Course Notes: The Whole-Brain Child Approach, Pt. 1

Every two years, OTs must complete at least 24 hours of continuing education to maintain their licensure. I love this requirement because I can learn new techniques, get a grasp of the new research that is currently out there, and apply it to practice.

My course this month is on the Whole-Brain Child Approach and how we can incorporate it into our pediatric work. I found this course to be super helpful in understanding a child’s maturing brain and why it is so important to connect with them from a place of compassion and kindness. This is something that all parents can practice, not just therapists. Here are some facts and strategies I’ve learned in the first section of the course.

Genes and Experience
The brain is molded two ways: through genes and experience. Aside from physical characteristics like hair and eye color, other traits like intelligence, temperament, and motivation are predisposed genetically. However, how those qualities are expressed are determined by their life experiences. Therefore, parents, caregivers, and educators all have a role in shaping how a child develops based on how they treat them.

A Tale of Two Brains
The brain has two hemispheres. The left side is like your super organized, analytical, no-nonsense best friend. It believes in lists, order and logic, the literal meaning of words, and linear thinking. The right side is the opposite. Imagine your “free-flowing” bestie who can be random, emotional, creative, and for a lack of a better word, messy. It picks up on all the nuances of what is unsaid and finds comfort in interpersonal connections.

What is interesting is that as the brain matures during childhood, each hemisphere takes turns in growth, fluctuating between emotional deserts (left brain) and emotional tsunamis (right brain). This explains why there are times when your child cannot stop talking and asking “why” questions (left-brain development in language and logic between 18mo-3 years) or when they have emotional outbursts (right-brain development in understanding self and others between 3-5 years).

Despite their differences, the right and left hemispheres must come together to promote a sense of well-being, to allow the child to be flexible, adaptable, reasonable, energized, and stable. Without this integration, things can become chaotic or rigid in thought and behavior.

“Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river’s two banks. This causes different problems, depending on which bank you approach. One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control. But don’t go too far, because the other bank presents its own dangers. It’s the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos. As opposed to being out of control, rigidity is when you are imposing control on everything and everyone around you.”

Strategy 1 – Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

Here’s a common parenting scenario. Your kid is “having a moment” complete with tears, screams, and a self-wielding body toss to the ground. In this case, our kids are in an emotional tsunami brought on by their right brain. Our initial response to this is: Calm down. You’re fine. You’re tired. Go to bed. Deal with it. This is a left-brain response. It can be cold and blunt, not something the right brain needs or wants in this moment. To be completely honest, when was the last time your child actually calmed down after being told to simply calm down?

Instead of addressing the behavior, connect with your child by sitting and joining in their emotions. This does not mean using statements like, “I know you’re mad, but…” (something I have been guilty of with my son). Utilize non-verbal gestures first, like hugs/touch, quiet, facial expressions, and tone of voice when they are upset. Once their right hemisphere feels like it has been heard and secure, you can then redirect with left brain tactics: solutions, logical explanations, planning, and boundaries.

For example, my son had a meltdown this evening about putting on his pajamas. He has successfully put them on many times before, but tonight was different. He just couldn’t figure it out, and the frustration was activating his right brain. My husband was able to calm him down by holding his hand, using a soft tone of voice, a calm facial expression, and silence. Once our son was able to gain composure, my husband was able to engage the left-brain and problem-solve to help him get dressed for bed.

When you are using this strategy, it’s important to address only their emotional state and just be present as they experience it, no matter how ridiculous it may be to us. If you are able to get deeper than that, awesome, but it is not necessary here. If this skill doesn’t come easy at first, that’s okay. It takes time, patience, and practice (I’m still working on it myself).

Strategy 2 – Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories

When we are in a flood of emotions, one way to reduce their impact is by identifying or labeling them. Studies have found that when a person labels their feelings, the electrical activity in the amygdala (responsible for arousal state and emotions) decreased, calming the person down. This can explain why journaling, talk therapy, or storytelling can be helpful in taming big emotions. The left brain can provide the language to how the right brain is feeling, resulting in full-brain integration towards well-being. Yay!

The brain is always striving to be able to reason and make sense of things in the world. If emotions are neglected and not addressed, the brain will search for answers in one form or another. So, when your child is “having a moment” or rehashing an unwanted experience, help them tell (or retell) the story. Let them piece the experience together as you assist them in finding the words. Do not explain their emotions, but describe it with a word. For example, instead of saying “You were scared because the fireworks were loud and you covered your ears”, let them tell you what happened and you can help them label (“Sounds like you were scared”).

The purpose here is to not interfere or pull any more information than what is being presented. It is to help them piece their perspective together and give it meaning on their terms. By retelling big or little traumatic experiences, the brain can make sense of what happened, let go of the negative emotions, and move on. Yes, this also takes patience and understanding, but remember, you are giving your child the opportunity to process their emotions, work through them, and move on.

This storytelling strategy is great when new experiences leave your child confused/frightened/ scared/hesitant, etc. The book gives examples of being in a car accident or having a potty accident at school. Sometimes the resulting behavior doesn’t happen for hours or days after a traumatic incident. If this is the case with your child, be prepared to tell the story multiple times. Repetition helps reinforce that they are in a secure place with you, and they can work through the trauma gradually at their own pace.

For Thursday’s post, I’ll be sharing more course notes, including the next three Whole-Brain Strategies.

For more of an in-depth look into the Whole-Brain Child Approach, check out The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

Siegal, D.J. and Bryson, T.P. (2013, November 8). The Whole-Brain Child Approach: Develop Kids’ Minds and Integrate Their Brains for Better Outcomes. Retrieved from seminar.

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