Course Notes: The Whole-Brain Child Approach, Pt. 2

In our last Whole-Brain post, we talked about the first two Whole-Brain Approach strategies. A quick recap:

  • The brain is shaped through genetics and experience.
  • The brain’s two polar opposite hemispheres and how they must work together to achieve balance and well-being, away from chaos and rigidity.
  • The first two strategies on how to integrate both hemispheres when your child is experiencing emotional moments

On to the next segment and Strategies 3-5!

The Brain as a House
The brain can be thought of like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs includes brain structures (particularly the frontal lobe) that provide the ability to reason and make sense of the world around us appropriately.

The downstairs part of the brain includes components (brain stem and limbic system) that function in regard to arousal level, emotion, and body sensations. These functions happen without thought and we do not have true control over them.

The two floors are connected by a structure called the medial prefrontal cortex, which provides insight into who we are, of others, and us as a collective whole. When “the house” is running smoothly, we can handle stress efficiently, adapt, control emotions, and can communicate with others.

When things go awry, like when the downstairs becomes flooded with sensations and emotions, we cannot make rational decisions and informed choices. This is especially true for kids as their “upstairs brain” has not fully matured. As a result, you get tantrums and meltdowns.

Why would the downstairs brain cause such a commotion? Because it is there to protect us from harm, either from learned past experiences or from perceived future threats. The following strategies are focused on moving your child from this reactive state to a receptive one, reducing the flight-fight-fright responses by integrating the upstairs with the downstairs brain.

The Whole Brain Child, 2011

Strategy 3 – Engage, Don’t Enrage

This is easier said than done. The way you respond to someone will activate different circuitry in their brain. In other words, your stress and emotion can have an effect on your child’s regulation.

When our patience wears thin and we snap at our kids, we only escalate the situation. When the brain is in a state of stress or helplessness, the prefrontal cortex will release an inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA) to calm the brain down. However, once this resource has been depleted, all emotions and sensations from the downstairs brain are released and we cannot parent effectively. Agitated parent + agitated child = not a good mix for anyone involved.

Also consider that children try to make sense of their world the best they can and will respond to our actions accordingly. If we lose our temper on them, they will respond in a flight-fight-fright response. So what happens is a compounding, vicious cycle of reacting and overreacting.

To break the cycle, we as parents need to recognize and acknowledge when we are about to have an emotional flood of our own and find ways to de-stress before engaging with our children. For me, that’s taking a minute to reset if things are overwhelming, repeating mantras, nightly self-care routines to decompress, and apologizing to my kids if I lose my cool on them.

Once you are in a more receptive state, engage by using non-verbal techniques to diffuse the situation (Strategy 1). The goal is to calm their downstairs brain by communicating that you pose no threat to them. By being emotionally responsive, we can begin to engage, build, and strengthen pathways to their upstairs brain.

Strategy 4 – Use It or Lose It

To improve upstairs-downstairs connections, look at your kids’ challenging moments as teachable opportunities to practice their brain integration skills. With repetition, they will be able to check their emotions themselves and think more clearly.

How do we exercise the upstairs brain?

  • Build secure relationships
    • Use attuned, responsive communication so your child feels seen and heard
      • When this doesn’t occur, you risk your child feeling shame, worthlessness, and unworthiness.
  • Expand tolerance to hard tasks and requests
    • Help them make sound decisions by giving choices and letting them experience the consequences of their choices (Ex: They didn’t want to clean up their room, so now they can’t find their favorite toy to play with later on).
  • Reflect through insight and empathy
    • Ask questions so they gain better understanding of themselves and their decisions, “Why do you think you made that choice? What made you feel that way?”
    • Have them consider another person’s feelings (“How do you think that makes them feel?”)
  • Develop awareness when emotion is bubbling or about to boil over
    • Help them understand that emotions are temporary, lasting about 90 seconds
    • Let their emotions be met with kindness and curiosity. Avoid letting them push big feelings away or hold them in.
  • Practice mindfulness and opportunities to regulate the body
    • Allow them to be present in the moment
      • Count to ten, take deep breaths, let them express feelings as they arise

By exercising their upstairs brain and using mindfulness pathways to connect the downstairs brain, integration occurs (Yay!). This practice allows your child to be more resilient and understand the “greater good” beyond themselves.

Strategy 5 – Move It or Lose It: Moving our Bodies to Avoid Losing our Mind

Moving our bodies shifts our emotional state. I used this strategy a lot in the clinic. If a child was scared to go down a zipline, we would pretend they were a superhero. We would discuss that superheroes are brave and will do things even if it scares them. They would assume a hero pose and then glide down. Once they did, they found confidence to do it again and again. By using imagination and acting out a needed feeling or behavior, like confidence, your child can embody the emotion needed to get through a challenging situation or to complete a task.

Another way is to feed the body the sensory input it is seeking so that it doesn’t have a downstairs flood. For my son, he needs to let out his energy by running, climbing, pushing/pulling, etc. If he doesn’t, he can become agitated and frustrated. By letting him run around and play, his downstairs emotions are regulated, allowing him to use his upstairs brain efficiently.

As if we really needed another reason to get our kids out and moving?

P.S. Physical activity for mood regulation is as true for adults as it is for kids. So if you feel you’re reaching mental burnout, get moving and clear that headspace.

See you all next week, when I’ll be sharing more course notes and the next set of Whole-Brain Strategies.

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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