Nurture your child’s mental health and make parenting easier by understanding how our brains work

Experts share tips for parenting with the brain in mind.

While many parents and caregivers are tuned in to what’s happening with children’s bodies (for example, knowing when they’re hungry or running a temperature), most have probably not given much thought to what’s happening in kids’ brains. This is surprising to neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, M.D., and parenting expert, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. because they know that the brain plays an essential role in shaping just about every aspect of a child’s life. 

In their book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Siegel and Bryson share that brain science is helping us understand the pathway to mental health—as well as impacts on decision-making, self-awareness, school success, relationships, and other important aspects of health and well-being. The authors share several simple, easy-to-understand ideas about how the brain works and how adults can respond to difficult situations in ways that build a foundation for resiliency, social and emotional learning, and mental health. 

What is mental health?

Siegel defines mental health as our ability to remain in a “river of well-being” as if we are floating peacefully down a river feeling generally calm and content. In this state, we are aware and present in the moment, and we have some perspective about our life, our relationships and our world around us. In this river of well-being we are balanced and can be flexible as we adjust to change and difficult situations that come our way. Siegel explains that we get into trouble when we veer too close to the banks of this river. In this analogy, the banks of the river represent two extremes: chaos and rigidity. The chaos side represents confusion, disorder and lack of control. The rigidity side represents too much control, a lack of flexibility and an inability to adapt. When we (or our children) are close to these extreme “banks,” we are farther away from enjoying the natural flow of the river of our mental health and well-being. 

What’s that got to do with brain science?

Research is helping us to better understand how the brain works. For example, the left side of the brain influences us by preferring order, logic, words and literal meanings. When this part of our brain is overly dominant and taken to extremes, we’re closer to the “rigidity” bank of the river. The right side is nonverbal and is sensitive to nonverbal communication, tone, eye contact, posture, images and emotions. This side taken to extremes is the chaos side of our river. The authors stress that the “integration” of these two parts of our brain is the most important aspect of mental health. Integration allows both sides of our brain to work in harmony and helps young people and adults learn to value logic and our emotions and gain more balanced perspectives about ourselves and the world around us. And while young children are naturally more right-brain dominant, they need adults in their lives to help build and fire the neurons in their brains that will ultimately help them become a “whole-brain child.” For example, when a child is experiencing trauma or is upset, angry, sad or fearful, what they need first is a right-brain response from their caregiver which might include tender touch, a gentle reassuring voice or a hug. Put simply: When adults move to left brain responses like problem-solving and decision-making when the child is having a right brain reaction to a situation, the result is usually frustrated parents and children. Children and adolescents (and at times adults) simply cannot access left brain functions when the right brain is activated. 

Siegel and Bryson share additional information and strategies in their book that support parenting with the brain in mind. In addition, Michigan State University Extension offers workshops, webinars and other resources focused on emotional resiliency, youth development, parenting, mindfulness and ways that adults can work with young people to create safe, affirming and fair environments

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