Strategies to help your child deal with big feelings

A book I’ve been reading recently is The Whole Brain Child: revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind by Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Some of you have heard me talk about Daniel’s book Mindsight in which he explores the brains plasticity around emotional and psychological pathways. Oh I hope you haven’t rolled your eyes and moved to hit the delete button. Stay with me please! This stuff is life-changing.

How you influence your child’s thinking

In The Whole Brain Child, Daniel and Tina explore how our children’s brain architecture is dependent on those who spend most time with them. The good news is that meltdowns and emotional struggles are normal because our precious children need to have experience to form the learning about how to cope and manage they are not born with this wiring! So I guess the first thing I took from their book was the validation for my message to parents and educators that young children are not so much bad, or poorly behaving mischief makers they are dealing with a world without a mature brain. Our job is to guide and teach them how to cope with moments that challenge them and often others.

Brain integration occurs when both left and right brain are working in harmony and the upstairs and downstairs brain are also working in alignment! As they write in The Whole Brain Child:

An integrated brain results in improved decision-making, better control of body and emotions, for self understanding, stronger relationships, and success in school. And all begins with the experience parents and other caregivers provide, which lay the groundwork for integration and mental health.

Firstly, Daniel and Tina explore left and right brain development or horizontal integration. One concept to understand around integration is the constant flow between chaos (where there is total lack of control) out to rigidity (where there is too much control). Your left brain loves and desires order. It’s logical, literal and loves linguistics it likes words and it’s linear it puts things in a sequence or an order. The left brain loves that all four of those words began with the letter L! The right brain on the other hand has holistic and non-verbal ways of sending and receiving messages that allow us to communicate, such as with facial expressions like eye contact, tone of voice, posture and gestures. Instead of details in order, our right brain cares about the big picture the meaning and feel of an experience and it specialises in images, oceans and personal memories.

Teachable moments

Essentially our children develop their right brain first and it seems that our beautiful boys take longer to develop their right brain than girls. Girls move into integration with the left brain much sooner and this explains their early mastery of speaking, their need to make rules before they play games and yes their ability to manipulate emotionally and socially.

It is important to remember that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our child’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our child. When a child gets really distressed they are often unable to reach their logical left brain and they display emotions through gestures and non verbal ways crying, yelling and throwing things. It is like they are trying to communicate via their behaviour another characteristic of our boys! When a child is upset logic often won’t work until we respond to the right brain’s emotional needs.

The authors suggest using the “connect-redirect method!” Our job is to avoid reacting to this unspoken child-like communication by connecting to our kids where they are. This means we acknowledge and validate their big feelings while soothing with a gentle voice and safe touch. When they are calmer we can re-direct their experience. In a way our children can swing between an emotional flood (right brain) or an emotional desert (left brain). The key message is that denying emotions or suppressing them can confuse our children.

When your child is disrespectful and talks back to you, when you are asked to come in for a meeting with the principal, when you find crayon scribbles all over your wall: these are survive moments no question about it. But at the same time, they are opportunities even gifts because a survive moment is also a thrive moment when the important meaningful well work of parenting takes place.

So our most important times for teaching our kids are the toughest moments we can help them build pathways in their brain. Without our help they will simply keep reacting from their right brain and never build the ability to tap into the left brain to make sense of their experience.

Name it to tame it

Another great technique the authors explore is called “Name it to tame it”. Grownups can use this when a child experiences painful, disappointing or big scary moments which can be overwhelming with big oceans of bodily sensations flooding the right brain. When this happens we as parents or adults can help bring the left hemisphere into the picture so the child can begin to understand what is happening. One of the best ways to promote this type of integration is to help a child to retell the story of their frightening or painful experience. This technique allows children to explore their feelings as they process the story through their own words and an adult can help the big story by explaining the bits that they can’t word, so it really does help them integrate whatever happened.

This approach makes such sense. Just taking time when things calm down (note, not in the heat of the moment) to help our kids explore the irrational emotions and body sensations can help them learn to overcome these tough moments. By helping them explore the story often – over and over – they can then allow the left brain to make sense of the experience.

As often happens in my serendipitous world I was told that Tina was chatting with Richard Fidler on Conversation Hour, so you can hear her yourself as she explores the book.