The Whole-Brain Child: How empathy and storytelling help toddlers

The Whole-Brain Child: How empathy and storytelling help toddlers
I recently came across the book The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. that discussed how parents can better understand how the brain functions in order to survive daily struggles while helping our kids thrive. Most of us have heard that our brains are divided into separate areas, with each area doing a particular job (e.g. left-brain, right-brain sound familiar?). The more integrated the different brain areas are, the calmer and happier children tend to be. The authors offer 12 strategies that parents can use to help them do just that.

I’ve been fascinated with brain development for a while, and I’m definitely interested in all things parenting, so this book seemed like a good choice to read. Since I also like to share what I’m learning and reading, I thought I would start a section in this blog dedicated to book reviews. I’ll share my thoughts on the first two strategies.

So back to the left brain and right brain. The left brain controls all things logical and literal. Most adults have their left brains going at full force; unfortunately for parents, children do not. They tend to rely predominantly on their right brains, which are emotionally charged and “in the moment.” (And you know how kids start asking, “Why? Why?” ten thousand times a day? That’s a sign that their left brains are starting to kick in.)

So how exactly do we go about helping them integrate their left and right brains?

Strategy #1: Connect  and redirect
Whenever a toddler starts throwing a fuss, the parent should first connect to her child’s right brain (emotional side) by being empathetic to her emotions and feelings. Let’s say my toddler was playing with the blinds when he shouldn’t be and started wailing. The first things out of my mouth should try to relate to what he must be feeling: “Looks like you’re having fun playing with the blinds.” Once I’ve connected with his feelings, I can then redirect and set the boundaries: “Whenever you pull hard on the blinds though, they can break.”

I’ve been practicing this method and find that I’m having a harder time than I thought. Usually when my toddler is doing something he shouldn’t, my first action is to tell him what to do or not do. For instance, I’ll say, “Don’t take out the CDs from the cabinet,” or “Try to turn the pages gently so that they don’t tear.” That’s all fine and necessary, but I really should preface that with more empathy: “Are you taking out the CDs because you like putting them back in?” Then I can follow it up with the boundaries and let him know why it’s not okay to pull them out.

Doling out the rules and discipline without empathy will usually work on its own—my toddler will probably stop pulling out the CDs if I just told him to stop. But without empathy, he’ll probably do so begrudgingly. Showing empathy also helps strengthen his relationship with me because he knows that “I’m on his side” and can understand what he feels. And most importantly, encouraging empathy will help reach out to his “right brain” emotions (where two-year-olds predominantly function from) and make it easier to lay down the rules and prevent any flare-ups.

Strategy #2: Name it to tame it
Sometimes when kids experience emotional confusion, whether something grand like a death in the family or something less serious like battling a cold, telling a story can help integrate their right brain emotions with their left brain logic. Kids are more likely get caught up with emotions that they need their left brain logic to maintain order to all that madness (stories have a sequence of order, a beginning and an ending). Even labeling the emotion is enough to help them heal quicker and gain a better understanding of this strange thing that they’re feeling. Storytelling works wonders for adults too and is probably why I love writing in my journal, or why I can have a bad day only to feel loads better when I tell my husband what happened.

Most of the time we’re pretty good about storytelling with our toddler. When LO got bucked by a llama, my husband later explained what happened and described the emotions LO must have felt. And other times we forget: maybe we could have used labeling during our toddler’s week-long cold (which could have contributed to his crankiness this weekend). He probably didn’t like feeling sick and was overcome with emotion (“Am I going to stay sick forever? How come my nose is stuffy—is it broken?”). The next time he’s sick, I can talk about how terrible it must feel to be sick and how I get sick too and don’t like it much.

Left and right harmony
The more integrated my toddler’s left brain logic and right brain emotions are, the better able he will be able to maintain a peaceful flow between chaos and rigidity. His dad and I can help him do that by practicing the two strategies: address his right-brain emotions first before handing out the discipline (connect and redirect), and tell stories to apply sequence and order to the chaos (name it to tame it).

Do you practice empathy or storytelling with your kids? What are some parenting books that you’ve read and liked?

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9 thoughts on “The Whole-Brain Child: How empathy and storytelling help toddlers

  1. Quite an interesting post. thanks for checking my blog out. Look forward to hearing more about the book. don’t have any parenting faves at the moment, but like some parts of Dr. Sears’ books.

    • I’ve read a few of Dr. Sears’ books too. I like most of his ideas although I have definitely deviated from a lot of his major ones, like sleep training and such.

    • Tell me about it… it’s like instinct for me to just blurt out the instructions before thinking about whether he’ll even learn anything from what I say, especially when he’s crying his eyes out!

  2. Storytelling definitely helps our two-year old cope better with difficult situations. And I’ve found that putting the story to music helps even more. Just tonight I was singing my daughter a song about the importance of wearing seat belts and being buckled into the car seat when the car is moving. The tricky part is remember the words I made up when she shouts, “Again!”

    • Aw that is so cute that you sing her the story. Very creative songwriter! The most I’ll sing are nursery rhymes haha.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating book, thank you for the review. The strategies to help left and right brain connect are great as well. I already try to ‘connect and redirect’ but probably do it the opposite way around (tell him he can’t do something and why and then empathise). It makes sense to empathise first though in an effort to prevent that fall out rather than placate it.

    • Yeah I think the authors were saying to empathize first more because they’re just not in the right frame of mind to even register anything when they’re crying their eyes out. If your kiddo though is somewhat calm, I can see why it would work to redirect first before empathizing.

  4. Pingback: Why forcing kids to say sorry may not be a good idea | Sleeping Should Be Easy

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