Dr. Lisa Firestone
Author and humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote, “When my kids become wild and unruly, I use a nice, safe playpen. When they’re finished, I climb out.” As parents, we all have moments when we would like to hide away, avoid confrontation, and wait for the quiet that follows the storm. Parenting is an incredible challenge, full of foibles, fits, and frantic attempts to calm and soothe our children. In our efforts, we’re frequently left to follow our instincts and try our best, sometimes reaching thrilling victories and other times falling foolishly off course.
Though it can seem like we are stumbling blindly through the web of challenges parenting presents, there are ways to better understand our child’s rapidly developing mind and strategies to help our children through their own personal challenges and emotional lows. Some of the most valuable of insights come from a new book by Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive. In this acclaimed text, parents are introduced to a new science illustrating how a child’s brain is wired and how it matures. With this understanding as a base, parents can implement techniques that help turn meltdowns into opportunities to integrate their child’s brain.
Like all human beings, children are ruled by their emotional right brain and their logical left brain. Helping children to understand and integrate both sides of their brain equips them with an invaluable tool that enables them to lead a more balanced, emotionally stable, and mentally healthy life. Even though our goal is to raise calm and happy kids, very often we make mistakes in the moments when our children are at their most vulnerable. For example, when our kids throw tantrums, we may attempt to appeal to them through pure logic, instruction, or worse case scenario, by “losing it” ourselves. When we comprehend what is going on in our child’s brain during these meltdowns, we learn a better way to relate to our children as well as a powerful method to teach them effective tools for coping with their own tumultuous emotions.
Tough as they can be, outbursts, arguments, and bouts of fear can all offer prime chances to integrate a child’s brain. Here are a few effective tips to help get your child develop a well-integrated mind.
Use the logic of left brain to make sense out of feelings in the right – Simply telling our children to “calm down” or “stop crying” is not an effective way to help them through what Dr. Bryson calls “emotional tsunamis.” Demanding our kids be rational when they are operating under the influence of their irrational right brains is a mis-attuned effort often made in vain. Instead, offer your child empathy. Acknowledge that they are feeling bad, scared, frustrated etc. and express that you are sorry they’re in pain. As they become calmer, ask them to explain what upset them and help guide them through their story, while investigating what triggered the meltdown.
Help kids tell their story – Protective as we may be, our kids will all experience at least mildly traumatic events. Mean teachers who ridiculed them, scary seconds when they got lost in the supermarket; instances that incited fear, anger, or sadness will arise. We can help our kids resolve these traumas when they occur by supporting their effort to make sense out of what happened to them. This process starts with talking to them about it. Don’t avoid stressful topics in hopes that your kids will forget all about the incident. Instead, gently guide your children, as they tell you their story. “When did you notice your mother wasn’t around? How did you feel when you realized you were lost?’ Talking may seem difficult at first, but the more a child can make sense of his or her story, the more integrated and calm he or she will become. Contrarily, any unresolved trauma can present problems later in life.
Teach your child that feelings go through us – When our child has calmed down, it is helpful to explain to them that feelings, even intense emotions, come and go. Our emotions pass through us like waves, building and building until finally they reach their peak, crash, and subside. We can’t choose these feelings, but we can decide how we will behave when they arise. We can be curious about them and talk about them, all the while understanding that they won’t last forever.
Rupture and repair – Parents are human. We mess up, we say the wrong thing, and sometimes we let our own emotions get in the way. When this happens, we can help our kids a great deal by talking to them about what happened and how we behaved. We shouldn’t be afraid to say sorry when we make mistakes. Be open about your own story. Explain how you overreacted because you felt angry or afraid. By relaxing and acknowledging your reaction, you are demonstrating how to calm down, a lesson your children can apply when they find themselves in similar situations.
Keep calm and carry on – We’ve all either seen or been that mother who is getting into a full-on argument with their two-year-old about putting a sweater on, or that father who is practically throwing his own tantrum as his kid cries over what he’s served for lunch. No matter what the scenario, losing our temper is never the solution. Letting our emotional right brains take over only teaches our kids to feel as out of control as we’re behaving. Our own unresolved traumas and negative early experiences will constantly inform our reactions to our kids. Be aware of what triggers you, and be sure to separate the emotions these events stir up from your kids’ independent experience.
By being more attuned to our kids, understanding their developing mind, and actively seeking out and implementing effective strategies to help them cope, we are doing them a great service in arming them with tools that will not only strengthen their own resilience but will be passed on to future generations.
Lisa Firestone, PhD, is the Director of Research and Education for The Glendon Association. Since 1987, she has been involved in clinical training and applied research in suicide and violence.