The Whole-Brain Child
Parenting with the Brain in Mind
Parents are often experts about their children's bodies. They know that a temperature above 98.6 degrees is a fever. They know to clean out a cut so it doesn't get infected. They know which foods are most likely to leave their child wired before bedtime.
But even the most caring, best-educated parents often lack basic information about their child's brain. Isn't this surprising? Especially when you consider the central role the brain plays in virtually every aspect of a child's life that parents care about: discipline, decision making, self-awareness, school, relationships, and so on. In fact, the brain pretty much determines who we are and what we do. And since the brain itself is significantly shaped by the experiences we offer as parents, knowing about the way the brain changes in response to our parenting can help us to nurture a stronger, more resilient child.
So we want to introduce you to the whole-brain perspective. We'd like to explain some fundamental concepts about the brain and help you apply your new knowledge in ways that will make parenting easier and more meaningful. We're not saying that raising a whole-brain child will get rid of all the frustrations that come with parenting. But by understanding a few simple and easy-to-master basics about how the brain works, you'll be able to better understand your child, respond more effectively to difficult situations, and build a foundation for social, emotional, and mental health. What you do as a parent matters, and we'll provide you with straightforward, scientifically based ideas that will help you build a strong relationship with your child that can help shape his brain well and give him the best foundation for a healthy and happy life.
Let us tell you a story that illustrates how useful this information can be for parents.
Eea Woo Woo
One day Marianna received a call at work telling her that her two- year-old son, Marco, had been in a car accident with his babysitter. Marco was fine, but the babysitter, who was driving, had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
Marianna, a principal at an elementary school, frantically rushed to the scene of the accident, where she was told that the babysitter had experienced an epileptic seizure while driving. Marianna found a firefighter unsuccessfully attempting to console her toddler. She took Marco in her arms, and he immediately began to calm down as she comforted him.
As soon as he stopped crying, Marco began telling Marianna what had happened. Using his two-year-old language, which only his parents and babysitter would be able to understand, Marco continually repeated the phrase "Eea woo woo." "Eea" is his word for "Sophia," the name of his beloved babysitter, and "woo woo" refers to his version of the siren on a fire truck (or in this case, an ambulance). By repeatedly telling his mother "Eea woo woo," Marco was focusing on the detail of the story that mattered most to him: Sophia had been taken away from him.
In a situation like this, many of us would be tempted to assure Marco that Sophia would be fine, then immediately focus on something else to get the child's mind off the situation: "Let's go get some ice cream!" In the days that followed, many parents would try to avoid upsetting their child by not discussing the accident. The problem with the "let's go get some ice cream" approach is that it leaves the child confused about what happened and why. He is still full of big and scary emotions, but he isn't allowed (or helped) to deal with them in an effective way.
Marianna didn't make that mistake. She had taken Tina's classes on parenting and the brain, and she immediately put what she knew to good use. That night and over the next week, when Marco's mind continually brought him back to the car crash, Marianna helped him retell the story over and over again. She'd say, "Yes, you and Sophia were in an accident, weren't you?" At this point, Marco would stretch out his arms and shake them, imitating Sophia's seizure. Marianna would continue, "Yes, Sophia had a seizure and started shaking, and the car crashed, didn't it?" Marco's next statement was, of course, the familiar "Eea woo woo," to which Marianna would respond, "That's right. The woo woo came and took Sophia to the doctor. And now she's all better. Remember when we went to see her yesterday? She's doing just fine, isn't she?"
In allowing Marco to repeatedly retell the story, Marianna was helping him understand what had happened so he could begin to deal with it emotionally. Since she knew the importance of helping her son's brain process the frightening experience, she helped him tell and retell the events so that he could process his fear and go on with his daily routines in a healthy and balanced way. Over the next few days, Marco brought up the accident less and less, until it became just another of his life experiences-albeit an important one.
As you read the following pages, you'll learn specifics about why Marianna responded as she did, and why, both practically and neurologically, it was so helpful to her son. You'll be able to apply your new knowledge about the brain in numerous ways that make parenting your own child more manageable and meaningful.
The concept at the heart of Marianna's response, and of this book, is integration. A clear understanding of integration will give you the power to completely transform the way you think about parenting your kids. It can help you enjoy them more and better prepare them to live emotionally rich and rewarding lives.
What Is Integration and Why Does It Matter?
Most of us don't think about the fact that our brain has many different parts with different jobs. For example, you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and read nonverbal cues. You also have a "reptile brain" that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a "mammal brain" that leads you toward connection and relationships. One part of your brain is devoted to dealing with memory; another to making moral and ethical decisions. It's almost as if your brain has multiple personalities-some rational, some irrational; some reflective, some reactive. No wonder we can seem like different people at different times!
The key to thriving is to help these parts work well together-to integrate them. Integration takes the distinct parts of your brain and helps them work together as a whole. It's similar to what happens in the body, which has different organs to perform different jobs: the lungs breathe air, the heart pumps blood, the stomach digests food. For the body to be healthy, these organs all need to be integrated. In other words, they each need to do their individual job while also working together as a whole. Integration is simply that: linking different elements together to make a well-functioning whole. Just as with the healthy functioning of the body, your brain can't perform at its best unless its different parts work together in a coordinated and balanced way. That's what integration does: it coordinates and balances the separate regions of the brain that it links together. It's easy to see when our kids aren't integrated-they become overwhelmed by their emotions, confused and chaotic. They can't respond calmly and capably to the situation at hand. Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression, and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting-and life-are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.
We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, we want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival.
The way integration actually takes place is fascinating, and it's something that most people aren't aware of. In recent years, scientists have developed brain-scanning technology that allows researchers to study the brain in ways that were never before possible. This new technology has confirmed much of what we previously believed about the brain. However, one of the surprises that has shaken the very foundations of neuroscience is the discovery that the brain is actually "plastic," or moldable. This means that the brain physically changes throughout the course of our lives, not just in childhood, as we had previously assumed.
What molds our brain? Experience. Even into old age, our experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. When we undergo an experience, our brain cells-called neurons-become active, or "fire." The brain has one hundred billion neurons, each with an average of ten thousand connections to other neurons. The ways in which particular circuits in the brain are activated determines the nature of our mental activity, ranging from perceiving sights or sounds to more abstract thought and reasoning. When neurons fire together, they grow new connections between them. Over time, the connections that result from firing lead to "rewiring" in the brain. This is incredibly exciting news. It means that we aren't held captive for the rest of our lives by the way our brain works at this moment-we can actually rewire it so that we can be healthier and happier. This is true not only for children and adolescents, but also for each of us across the life span.
Right now, your child's brain is constantly being wired and rewired, and the experiences you provide will go a long way toward determining the structure of her brain. No pressure, right? Don't worry, though. Nature has provided that the basic architecture of the brain will develop well given proper food, sleep, and stimulation. Genes, of course, play a large role in how people turn out, especially in terms of temperament. But findings from various areas in developmental psychology suggest that everything that happens to us-the music we hear, the people we love, the books we read, the kind of discipline we receive, the emotions we feel-profoundly affects the way our brain develops. In other words, on top of our basic brain architecture and our inborn temperament, parents have much they can do to provide the kinds of experiences that will help develop a resilient, well- integrated brain. This book will show you how to use everyday experiences to help your child's brain become more and more integrated.
For example, children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people's feelings more fully. Shy children whose parents nurture a sense of courage by offering supportive explorations of the world tend to lose their behavioral inhibition, while those who are excessively protected or insensitively thrust into anxiety-provoking experiences without support tend to maintain their shyness.
There is a whole field of the science of child development and attachment backing up this view-and the new findings in the field of neuroplasticity support the perspective that parents can directly shape the unfolding growth of their child's brain according to what experiences they offer. For example, hours of screen time-playing video games, watching television, texting-will wire the brain in certain ways. Educational activities, sports, and music will wire it in other ways. Spending time with family and friends and learning about relationships, especially with face-to-face interactions, will wire it in yet other ways. Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops.
This wire-and-rewire process is what integration is all about: giving our children experiences to create connections between different parts of the brain. When these parts collaborate, they create and reinforce the integrative fibers that link different parts of the brain. As a result, they are connected in more powerful ways and can work together even more harmoniously. Just as individual singers in a choir can weave their distinct voices into a harmony that would be impossible for any one person to create, an integrated brain is capable of doing much more than its individual parts could accomplish alone.
That's what we want to do for each of our kids: help their brain become more integrated so they can use their mental resources to full capacity. This is exactly what Marianna did for Marco. When she helped him retell the story over and over again ("Eea woo woo"), she defused the scary and traumatic emotions in his right brain so that they didn't rule him. She did so by bringing in factual details and logic from his left brain-which, at two years old, is just beginning to develop-so that he could deal with the accident in a way that made sense to him.
If his mother hadn't helped him tell and understand the story, Marco's fears would have been left unresolved and could have surfaced in other ways. He might have developed a phobia about riding in cars or being separated from his parents, or his right brain might have raged out of control in other ways, causing him to tantrum frequently. Instead, by telling the story with Marco, Marianna helped focus his attention both on the actual details of the accident and on his emotions, which allowed him to use both the left and right sides of his brain together, literally strengthening their connection. (We'll explain this particular concept much more fully in chapter 2.) By helping him become better integrated, he could return to being a normal, developing two-year-old rather than dwelling on the fear and distress he had experienced.
Let's look at another example. Now that you and your siblings are adults, do you still fight over who gets to push the button for the elevator? Of course not. (Well, we hope not.) But do your kids squabble and bicker over this kind of issue? If they're typical kids, they do.
The reason behind this difference brings us back to the brain and integration. Sibling rivalry is like so many other issues that make parenting difficult-tantrums, disobedience, homework battles, discipline matters, and so on. As we'll explain in the coming chapters, these everyday parenting challenges result from a lack of integration within your child's brain. The reason her brain isn't always capable of integration is simple: it hasn't had time to develop. In fact, it's got a long way to go, since a person's brain isn't considered fully developed until she reaches her mid-twenties.
So that's the bad news: you have to wait for your child's brain to develop. That's right. No matter how brilliant you think your preschooler is, she does not have the brain of a ten-year-old, and won't for several years. The rate of brain maturation is largely influenced by the genes we inherit. But the degree of integration may be exactly what we can influence in our day-to-day parenting.