or intensively thrust into anxiety-provoking experiences without support tend to maintain their shyness.

Although The Whole-Brain Child focuses on the years from birth to twelve, centering especially on toddlers, school-age kids, and pre-teens,  it can easily be tailored for teens. The book provides multiple suggestions and practical examples of how to apply each scientific concepts to our relationship with our kids, at any stage of their growth. Ground-breaking and extremely accessible. My rating: 5 stars

***The opinions and views expressed in this review are my own and no compensation or incentive whatsoever was offered by the author or the publisher.
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph. D.
Published by Delacorte Press on October 4, 2011
Hardcover, 192 pages
Parenting, Psychology, Self-help, Non-fiction

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is an internationally acclaimed author, award-winning educator, and child psychiatrist. Dr. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He is currently a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, where he also serves as a co-investigator at the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, and is a founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. In addition, Dr. Siegel is the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute. Published author of several highly acclaimed works, Dr. Siegel’s books include the New York Times’ bestseller “Brainstorm”, along with "Mindsight," "The Developing Mind," "The Mindful Brain," "The Mindful Therapist," in addition to co-authoring "Parenting From the Inside Out," with Mary Hartzell and "The Whole-Brain Child," with Tina Bryson. He is also the Founding Editor of the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, which includes "Healing Trauma," "The Power of Emotion," and "Trauma and the Body."

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist, a parenting consultant, and director of parenting education and development for the Mindsight Institute. A frequent lecturer to parents, educators, and professionals, she lives near Los Angeles with her husband and three children.  


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