Few of us would choose to stand on just one leg if we can use both.
But strangely, many of us – especially children – use only some of our brain’s capacity to deal with life’s challenges. Of course, children don’t choose to eschew important functions of their brain; the problem is that brain functions develop at different speeds, and, as a result, your child isn’t always entirely familiar with each one.
So, it’s your task as a parent to help your child explore the newer functions of her brain – such as its reasoning ability – and show her how to use these capabilities along with more familiar properties of the brain. This very process is what the book, The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, talks about.
Every new parent is showered with advice, from the best potty training tips to the safest cribs. But there’s one area of knowledge essential to raising a happy kid that no one ever explains: how should you nurture your child’s brain? Doing so requires you teach your kids how to interpret and deal with their experiences.
After all, our brains determine who we are and what we do, and they’re molded by our experiences. Experiences change the brain. For instance, whenever an event occurs, such as a temper tantrum, certain neurons fire in our brains; when the same neurons fire over and over again, they connect to one another.
So, dealing with experiences is a central aspect of parenting, but that doesn’t mean you should protect your child from difficult experiences. Rather, it’s your job to make sure your child uses his entire brain when dealing with everything that happens, regardless of whether it’s enjoyable or painful.
The key idea here is integration. The brain has lots of different parts – which you’ll learn about later on – and for a child to thrive, these parts need to work in harmony to tackle whatever comes his way. This concept is at the root of what’s called whole-brain parenting.
But how can you guide your child toward using his whole brain? Start by using all of yours.
If you use your whole brain, your child will emulate you. For example, when your child throws a tantrum, instead of losing your temper or becoming cold and detached, use your empathy to connect with your child and learn what’s bothering him while using the other parts of your brain to keep your anger under control.
But to do that kind of whole-brain parenting, you’ll first need to learn how your brain works, which is what we’ll explore next.
Have you ever tried arguing with a two-year-old? If you have, you know it’s almost always a lost cause, and here’s why:
The human brain has two hemispheres, often referred to simply as two brains. Each has completely different functions from the other. The left hemisphere takes longer to develop and is devoted to order, specializing in language and logic, while the right side is geared toward the big picture, not details, with an expertise in nonverbal signals, images and feelings.
Since the right brain develops faster, it dominates the logical left side until a child is about three years old. This is precisely why it’s impossible to reason with younger children – they’re actually unable to see the rational side of things.
Young children are right brain-dominant, but once both hemispheres have developed, it is also problematic to rely too much on one of them. For instance, someone who is overly reliant on his left, logical hemisphere will be blind to feelings, while someone who uses his right brain more might act like a toddler, struggling to understand basic societal rules or logic.
As such, teaching your children to use both hemispheres is crucial and, when your child’s third birthday rolls around, two strategies can help. The first is called connect and redirect, and it’s designed to help your young one when he gets carried away by illogical concerns, like a monster in his closet.
Start by connecting with his feelings. Soothe him and show your empathy to calm his right brain. Then, redirect your child to his logical left brain by addressing his ability to reason. In this case, you might open up the closet and prove that there’s no monster there.
The second strategy is called name it to tame it. Have your child retell his experiences, naming the feelings that come along with them. This will connect left-brain functions like language to the emotional memories and thoughts of the right brain. Whenever we name emotions, our brain decreases activity in the areas responsible for emotion, thereby taming our feelings.
But the brain has more specific parts than just these two hemispheres. Learn about these areas in greater detail next.
When your toddler throws a tantrum, are you in control or is she? Well, the answer has to do with balancing the higher and lower, or primitive, parts of the human brain.
The primitive part of your brain controls basic functions that keep you alive, like breathing, impulses and strong emotions such as anger. When this aspect controls your behavior, you’re more likely to end up throwing a temper tantrum just like your toddler, or doing some other foolishly impulsive thing like telling a friend that they’re ugly.
This is where the higher part of your brain comes in to maintain a counterbalance. Also known as the cerebral cortex, this part of your brain is responsible for impulse control, thinking, planning and self-understanding. You might have already guessed that, in children, the primitive part is dominant; the higher part of the brain takes much longer to mature, making it easier for lower parts to take control, especially the amygdala.
This almond-sized region processes emotions and can seize control of the upper part of a person’s brain, especially a child’s, flooding her with stress hormones and making her act before she thinks. This can obviously lead to some awful situations, but there are three strategies to help your child balance the different parts of her brain.
First, ask your misbehaving child what’s happening and if a problem caused her anger. Then ask her to offer a solution. In this way, you engage her higher brain, instead of enraging her lower brain with, say, a punishment.
Second, encourage her to use her higher brain whenever she can, then let her make decisions and ask her why she behaved in the way she did. This will strengthen the upper brain while connecting it to the feelings and impulses of its lower counterpart.
And finally, soothe your child’s lower brain through exercise. For instance, if she feels overwhelmed by homework, have her run around the block to calm her stressed-out lower brain and improve her mood.
Check out my related post: How to develop your child’s talents?