In preparing for a school consultation this week, I sat down and fully read The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegle and Tina Payne Bryson. This book has drawn substantial media attention and accolades and is well-respected in child mental health circles. I have referenced The Whole-Brain Child from time to time and pulled from its helpful visuals/pictures, but had not yet given it the time it deserves. While on a recent family vacation, I pulled from my professional bookshelf and finished the entire book in just a couple of beachside sittings. I was engrossed in this book and loved its simplicity, practical examples, visuals, and recommendations for parent-child activities. While perhaps some of the information may be oversimplified, isn’t that what we want as parents? We want simple day-to-day recommendations…and to leave the neuroscience to the neuroscientists.

A few strategies I wanted to share:

  • Connect and Redirect rather than Dismiss and Deny

When your child is flooded with emotions and responding in a purely right brain manner (Right Brain = emotions, images, nonverbal, focusing on context), they need validation and an emotional connection before they can communicate with reason and/or logic (Left Brain = logic, reasoning, letter of the law, content).

  • The power of story-telling! Of course, we therapists really love this idea. To tell a story, the left brain has to use words and logic in order to put information in order. Infusing logic into emotionally charged situation creates important balance (or what the book would refer to as horizontal integration between the right brain and left brain).
  • Name it to Tame It. Assigning a name or label to our feelings can calm down the emotional circuitry in our brains.
  • The Mental Staircase. Siegle/Bryson also do a wonderful job of describing our downstairs brain (more primitive brain, responsible for autonomic functions, but also for our impulses and strong emotions) and our upstairs brain (cerebral cortex, responsible for executive functioning, decision making, and emotional regulation).

The last piece of information from The Whole-Brain Child I want to share has been a hot-topic in recent parenting discussions (both clinical and personal!). The book discusses the difference between an upstairs tantrum and a downstairs tantrum. An upstairs tantrum is generally a conscious choice as a means of getting one’s way. Whereas, a downstairs tantrum reflects a time when a child is completely dysregulated and can no longer use his/her upstairs brain due to experiencing such strong emotions. An upstairs tantrum calls for firm and consistent limits, clearly stated expectations, and follow through on such expectations. Whereas, a downstairs tantrum is going to need a well-attuned parent who can recognize this flood of emotions and then connect with the child on a more nurturing level. Once an emotional connection is made, then a parent can effectively redirect and/or talk about consequences and appropriate behavior.