Upstairs Downstairs (In Your Brain)
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson Ph.D. have written a book called The Whole-Brain Child. The book is aimed at parents, and provides them with “12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind”.
The strategies are based on mindfulness techniques that engage the child’s thinking, instead of providing them with answers, shaming them for poor behaviour, or demanding that they obey.
The book uses a hand model to help explain the brain to a child. The thumb represents the primitive part of the brain that is found in the lower regions, and is the location of big feelings. The fingers are the upper part of the brain, the part used to think and plan, and are used to gently hug the big feelings. When the upper part of the brain is NOT engaged, we can think of this as flipping our lid – the fingers fly up, and the big feelings are exposed.
Here are the strategies.
1. Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves
The brain is also divided into left and right hemispheres, with the right side of the brain being associated with feelings and being stuck, and the left side of the brain where language, logic, and a sense of movement are located. Connect with the right side of the brain (where feelings are) then redirect with the left side of the brain by doing some explaining. The first part of this is so important – if the child doesn’t feel understood, then no amount of logic will do.
2. Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions
When something happens, like a fall off a bike, draw out a story about it. Allow the child to make sense of what happened, and to tell how the problem was helped. Sometimes kids need to tell the story several times.
3. Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain
Threats and demands may engage the downstairs brain (where BIG FEELINGS and more primitive functions take place). Engaging the upstairs brain (where thinking, imagining, and planning take place) allows the child to be a part of the solution.
4. Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain
Let kids make decisions! It’s so tempting (and much quicker) to make decisions for them, but allowing them to decide on various actions will engage their upstairs brain. Give them tools like counting to ten, or breathing into the belly so that they can get in touch with their upstairs brain instead of letting their big feelings make the decision. Explore feelings with what/when/where/how questions. Encourage journaling when they’re old enough to write. Invite empathy when they’re faced with others’ emotions….”What do you think she’s feeling right now?” Offer hypothetical situations. Kids love to use their imaginations and we can tap into that by making up “What If” stories.
5. Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind
Movement helps kids get in touch with their upstairs brain. Invite your child (when they are feeling calm) to smile for a minute to see if they feel different. Get them to try taking a slow, deep breath to notice its effects. Do jumping jacks to shift the energy of the moment (this can be a useful tactic when children are irritated).
6. Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Moments
While letting children review events through story-telling, allow them to use a “remote” to pause, replay, or fast forward to certain parts. The idea behind this is to allow implicit memories (those that affect our feelings, but that we may not remember consciously) to become explicit awareness. The use of the remote allows the child to control the story at their own pace.
7. Remember to Remember: Making Recollection a Part of Your Family’s Daily Life
Remembering gives us a chance to integrate implicit memories (those we may not consciously remember) and explicit memories (those we remember on a conscious level). Practicing remembering is a good way to increase a child’s skill in this area. Remembering important events is valuable, as well as allowing kids to be descriptive of everyday occurrences. As children get older we can ask more detailed or nuanced questions to invite reflection.
8. Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Teaching that Feelings Come and Go
While we may feel like rushing our kids through unhappy emotions, it’s important to let them fully experience them. We can allow them to talk about their feelings, and acknowledge that they may feel different later. Using phrases like “sometimes” and “right now” can help them understand that things will shift. When things are calm, pointing to things that change, like clouds moving across the sky, or leaves travelling down a stream, can be a useful tool for teaching kids about feelings.
9. SIFT: Paying Attention to What’s Going On Inside
Sensations – invite kids to notice what they feel in their bodies when they are happy, angry, or sad for example. Most of us can point to places in our body where big feelings play out.
Images – children can become frightened of certain images that get stuck in their heads. Offering them the chance to change the image allows them to feel a sense of mastery.
Feelings – Fine-tune emotions so that kids have a sense of control. Many of us get in the habit of using words like fine, good, or okay – so take time to develop your emotional vocabulary as well. A list of feeling words can be helpful in choosing just the right feeling. There are also feelings charts that have pictures of feelings – these can be used with young children.
Thoughts – Teach children how to pay attention to the thoughts they have. The old adage says – you don’t have to believe everything you think! Showing kids how to look at their thoughts, rather than from their thoughts is one way to help them realize. Lynne Namka, psychologist and author, says “Thoughts are just thoughts,” and encourages us to name them.
10: Exercise Mindsight: Getting Back to the Hub
Imagine a wheel – the hub is the centre, where we can feel aware, open, peaceful and calm. The outer rim is where sensations, thoughts, feelings, dreams, perceptions, and memories reside. Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up on certain points on the rim. If we can return to the hub, we can regain our sense of calmness, and then turn our attention to different points on the rim.
11. Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy Each Other
Games, fun activities, and silly-play help you form bonds with your children. It can also enhance sibling relationships.
12. Connect Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a “We” in Mind
Teach kids to think about others’ feelings – developing empathy for others is a “we” game. Help your children clue into non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. Let them know that it’s important to quickly repair any damage after a conflict – emotional damage or otherwise. Making it right teaches a lot about empathy.
Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson have written a valuable book! I didn’t have these skills when I was a parent – at least not all of them – but I can learn them and use them with my grandchildren and great nieces and nephews now. Buy the book and share it with others in your family! It’s easy to read, has wonderful diagrams and examples, and contains gems of wisdom.