Book Review: The Whole Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your Child’s developing Mind (2011)
Authors: Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, PhD
By Mia Bertram, LPC
The Whole Brain Child, is a must read for every parent and caregiver. This valuable resource offers easy ways to help nurture the parent child relationship while understanding ways to foster a child’s emotional development. Neuropsychiatrist, Doctor Bruce Perry and parent expert Doctor Tina Payne Bryson offer effective parenting strategies that are backed by cutting edge research on brain development and speak directly to the child’s brain. The author’s use of cartoons, personal stories, hands on techniques and strategies to help implement and understand what may feel like otherwise overwhelming material about the brain and neuroscience. They even offer quick reference sheets to put on the fridge for easy review as well as ways of helping teach children about their own brain that are fun and easily doable. By paying attention to the everyday moments with your children and practicing and integrating these strategies both within the good and tough times will help foster happy, successful children who feel good about themselves and enjoy their relationships.
Not only is having an understanding of the brain essential in your relationship with your child, but also the authors convey the importance of integrating the different parts of the brain and its impact on creating more balanced, meaningful and creative lives. Understanding the different parts of the brain- left, right, up and down creates a way for us to conceptualize where a child is coming from, what their perspective is, and how to work with these parts so integration, awareness and connection can take place. Such conceptualization allows us to have appropriate expectations, language and understanding during the challenging moments we have with our children. It helps, according to the authors, to move from surviving to thriving in our relationships and day-to-day functioning.
In times of challenge and struggle, Bryson and Siegel teach us to connect and redirect with our children. Appealing to both sides of the brain is important and there is a formula to follow so that integration and connection take place. In times of big upsets and emotional charge, initially responding to the emotional right side with empathy and understanding creates emotional connection. Once the big emotions have settled and the child is calm, the logical and linear left-brain can come on line. This is where redirection, and discipline can take place, helping the child form an understanding of their experience. Such connection and integration strengthens relationship, emotional development and the developing mind.
The authors provide 12 strategies to help nurture the child’s mind, create connection and promote healthy growth. Using the body and movement to help shift your child’s emotional stare is great in the “Move It to Lose It Strategy”, along with the “SIFT” game that helps bring awareness to sensations, images, feelings and thoughts within. Teaching children how to shift feeling stuck in emotional states in the “Let the Clouds of Emotions Roll by” helps children understand that feelings are simply states and not traits. The “Name it Tame it”, helps children work through taming intense feelings through storytelling. Additional strategies include helping to work through memories while exercising control, engaging in focused attention and “Engage Don’t Engage” which appeals to the logic and planning of the left-brain rather than the emotions.
I think every parent, caregiver, teacher, counselor, or anyone involved in the life of a child could benefit from reading and learning this valuable information. The whole brain approach to parenting creates deeper connections and greater understanding of our children. It is a resource that I offer and sometimes require in my practice. It normalizes our experiences and offers strategies on how to work with our children, creating moments of challenge into triumphs and mistakes into opportunities. The information presented within is user friendly, accessible and valuable. More importantly, if utilized and implemented can help create children who are more self aware, emotionally attuned, congruent, resilient, and evolved.
By Miki Fire, Psy.D.
As a relatively new parent, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience of this new role. Like many of you, my experience in parenting has come with some unbelievable moments of joy; the feeling of holding your baby for the first time, of seeing your baby laugh or smile at you, watching as your baby begins to crawl and then stand and eventually walk and run. Of course, there are all the challenges as well; trying to soothe a colicky baby, endless hours of rocking and bouncing and shooshing your little one to sleep (not to mention your own sleep deprivation), or trying to communicate to a toddler that he needs to have patience and wait a few seconds before you can give him that toy he’s reaching for. Alongside these there might also be myriad challenges in parenting alongside your partner who may have his or her own different ideas of what’s best.
Most of what we are exposed to—in the popular media, in our pediatrician’s office, in the conversations at the playground and even at most new parent support groups—are these kinds of ups and downs.
What we hear much less about, if ever, is a much more subtle experience, yet one that is absolutely felt, and that is the grief and sense of loss that is also associated with parenting. Especially in the early years of being a parent, the feelings of sadness and outright grief and mourning can be quite intense, yet are rarely discussed. Because we don’t often talk about this grief, we sometimes wonder if it’s normal, we may pathologize it, push it away, or simply keep it to ourselves
Have you ever noticed, as a parent, how painful the experience can be? How much that sense of love for your child also brings with it a sense of sometimes overwhelming heartache? How in each moment, even if that moment has been unbelievably trying, there is sometimes a surprising sense of nostalgia for that same experience once it has passed?
Why is there such a sense of grief and loss in parenting?
I think that the first days and weeks and months of parenting can be so new and, for many of us challenging, that we tend to feel primarily the relief and joy with each new development. “Ah, she is finally sleeping five hours straight! She doesn’t need to be burped every time she eats! I can put her down for a few minutes and make myself a cup of tea without her fussing!” But what we don’t always feel as strongly, at least not on the surface, is the ending that comes with each new moment, each achievement.
Not one instant can be held on to. Not one day is the same. The minute a new milestone is achieved whatever preceded it is gone, simply folded into the next movement. Your baby’s balancing on two knees becomes a crawl, then a crouch, which becomes an unbalanced stand, a first step, a walk, a run. Even with language, those little gurgles and raspberries which become babbling and eventually actual words. Once you have a child that has mastered the art of language, it might be hard to imagine that you lived with an essentially non-verbal being for a couple of years! Whatever the development, each new movement echoes some past experience, but we never go back, ever. Our tendency is often to focus on the new step our baby has taken, but we don’t necessarily say goodbye to the previous stage that has now been mastered.
Of course there will be more firsts. In fact, all there ever will be are firsts. But every first is also a last. As parents we often joke about how once you have finally mastered some aspect of your child’s development she is on to the next milestone, leaving you to have to figure out a whole new set of tricks. There is joy and relief in moving onto what is new, but there is also a sense of ineffable loss for whatever phase has now come to an end.
If we really think about this experience for a moment, we can begin to touch on the poignancy of this ongoing experience. In a way, being a parent is to witness what it truly means to be alive, as a human being. To know that each day, each moment, each breath, comes and then goes. Parenting, in this way, gives us a very palpable sense of impermanence.
And of course this reflection of impermanence so perfectly revealed in our children is true for everything. As adults we tend to not see the subtle changes that are happening; maybe because they appear so much less dramatic they are missed, easily overlooked, or even denied. Changes tend to blend into one another affording us the illusion that things are essentially the same. It may not be until we are much older, or witnessing the aging process in our own parents, that we have a palpable sense of the passing of time. But it is simply impossible to not see how quickly everything ends when you are in the presence of your child.
And for many people, this constant experience of endings brings with it a feeling of deep heartache. People may have warned you about many of the other challenges of becoming a parent, but rarely do people warn you of the bittersweetness that comes as each day comes to an end and your child is one day older. Yes, there is a deep sigh at the end of a long day, after all the toys have been cleaned up and you can finally sink into the couch with a good book. But for some people there is also a sense of loss. This feeling may be experienced as a sense of depression even. It may be felt as a general fatigue or apathy. Maybe a tearfulness that you cannot explain, or even a feeling of agitation or irritation. We sometimes talk about post-partum depression or “baby blues,” but we rarely acknowledge that these feelings of malaise may actually be normal and appropriate grief for this new experience.
Because in addition to the sense of loss that can come with watching your child change so rapidly is also a very reasonable experience of mourning that may come with the huge transition you are experiencing as a parent. There may be a sense of loss for the person you felt you were before you had children, or the relationship you and your partner had that was just the two of you. If you already have children there may be a feeling of sadness and loss that you no longer can spend all of your parenting time with your other child or children, that this energy is now shared.
We are generally told that we should be happy and grateful to bring children into the world. But rarely are we told that it is okay to also feel pain for the life we have left behind. And this life is truly behind us, even when our children are older and we can work more, spend more time with our friends and alone, it will never be the same.
A part of you may wonder, what can I do about all of this? What should I do about all of this?
Grief is an experience that many people attempt to bypass because it can often be so painful. But my clinical experience has repeatedly shown me that grief is an incredibly important experience that, if possible, is best travelled through, not around. Especially for anyone who has experienced bouts of depression or anxiety that have not lifted easily, there may be a fear that if you turn towards the feelings of sadness and loss, they may just get bigger and more stuck. When you first turn towards your grief, it may feel like it does get bigger, more poignant, or more painful. This is normal. If it is too much to be with, then let yourself turn away towards something else. But notice when you are intentionally avoiding feelings of grief. Even just this noticing is a subtle acknowledgment of the grief that might be there. Here are a few suggestions for how to be with your grief.
- Begin my simply acknowledging that all of the feelings you are having as a parent are completely normal. Give them permission to be here.
- When you notice a difficult emotion, like sadness or some pain, just let yourself acknowledge it is there. You don’t have to do anything more. In fact, with the busyiness of parenting, you may not have space to really do more than this.
- Find a time in the day when you can turn more fully towards whatever feelings have been coming up. Maybe this is while your child is napping, at school, or in bed for the night. During this time, just give your whole body and mind permission to feel whatever feelings may be there and have been there. Even this is enough. You don’t have to do anything with the feelings, just feel.
- If it is hard to just stay with your feelings in an unguided way, here are some suggestions for ways to turn towards, and acknowledge your grief: Use a journal and let yourself write openly about your grief, paint, draw, or engage in any other art form on the theme of grief, set aside 10 minutes to simply sit quietly and invite your feelings to be with you. Just by setting an intention to be present with your feelings, any activity has the potential to be a practice in more fully processing your grief.
- Talk with someone. A friend, your partner, a therapist. Naming your feelings can be one of the more powerful ways of working with grief. When we put words to our inner experiences it often leads to a shift in the experience itself and a deeper sense of meaning.
In essence, my suggestion is, take it all in, let whatever feelings you might have in this process be here in their complete fullness. And know that, even whatever you are feeling now will not be with you forever. Grief (unlike some clinical depressions) does have a way of moving and changing. The grief you may feel as a parent will inevitably shift as your child changes.
And remember, really being honest about these feelings and letting yourself really feel is an extraordinary gift, not only for yourself, but also for your child. You are teaching him or her that emotions, even difficult ones, are okay, survivable, and can even serve as doorways to something new.
By Karen Wilding, LCSW
To begin with, I am an adopted child. I was adopted in the 40’s in a closed adoption, but I believe that although adoption has changed since the 40’s to having many more open, family and foreign adoptions, there are issues that are common to all adopted children. These issues include abandonment issues, identity development issues especially in adolescence, and feelings of not belonging. Some kids feel strongly about some of these things and not others.
First, I want to say that adoption is not a psychological condition it is a life condition. It is a permanent condition regardless of the traits, strengths, talents and special qualities of the child who was adopted. This special status comes up in expected and unexpected ways, which may cause stress and distress for the child – persisting even into adulthood. For instance, my children were asked to draw a family tree in school – do I use my adopted family or have my child disclose my adoption and leave a section of the tree blank?
At first glance, adoption seems like a perfect arrangement. Parents get a child and the child gets a loving home. But this arrangement has some problems:
1) Parents tell the adopted child they are “special” – that they are lucky to have found a good family. Adopted children often wonder if they are good enough to meet their new family’s expectations.
2) Children, in order to understand that they were adopted, have to grapple with the fact that first they were abandoned. Again, the question arises of why they weren’t good enough to keep. So there is the dual challenge for kids who feel they need to be perfect to have a new family, and that they must feel grateful for this situation.
3) A chosen child has some “ghosts” that can become active fantasies, or just low level what-ifs: the ghost of who they would have been if they were not adopted, the ghost of the birth mother and birth father, and the ghost of the adopted family’s child that might have been. When I was thinking about this, I realized that I have said on many occasions that my first cousin ( the daughter of my mother’s brother)– who is beautiful and looks like my adopted mother – “She looks like what I was supposed to look like.” This is a ghost echo for me.
So this is not to say that adoption is too much to handle – it is just an experience that requires lots of attention and understanding. The three main issues we can address are abandonment, identity development, and feelings of not belonging.
1) Abandonment – this is the big one. How could someone leave you before you were even big enough to know anything? This loss is sometimes called a “primal” loss. It has to be acknowledged to be healed. In reaction to this reality, adopted kids often go through phases of being detached, clingy, over worried about people leaving and not returning, fear or curiosity about illness and death, and difficulty with transitions of all kinds. I’m sure you all have examples of how this has occurred in your families.
2) Identity issues – this is where we get into the roles of the good adoptee and the bad adoptee. One of the major developmental jobs of growing up is to develop an independent and cohesive identity. Some adopted kids seem to be trying to connect with the “ghosts” we talked about by either acting the image of the adopted parents natural child (generally the good adoptee), or living life according to the fantasy of his or her birth family (the bad adoptee). These birth family fantasies can lead kids to try identities involving criminal behavior, excessive use of alcohol and drugs, or sexual acting out. This kind of behavior also serves the purpose of testing the commitment of the parents, to see if they will send you away and abandon you again. I remember a teen I was seeing who threw a serious fit, yelling ‘you can’t get rid of me’ when his parents wanted to send him to a prep school.
3) The third issue common to many adopted children involves the feeling of belonging. As soon as a child begins to grapple with the fact that he or she is adopted, he/she starts looking for similarities and differences with his adopted parents. I recently had an adopted teenager in my office who wanted to measure how tall he was by standing next to his adopted mother. Children look to their parents, aunts and uncles, for information about how they will turn out – what characteristics do they carry coded in their genes. For adopted kids there is confused genetic mirroring, either physically or psychologically. So it can also be a challenge for an athletic, artistic child to be adopted by an intellectual family full of lawyers and scientists. When kids realize how different they are, there is often a period of looking for people like you – your tribe. As a friend of mine recently said: It’s all about the feelings.
What can we do to help adopted kids deal with the feeling issues we have identified – abandonment, identity formation, and feeling that you don’t belong? The overall aim here is to stay connected with the child or person you are dealing with – project the feeling that you will never give up on them. This is the classic instruction of separating the behavior from the person’s basic being. “I am mad that you lied to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.” Here are a few specific techniques to consider:
1) The first technique to maintain connection is active listening – which is actually listening to the feelings not the content. In active listening you say things like: It sounds like you are scared, nervous, worried, sad, upset, etc.
2) Technique two is pointing out the positives – I know you are good at sorting things out – or being a good friend – or getting what you need – so you can do this.
3) The third technique is asking a question – Do you want to know what I think? Or what I would do in this situation?
4) The fourth technique is total confidence – I know you will figure it out. This works best with older kids who have some experience making good decisions.
5) The last technique is to articulate what you are doing – I love you and I think you will be incredibly successful in the future, and I want to help you make good choices today. Is there anything I can do to help? In other words, I am there for you.
Addressing adopted children’s unique challenges can be tough. By following these strategies you will be able to more effectively address these concerns and help the adopted child know that he or she is heard, loved, and wanted.
By Dr. Jan Hittelman
There has never been a doubt in my mind that becoming a father was one of the most profound experiences of my life. In a moment my world vision changed forever. Current events were suddenly so much more important because they would impact what would become my daughter’s life. As a young man, if it didn’t affect me directly, I didn’t give it much thought. Everything changes because of that unconditional love that is born in your heart when your child’s heart starts beating. This is a pure inborn love that is likely genetically predetermined to ensure the survival of the species. Either way it is clear, strong and lifelong.
During infancy and the first years of life, we develop a deep bond with our children. A bond that is usually impossible to break. When this process is disrupted early in life and there is an ongoing absence of caregiver warmth and nurturance, there can be significant psychological and even physiological trauma. The resulting psychological condition is referred to as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This can result in lifelong social and emotional challenges.
As parents we may occasionally stray from that initial pure love and get distracted by the details of life that get in the way; everything from dealing with our own issues to getting our children to do their homework. Before you know it, we may be contributing to our children’s disappointment in being denied that unconditional love. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to sustain over time.
I wonder if we all secretly wish to experience that unconditional love from our children, parents, family and friends. Is it unrealistic to expect this level of pure love from others? Unfortunately it probably is. If we’re lucky, we experience these precious moments from time to time in our relationships. The more frequently this occurs, the more fortunate we are.
There are many theorists who believe that in order to truly experience unconditional love, you must first provide it to yourself through self-acceptance. Too often we beat our selves up and become highly self-critical, carrying the weight of guilt, shame and self-blame. By becoming more self-accepting and self-nurturing, we can more easily give and receive love unconditionally. Consider going easier on yourself; try to hit the brakes when you’re being self-critical. Allow yourself to focus more on what you’re doing well and take a moment to experience that feeling of satisfaction. Even if our parents did not always provide us with the love that we desired, we can still be that loving parent to ourselves and fill that void.
All-encompassing ongoing unconditional love is an ideal that perhaps can never be fully realized. What is possible, however, is to make a more conscious effort to give unconditional love to others and be more self-accepting of ourselves. All that is necessary is a true awareness of this process and the motivation to put some effort into it. Now that you know, what will you do?
By Dr. Jan Hittelman
While all of us are faced with parenting challenges, parenting adopted children can present additional issues that can impact the parent-child relationship. Adopted children often struggle with issues related to their identity: Where do I come from? Who are my birth parents? Why was I given-up for adoption? How much a parent should share with their adopted child regarding their early history is yet another challenge to be considered. Parents of adopted children need to develop a game plan for addressing these and other unique issues that are likely to surface. Issues around ethnic/racial/cultural differences between the child and parent(s) can also trigger a variety of unique challenges that will need to be addressed. Finally, there are issues unique to adoption that come-up as a function of the child’s developmental stage. For example, identity issues become a much larger concern as children enter into adolescence. Providing both parents and children with opportunities to meet and share with others in a similar situation can be invaluable.