The rise in mood and anxiety disorders in children and adolescents plus the concerns over teen suicide - which is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents in Canada - is of growing concern for parents.
Why can some children navigate the hazardous waters of peer pressure, bullying, and academic pressures, while others find themselves overwhelmed or distressed?
It’s all about resiliency, and resiliency in children can be fostered by parents.
Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D are one team that is leading the way on how parents can accomplish this in their book The Whole Brain Child.
The main message they deliver is that - barring any profound developmental delays - children have the tools they need to develop a healthy state of resiliency; The ability to bounce back from life’s hard lessons or crises. The methods they suggest are all about connecting the various parts of the brain; The downstairs to the upstairs, the upstairs to the downstairs, the left to the right, and right to the left.
To understand the science behind their approach, one has to first understand the parts of the brain and their function;
The “downstairs” part of the brain is comprised of our brainstem and our limbic system. Combined, these organs control our breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. They also react to changes in our environment, seek attachment, and respond to threats.
The “upstairs” part of our brain is our Cortex. This is where we live – where our memories are stored and the part of our brain that dictates how we view the world and ourselves, plus how we reason, problem solve, and make all executive decisions.
The cortex is also divided into the “left” region of logic and reason, and the “right” region of emotion – although there is a lot of crossover, we can all agree that we have two distinct ways to approach life; logically or emotionally.
Siegal and Bryson have keyed into the emerging science of Neuroplasticity and applied it to children. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its function and structure.
To help your child become a “whole brained child” we, as parents, have to help them connect all the parts of their brain when facing adversity.
First we connect the right and left, and we can do this by aligning with our child before we correct them. Dr Gordon Neufeld coined the term “collect before you correct”. Siegal and Bryson call it “connect and redirect”.
For example, if a child is upset because they can’t have the toy they want, we connect with them emotionally; right brain to right brain. We acknowledge that they really want the toy and we demonstrate empathy for them not being able to have it. Second we help them connect to the left side of their brain, by telling the story about what is upsetting them – “name it to tame it”. In this way their left brain will begin to make sense out of what is upsetting them, and by doing so they can feel more in control.
Next, we must connect the upstairs brain to the downstairs brain and this is a bit of an art form. The concept is that when in distress, the downstairs of our brain can hijack the upstairs of our brain – that our threat response can be so out of control that we lose the ability to reason. Again, Siegal and Bryson suggest beginning by aligning with our child; “engage, don’t enrage”. Instead of playing parental trump cards like “Because I said so”, ask questions, play a “what would you do?” game, even negotiate the situation. And negotiating doesn’t mean giving in to every whim a child has, it’s about allowing them age appropriate choices; If they can’t have the toy they wanted, which of the other two toys available to them would they like to play with? [If the answer is “none” then we have some more connections to make.]
If a child has lost touch with their upstairs brain, get them moving to help the regain emotional balance by reconnecting with their body – “upstairs to downstairs”.
Another method of this form of upstairs/downstairs connectivity is drawn from Multimodal Therapy and mindfulness by helping your child pay attention to “S.I.F.T.” – Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts inside them while at the same time reminding them that these things will change – that what they are feeling in the moment isn’t going to last forever. We can help them with the latter by reconnecting them with memories of times when they weren’t distressed. As Siegal and Bryson put it “remember to remember”.
Another important piece to help children learn resiliency is for us to remember that we are hardwired for “we” – our principal defense against distress or danger is attachment. Always look for ways to connect with your child – use the word “we” as often as possible when problem solving or helping them face challenges.
The flip-side of the “we” strategy is to help your child in perspective taking; Of helping them see the other person’s point of view in any conflict.
The last part of the “we” experience is to make sure you have fun together; connecting with caring and trustworthy people in their lives will pay dividends as they grow into adolescents and adults.
The Whole Brain Child is an informative read, and don’t think that you’ve missed the bus if your children are into their teens, all of the methods in the book can be scaled for any age. You might even learn some things about yourself.
Aaron D. McClelland, RPCc - www.interiorcounselling.com/aaron