The Yes Brain

How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child

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From the authors of The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline, an indispensable guide to unlocking your child’s innate capacity for resilience, compassion, and creativity.

When facing challenges, unpleasant tasks, and contentious issues such as homework, screen time, food choices, and bedtime, children often act out or shut down, responding with reactivity instead of receptivity. This is what New York Times bestselling authors Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call a No Brain response. But our kids can be taught to approach life with openness and curiosity. Parents can foster their children’s ability to say yes to the world and welcome all that life has to offer, even during difficult times. This is what it means to cultivate a Yes Brain.

When kids work from a Yes Brain, they’re more willing to take chances and explore. They’re more curious and imaginative, less worried about making mistakes. They’re better at relationships and more flexible and resilient when it comes to handling adversity and big feelings. They work from a clear internal compass that directs their decisions, as well as the way they treat others. Guided by their Yes Brain, they become more open, creative, and resilient.

In The Yes Brain, the authors give parents skills, scripts, ideas, and activities to bring kids of all ages into the overwhelmingly beneficial “yes” state. You’ll learn

• the four fundamentals of the Yes Brain—balance, resilience, insight, and empathy—and how to strengthen them
• the key to knowing when kids need a gentle push out of a comfort zone vs. needing the “cushion” of safety and familiarity
• strategies for navigating away from negative behavioral and emotional states (aggression and withdrawal) and expanding your child’s capacity for positivity

With inspirational anecdotes, fun and helpful illustrations, and a handy Yes Brain Refrigerator Sheet to keep your family on point, The Yes Brain is an essential tool for nurturing positive potential and keeping your child’s inner spark glowing and growing strong—and gifting your children with a life of rich relational connections, meaningful interactions with the world, and emotional equanimity.

“This unique and exciting book shows us how to help children embrace life with all of its challenges and thrive in the modern world. Integrating research from social development, clinical psychology, and neuroscience, it’s a veritable treasure chest of parenting insights and techniques.”—Carol Dweck, author of Mindset 

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Yes Brain

Chapter 1

The Yes Brain:

An Introduction

This book is about helping kids say yes to the world. It’s about encouraging them to open their minds to new challenges, to new opportunities, to who they already are and all they can become. It’s about giving them a Yes Brain.

If you’ve heard Dan speak, you may have participated in an exercise where he asks his audience to close their eyes and pay attention to their bodily and emotional responses when he repeats a particular word. He begins by somewhat harshly saying “no” over and over again. He repeats it seven times, then switches to “yes,” which he says much more gently, again and again. He then asks the audience members to open their eyes and describe what they experienced. They report that the “no” portion of the exercise left them feeling shut down, upset, tense, and defensive, whereas when Dan repeated the affirming “yes,” they felt open, calm, relaxed, and lighter. The muscles of their face and vocal cords relaxed, their breathing and heart rate normalized, and they became more open, as opposed to restricted or insecure or oppositional. (Feel free to close your eyes now and try the exercise for yourself. Maybe enlist the help of a relative or friend. Notice what goes on in your body as you repeatedly hear the word “no,” and then “yes.”)

These two different responses—­the “yes” response and the “no” response—­give you an idea of what we mean when we talk about a Yes Brain, as well as its opposite, a No Brain. If you expand that and think about it as an overall outlook on life, a No Brain leaves you feeling reactive when you interact with people, which makes it nearly impossible to listen, make good decisions, or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-­defense kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight-­flight-­freeze-­or-­faint response: fight means lashing out, flight means escaping, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself, and faint means collapsing and feeling utterly helpless. Any of these four reactive responses to threat can become triggered, preventing you from being open, connecting to others, and offering flexible responses. That’s the reactive No Brain state.

The Yes Brain, in contrast, emerges from different circuits in the brain that become activated and lead to receptivity rather than reactivity. Scientists use the term “social engagement system” to refer to the set of neural circuits that help us connect openly with others—­and even our own inner experience. As a result of receptivity and an active social engagement system, we feel much more capable of addressing challenges in a strong, clear, and flexible way. In this Yes Brain state, we open ourselves to a sense of equanimity and harmony, allowing us to absorb, assimilate, and learn from new information.

This Yes Brain mindset is what we want for our kids, so that they learn to view obstacles and new experiences not as paralyzing impediments but simply as challenges to be faced and overcome and learned from. When kids work from a Yes Brain mentality, they’re more flexible, more open to compromise, more willing to take chances and explore. They’re more curious and imaginative, less worried about making mistakes. They’re also less rigid and stubborn, which makes them better at relationships and more adaptable and resilient when it comes to handling adversity. They understand themselves and work from a clear internal compass that directs their decisions as well as the way they treat others. Guided by their Yes Brain, they do more, learn more, and become more. They say yes to the world from a place of emotional equilibrium, welcoming all that life offers—­even when circumstances don’t go their way.

Our opening message to you is a thrilling one: you have the power to promote this type of flexibility, receptivity, and resilience in your children. This is what we mean by mental strength—­giving your kids a strong mind. Not by making them attend a lecture series on grit and curiosity, or by initiating lots of long, intense, stare-­into-­each-­other’s-­eyes conversations. In fact, your everyday interactions with your children are all you need. Simply by keeping in mind the Yes Brain principles and lessons we’ll show you in the coming pages, you can use the time you spend with your kids—­while driving to school, eating dinner, playing together, or even arguing with them—­to influence the way they respond to their circumstances and interact with the people around them.

That’s because a Yes Brain is more than just a mindset or an approach to the world. It’s that, definitely. And as such, it gives your child an internal guide to help him or her face life’s challenges with security and enthusiasm. It’s the basis of being strong from the inside out. But a Yes Brain is also a neurological state that emerges when the brain is engaged in certain ways. By understanding a few basic details about brain development, you can help create an environment that provides opportunities that will foster a Yes Brain in your kids.

As we’ll explain below, the Yes Brain is created by neural activity that involves a particular region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, an area that links many regions with one another, handles higher-­order thinking, and facilitates curiosity, resilience, compassion, insight, open-­mindedness, problem-­solving, and even morality. Kids can learn to increasingly access and pay attention to the functions of this part of the brain as they grow and develop. In other words, you can teach your kids how to grow this important neural area that supports mental strength. As a result, they can control their emotions and bodies better, while also listening more carefully to their inner promptings and being more fully themselves. That’s what we’re talking about when we discuss the Yes Brain: a neurological state that helps children (and adults) approach the world with openness, resilience, empathy, and authenticity.

A No Brain, in contrast, emerges less from the interconnecting prefrontal cortex and more from a less integrated brain state that involves the activity of lower, more primitive regions of the brain. This No Brain state is how we respond to a threat or get ready for an impending attack. As a result, it’s intensely reactive, defensively worrying that it might make a mistake or that curiosity might lead to some kind of trouble. And this state can go on the offense, too, pushing back on new knowledge and fighting off input from others. Attacking and rejecting are two ways the No Brain deals with the world. The No Brain’s outlook on the world is one of stubbornness, anxiety, competition, and threat, leaving it much less capable of handling difficult situations or achieving a clear understanding of self or others.

Kids who approach the world from a No Brain state are at the mercy of their circumstances and their feelings. They get stuck in their emotions, unable to shift them, and they complain about their realities rather than finding healthy ways to respond to them. They worry, often obsessively, about facing something new or making a mistake, rather than making decisions in a Yes Brain spirit of openness and curiosity. Stubbornness often rules the day in a No Brain state.

Does any of that sound similar to your situation at home? If you have kids, it probably does. The truth is, we all get into No Brain states—­kids and adults alike. Becoming rigid and/or reactive from time to time is something we can’t completely avoid. But we can understand it. Then we can learn ways to help our kids return more quickly to a Yes Brain state when they leave it. And more important, we can give them the tools to do so themselves. Young children will work from a No Brain state more often than older children and adults. A seemingly omnipresent No Brain is typical and developmentally appropriate for a three-­year-­old—­like when she cries with fury because her harmonica got wet, even though she’s the one who threw it in the sink full of water! But over time, and as development unfolds, we can support our kids in developing the ability to regulate themselves, bounce back from difficulties, understand their own ­experiences, and be thoughtful of others. Then, more and more, the no becomes a yes.

Think about that right now, for just a moment. How would life at your house change if your kids were better at responding to everyday situations—­conflict with siblings, turning off electronics, following directions, homework struggles, bedtime battles—­from a Yes Brain instead of reacting from a No Brain? What would be different if they were less rigid and stubborn and they could better regulate themselves when things don’t go their way? What if they welcomed new experiences instead of fearing them? What if they could be clearer about their own feelings, and more caring and empathic toward others? How much happier would they be? How much happier and more peaceful would the whole family be?

That’s what this book is about: helping develop a Yes Brain in your kids by giving them the space, the opportunity, and the tools to develop into people who openly engage with their world and become fully and authentically themselves. This is how we help children develop mental strength and resilience.

Nurturing a Yes Brain Is Not About Being Permissive

Let us be clear from the outset about what the Yes Brain is not. The Yes Brain is not about telling kids yes all the time. It’s not about being permissive, or giving in, or protecting them from disappointment, or rescuing them from difficult situations. Nor is it about creating a compliant child who robotically minds his parents without thinking for himself. Instead, it’s about helping kids begin to realize who they are and who they are becoming, and that they can overcome disappointment and defeat and choose a life full of connection and meaning. Chapters 2 and 3 especially will discuss the importance of allowing children to understand that frustrations and setbacks are an inherent part of life—­and supporting them while they learn that lesson.

After all, the result of a Yes Brain is not a person who is happy all the time or who never experiences any problems or negative feelings. That’s not the point at all. It’s not the goal of life, nor is it possible. The Yes Brain leads not to some sort of perfection or paradise, but to the ability to find joy and meaning even in the midst of life’s challenges. It allows a person to feel grounded and understand themselves, to flexibly learn and adapt, and to live with a sense of purpose. It leads them not only to survive difficult situations, but to emerge from them stronger and wiser. That’s how they can develop meaning in their lives. From their Yes Brain they’re also able to engage with their inner life, with others, and with the world. That’s what we mean by having a life of connection and knowing who we are.

When kids and adolescents also develop the ability for equanimity—­for learning the skill of returning to a Yes Brain state after being in No Brain mode—­we’ve given them an important components of resilience. The ancient Greeks had a term for this kind of happiness composed of meaning, connection, and peaceful contentedness. They called it eudaimonia, and it’s one of the most empowering and lasting gifts we can give our children. It helps create the kind of successful life we can prepare our kids for if we allow them to mature into their own individual identities while supporting them and building skills along the way. And, of course, by working on our own Yes Brain.

Let’s face it: in many ways kids are growing up in a No Brain world. Think about a traditional school day, full of rules and regulations, standardized tests, rote memorization, and one-­size-­fits-­all discipline techniques. Whew! And they have to deal with that six hours a day, five days a week, for nine months of the year? Yikes. On top of that, consider the oh-­so-­packed schedules so many of us impose on them, full of “enrichment” classes and tutoring and other activities that leave them staying up late and losing sleep because they have to get their homework done because they couldn’t do it during the daylight hours since they were so busy being “enriched.” When we add to this how compelling digital media has become, with auditory and visual stimuli capturing our kids’ attention around the clock with a temporary pleasure the Greeks called hedonia, we can realize that cultivating a Yes Brain is especially important in these modern times to empower our kids with true and lasting happiness, with the eudaimonia of meaning, connection, and equanimity.

These digital distractions and busy schedules are often experiences that fail to ignite—­and at times even undermine—­Yes Brain thought. Some of them may actually offer enriching experiences, and some may be necessary evils (although we’re not convinced how necessary certain commonly accepted educational practices really are, as evidenced by the inspirational work being done all over the country and the world by educators who are challenging the status quo in the areas of homework, class schedules, and discipline). Yes, of course kids need to learn about managing routines, following a calendar, and completing tasks that aren’t necessarily pleasant or fun. You’ll hear us endorse that idea throughout the book. Our main point here is simply that when you consider how many of a child’s waking hours are spent doing No Brain work or engaged in No Brain activities, it becomes that much more important that we strive to offer them Yes Brain interactions whenever we possibly can. We want to make home a place where a “yes” approach is consistently emphasized and prioritized.

- About the author -

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, and executive director of the Mindsight institute. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Siegel is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers Brainstorm, Mind, and, with Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline. He is also the author of the bestsellers Mindsight and, with Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out. The author of the internationally acclaimed professional texts The Mindful Brain and The Developing Mind, Dr. Siegel keynotes conferences and conducts workshops worldwide. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, with welcome visits from their adult son and daughter.

More from Daniel J. Siegel

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is the co-author, with Daniel J. Siegel, of two New York Times bestsellers, The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline. She is the founder and executive director of the Center for Connection, an interdisciplinary clinical team in Pasadena, California. She is a licensed clinical social worker, providing pediatric and adolescent psychotherapy and parenting consultations. As well, she keynotes conferences and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and clinicians all over the world. Dr. Bryson earned her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.

More from Tina Payne Bryson

The Yes Brain

How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child

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The Yes Brain

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