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My colleagues, naturopathic doctor moms enthusiastically recommend The Whole Brain Child to any caregiver who is experiencing difficulty with behavior and communicating with their toddlers and children. The book was SO GOOD that I read it twice and wrote this “book report” post for parents who were interested but not yet committed to reading it (because we have very tight schedules!) These tools help caregivers support their children in navigating difficult experiences using techniques that build emotional intelligence and logical problem solving skills while considering their feelings and the feelings of others.
#1 Our children’s brains are “under construction” for 21 years!
Not only are different parts of the brain still developing, but these parts are ALSO learning how to communicate with one another. Because of a concept called neuroplasticity, we are charged with the beautiful and incredibly intimidating task of helping our children’s brain develop and communicate as a whole through experiential learning and social interaction.
#2 Moments when we are overwhelmed by our children are often the times they need us the most.
Experiential learning means that our day-to-day activities contain opportunities to grow and learn, coined as “thrive moments” by the authors. For caregivers, these “thrive moments” feel like “survival moments”, where we are overwhelmed and confused by our children’s seemingly negative behavior and nothing we seem to do helps. The book guides us in understanding the ways in which an underdeveloped “young” brain communicates it’s needs and responds to emotions, and gives a step-by-step guide though which we can help our children understand their big emotions and communicate needs while feeling safe.
#3 Upset children heal from story-telling.
Helping a child put emotional experiences into words connects the left hemisphere of the brain (tied to logic and language) with the right hemisphere (tied to emotional processing and creativity). Because feelings are so new to children, they can get “stuck” in an overactive emotional state that looks a lot like a tantrum. Helping a child tell their story in many different ways including stories, pictures, reenactments can help them make sense of their experience and attach language to their emotions. Application: Instead of consoling your child and telling them they’ll be okay after bumping their head, identify the feelings they must be experiencing and re-enact what had happened with them. With my son, he was instantly soothed and amused by our story telling.
#4 Before reasoning with your child, connect with the right brain and then redirect with the left brain.
If a child is unreasonably upset, the first task is to affirm their emotional state through touch and validation. Once they feel validated, they’ll be open to problem solving (hint: this works VERY well with adults, as well!) Many adults go straight into “fixing” mode, which, for an emotional child can lead to increased resistance.
#5 Help your children practice using their “upstairs” brain.
The “downstairs brain” is tasked with the basic functions to keep us alive. Our “upstairs brain” is involved in thinking, imagining and planning. Babies have fully functional downstairs brains but the upstairs brain is still under construction. By exercising the “upstairs brain”, we help our children make decisions and creatively problem solve. You can exercise the upstairs brain day to day by asking your child for input on simple tasks – “what socks do you want to wear today? What toy do you want to take with you?” As your child gets older, the questions can become more complex and involve putting oneself in others shoes – “How would you feel if someone took your books? What would you do if you got lost at the mall? How do you think grandma felt when you broke her favorite lamp by throwing balls in her house?”
Lesson #6 Teach your child about how the past may affect them today.
Adults and children struggle with their present lives due to experiences from their past. Children are often unaware of how negative experiences impact their decisions to pursue certain experiences and activities while avoiding others. If your child experienced something traumatic (ex: throwing up at a restaurant) and it seems to be affecting their ability to enjoy life (ex: not wanting to go to a restaurant) going through the experience with them can help them process the experience/fears and move forward.
Lesson #7 Help your child check-in with themselves.
A large portion of this book explores ways in which parents can help bring self-awareness and regulation to their children. Exercises such as “SIFT,” where you discuss your own and your child’s sensations, images, thoughts and feelings during random times during the day can help your child understand their internal landscape. Techniques such as taking inventory of their mind by understanding what they often think about, as well as self soothing through envisioning a safe place, deep belly breathing with a toy on their stomach can help them learn to self-soothe when needed.