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Book Review Part 2: The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

So here is part 2 of my book review where I have been talking about how the brain develops and how to help your child not just survive but thrive. Hopefully you have all been able to get the gist of the left side of the brain being logical, the right side more emotional and social and that they key is to get these two sides working together. And I have outlined a couple of strategies that Siegel and Bryson have designed to help us do that with our kids. So what next? The top part of the brain and the bottom part of the brain!

The analogy given in the book is a house with an upstairs and a downstairs. The bottom part of the house is beautiful. It has a working kitchen and bathroom. It is finished and pristine. This part of the brain keeps everything ticking over. It contains the boiler, it keeps the water hot, the temperature on and the loo flushing. It is the part of the brain that responds quickly to things. It is the part that controls the breathing and the digestion. It also controls the fight, flight or freeze and is also the part that deals with intense emotions such as anger and fear.

Then we see the upstairs of the house. This is the kind of house you might see on grand designs - it has a veranda and all the walls are made of glass. It gives you fantastic views. On a clear day you can see over the trees for miles and see cities far away. This upstairs part of the brain is the part that gives you that strategic perspective - the bigger picture. This is the part of the brain that allows sound judgement and decision making. It allows us to have control over our emotions. It allows thinking, planning and imagining.

But in a child, this upstairs still isn't finished. All the walls aren't in yet and there is no roof. There are still construction tools littered about the place. And crucially, the staircase isn't in yet. So it is difficult to move from the initial response mechanism to stepping back and taking in the vista. In fact this upper part of the brain isn't mature until we are in our mid twenties. So it is exceptionally difficult for kids to do this well. I think often, as parents, we struggle to understand why our kids sometimes don't see the logic. I know I am guilty of that myself. But now I have a greater understanding of the brain, I am trying to adapt my expectations.

So what can we do to help? We can help them build that staircase. We help them to access that top floor. It may not be complete but it still has fantastic views and can still be really helpful. So let's help them build that staircase and take advantage of what is already there. The thing is, the amygdala is sat on the sofa downstairs. So if there is any whiff of danger, it will jump up into action, flood the brain with overwhelming emotion to help it deal with the danger. So when it comes to an enraged toddler, the fight is being activated.

As we know, when the brain thinks there is danger, other parts of the brain don't need to be activated. We don't need to think when a bear is coming for us, we need to activate survival. So when the amygdala has jumped off the sofa, the staircase to the upstairs is not accessible. When we have a child that is either in the middle of a tantrum or feeling overwhelmed with fear, we can't expect them to see the bigger picture. They can't get up the staircase and even if they do, it is still under construction so is not able to give them that bigger picture, that sense of logic.

So what do we do then? Surely we can't let a child get away with bad behaviour? No, of course not. Kids need to learn to become sociable and that means they need to understand what behaviour is acceptable and what impact their behaviour has on others. Confused? We can't expect them to see the logic but equally we need them to known when they are doing wrong, so what do we do?

Well, we do both Seigel and Bryson talk about 'engage not enrage'. So whilst the child is in the middle of the behaviour, we need to engage with them. We need to understand what is going on for them. We need to connect. Shouting back, punishing etc will just not work. It isn't about any new age parenting style - it is biology, science. Their upstairs brain will simply not be accessible for them. They can't climb the staircase.

So we need to work out what part of the brain we want to access. If we shout and are stern, no question, will that appeal to the upstairs brain, or will it trigger downstairs? Of course it will trigger downstairs! And then that will keep the overwhelming emotions coming! Or do we need to access the upstairs? Well that would be helpful! So how do we do it? Well Siegel and Byrne know that it isn't always easy. However, if we can, we should engage, understand and then outline the situation for them. Ask them questions. Ask them to think of an alternative to what is going on.

The thing is, this book isn't a quick route to a happy family. It is not a fix all. Life just isn't like that. We are human beings. We get some things right, we get some things wrong. By reading this book, you are not going to suddenly turn your kids into something from Little Something on the Prairie (I am showing my age here!). But by having some level of understanding of what is going on in the brain, we can muddle through a little bit better.

And you know what, maybe it will help you understand yourself a little bit better too. Whilst I am interested in this book as a parent, I am also finding the explanations so helpful and I am able to understand the workings of the brain a little better too. Whatever I learn, I always try to apply it to myself before using it when working with clients. This book really is so accessible, I will take a lot from it.

So this blog doesn't contain anywhere near what is in the book. There are 12 strategies that they talk about that you can apply to your situation. There is also a section in the back that gives tips on the strategies at each stage of your child from toddler up to aged 12. It really is a fantastic book. I hope that you have found this blog interesting, and maybe you may take it a step further and buy the book!

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