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Book Review Part 1: The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Ok, so I think you are all probably starting to realise that I am turning into a nerd - a brain obsessed nerd! I bought this latest book as it was co-written by a guy called Dr Dan Siegel. Dan Siegel is one of the leading figures in the world of psychology when it comes to the brain. I have come across his work over the last couple of years when looking at the brain and trauma and I love how accessible his work is. This for me is so important. I initially wrote this blog as one blog, but it became so long I think it was too much to read in one setting so I have split it into two - this will hopefully make it a bit easier to get through!

The brain is complex stuff and I am no scientist. But research into the brain over the last 20 years has been revolutionary and we can learn so much about ourselves by understanding the brain. I am so deeply passionate about it but I need to understand it! I need to hear it in 'layman's terms'. I think this is what has influenced my blog writing but also my work with my clients. It is all very well having the theory and complex books but what is the point if it is jargon heavy and tricky to work out?

I saw this book 'The Whole-Brain Child' recommended on a counselling facebook page and bought it on a whim. I have to confess it took me a while to pick it up. I have been going through a phase of reading fiction and autobiographies - escapism type of books that you can get effortlessly engrossed in. I really wasn't in the mood for something 'heavy'. So I left it for a while and picked it up this weekend and finished it in two days! I am so glad I picked it up - it really isn't a heavy book. It is written so simply with cartoon strips that kids can read to understand the theory. Ok, I know, actually the comic strip was great for me too!

So, what is this book all about? Well it is about how the brain develops and how it is important to integrate the whole brain. It helps you to understand why our kids behave in certain ways and how we can expect too much from them as their brains aren't fully developed until they are in their mid twenties and therefore we can't expect them to respond in the same way that we do. But not only does the book explain how the brain works but it also gives 12 strategies to help you understand your child and not just grow but thrive.

I could write for hours summarising this book as it is so brilliant but I recognise I can't capture it all in a blog and it wouldn't be fair for Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. After all, they wrote the book! But I intend to summarise what I would call the 'bare essentials'.

So, the brain. This book divides the brain into four sections - the brain is far more complex with lots of different regions with different functions, but we need to stick to the basics and what we need to know to understand and connect with our kids.

So in the book, the authors talk about our kids journey of contentment and use the analogy of kids peacefully travelling along a gentle stream. The left riverbank is harsh, solid with too much restriction and control. The right riverbank is chaotic. The aim is to keep your child on the gentle and peaceful path without hitting either bank too often - there is no way to completely eliminate hitting the bank, but we don't want them to hit either too often, and when they do, we want them to have the tools to steer back into the centre of the gentle river.

So this is where we get into the left and right side of the brain. The left part of the brain is your 'logical' part of your brain. I love the way it is described in the book as the 'L' part of the brain - logical, lists, linguistic and literal (the left riverbank). The right part of your brain is the emotional side of the brain. The part of the brain that is the part that recognises eye contact, non verbal cues and allows us to connect with others. It is the relationship part of the brain. It is the part that sees the bigger picture and holds the depth of feeling.

So, which side should we make stronger? Sometimes we feel that kids are ruled by their emotions - they can fly into a rage with the slightest thing. We have all seen those facebook posts where parents post pictures of their kids kicking off for the most ridiculous things. We can all identify with that and have a good laugh! So do we need to help them strengthen the left part of the brain, so they can understand why they shouldn't kick off so easily?

Well in theory it would be great to do this for a peaceful life, especially in half term in the middle of lockdown! But actually we don't want to strengthen the left part of the brain to the detriment of the right brain, because the right part of the brain is just as important! How can we expect our children to go out into the world and be good people and build good lives if they cannot connect to others? And we are essentially driven as human beings to connect with others.

Also, when kids are young, the right side of the brain is far more developed so they aren't able to use logic and words easily. You will know when the left side of the brain is developing when they start asking 'why' all the bloody time! So actually the left side of the brain developing doesn't give us a more peaceful life! I am sorry, there is no quick win, we need to make sure that both sides are strong, but what is vital is to 'connect' the two parts of the brain. Have them work together and work in harmony.

So how can we help our kids do that? How can we get the two parts of the brain to work together? Well here is one of the strategies that the authors have devised, and for me, is probably one of the take home pieces of information from the book. "Connect and Redirect". When your child is working in the right side, and flooded with emotion, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to use logic. They are overwhelmed. What they need is that social connection. They need their caregiver to connect with them.

This is where us, as parents, need to use the right side of our brain. Be there with them. Let them know we hear them, we feel their pain, we understand. Calm, them and soothe them. This isn't always easy. Being a parent can be hard, especially in the times of a pandemic. Sometimes we are on the edge, and our kids can push our buttons.

We absolutely love our children but we are human. If they are shouting and being rude at bedtime, we just want some peace and we want them to go to sleep. We try and talk sense into them and sometimes we shout back. But that just does not work. The left hand side of their brain is not switched on. This is fact. This is not their choice.

Does that mean we tolerate bad behaviour? Absolutely not! We connect with them. Once we have connection, the redirect comes into play. This redirection may need to be the next day, when we can be calm with them, discuss what happened and allow them to use the left hand side of the brain to to understand the situation.

Now here comes one of my favourite strategies. This is something that I use myself in my own growth but also with my clients. 'Name it to tame it'. I love this phrase. I have never come across such an apt phrase and I am adopting it from now on! In my previous blogs, I have talked about the amygdala and the fight and flight response. I have talked about how when trauma occurs, the prefrontal cortex, the storytelling part of our brain, and the hippocampus part that tags and orders the memories shuts down.

So the trauma memory isn't stored properly and it turns into a 'feeling' memory that is not part of our conscious. And we can get 'triggered' by things in our lives which mean we have the feeling memories, such an anxiety, without the context. So how do we change that? We talk about the triggers. We get that prefrontal cortex working and this soothes the amygdala. This is what the 'name it to tame it' refers to.

If your child is freaking out about going to school but they don't know why, get them to explore their fear. Maybe something happened as long as a few years ago. They don't know that this fear is still in them and still affecting them, as this is a feeling memory without any context. You can work with your child to tell the story.

Ask them questions, try and put the pieces of the puzzle together. Maybe there is something too painful to talk about - if that is the case, get them to see it as a YouTube video. They can pause and fast forward - they can get to the end of the video, realise they are now in a place of safety and then rewind to that difficult bit when they are ready. Naming it really does tame it because that fight or flight is now soothed. Don't get me wrong, I am not implying that this is easy and happens in an instant. It doesn't. It can be hard and it can take a long time, especially with children who have experienced significant trauma. This exploration should be done with a professional. But all the while, it is helpful to have that understanding.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading the first part of my blog on this book and that has given you food for thought. I will post part 2 in a few days as I don't want to bombard you with too much info in one go - I know we all have busy lives and we might not want to read it all at once. But I hope that this has been helpful for you - if it has been, keep your eye out in a few days for part 2!

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