Brightly: How Reading with Your Children Can Help Them Develop a ‘Yes Brain’

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
— —Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Our new book The Yes Brain opens with the above quote as its epigraph. The Alcott line is a great way to think about the job we have as parents as we seek to empower our children to sail their ships through whatever storms they face. We can give our kids experiences that help produce either a “Yes Brain” mindset that allows them to be receptive, open, curious, and creative in the face of life’s problems, or a “No Brain” mindset that leaves them reactive, shut down, rigid, and fragile.

What, specifically, do they need in order to captain their individual ships in a Yes Brain way that leads to happiness and fulfillment? What characteristics, in other words, should parents emphasize the most? As we travel the world speaking about our books The Whole-Brain Child and No-Drama Discipline, we hear some form of that question all the time. The Yes Brain is our response.

We focus on what we call the four Yes Brain fundamentals: balance, resilience, insight, and empathy. These are the qualities we all need to be successful in life, and if we can promote them in our children, they’ll be well on their way to approaching life from a Yes Brain perspective.

And a great way to promote a Yes Brain in your kids is by reading with them. Each Yes Brain fundamental emerges directly and spontaneously when you dive together into the pages of a book. Here are some quick suggestions to help you be intentional about highlighting the Yes Brain fundamentals.

Balance: Balance is all about emotional regulation. When emotions run high, it takes practice, skills, and maturity to stay calm and make thoughtful choices, even when we’re anxious, angry, or afraid. Managing our emotions and controlling our bodies is an essential part of social and emotional intelligence and having good friendships. As children see characters handle their emotions and impulses well and poorly, they can learn skills to handle emotions. As you read stories together, ask your child these questions to explore and develop balance:

  • How well do you think the character handled those big feelings?
  • What could the character have done differently?
  • What do you do when you have big feelings like that?
  • What calms you down the most when you have that big feeling?

Resilience: One of the most important things we can help develop in our kids, resilience allows us to bend without breaking when life is hard. It’s not about avoiding feeling difficult emotions or trying to escape adversity, but about tolerating and even growing from the times when things don’t go our way. Resilience keeps us from feeling victim to life circumstances or to our internal emotional distress. As you read stories together, ask your child these questions to explore and develop resilience:

  • When the character faced that conflict, how did they handle it?
  • Did you see how even though things were difficult/sad, it didn’t stay that way and things got better?
  • What makes you strong when things are hard?
  • What’s something difficult you went through that made you stronger/smarter/kinder?

Insight: As children observe the feelings and experiences of characters, they learn about themselves. They are given language that helps express what they, themselves, experience and they gain insight into their own behaviors and emotions. As you read stories together, ask your child these questions to explore and develop insight:

  • Have you ever felt that way?
  • What would you do in that situation?
  • How would you decide?

Empathy: Studies show that reading fiction increases our capacity for empathy. As we read about the minds, experiences, and feelings of another, we feel with them. This increases our ability to understand others’ minds and internal experiences so that we can better empathize with them. The more children practice this skill, the more their brains get wired with this capacity. As you read stories together, ask your child these questions to explore and develop empathy:

  • How does the character feel? What are they afraid of? What are they excited about?
  • What does the character expect will happen?
  • What does the character wish would happen?

No matter what book you pick up, reading together can help you raise kids with resilient minds and connected brains. Just the act of physical closeness that occurs when we pull our children close and join together to share the moments that unfold as we read together — laughing, looking at the same pictures, talking about what we wonder about, and sharing the joy that comes from wonderful books — helps create a Yes Brain.

Watch Dr. Daniel J. Siegel discuss the differences between a reactive state and a receptive state, or a Yes Brain state, in this video. Want to learn more about raising children with resilient minds and connected brains? Check out The Yes BrainThe Whole-Brain Child, and No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

Huffington Post: You said WHAT About Time Outs"?!

We recently wrote an article for TIME Magazine online where we discussed time-outs as a discipline strategy. We’ve received a great deal of positive feedback on the piece, and some criticism as well. We’re excited that people are thinking and talking about the important ways that parents interact with and influence their children in discipline moments, but we’d also like to clear up any confusion about our position on time-outs. So here are our responses to four questions we’ve received since the article’s debut.

1. Are you equating time-outs with child abuse?

Absolutely not. 

As we state in the TIME article: “Brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain — like that caused by rejection — looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.”

TIME chose the following subtitle without our review: “In a brain scan, relational pain — that caused by isolation during punishment — can look the same as physical abuse.” This has caused confusion because we said in the text that relational and physical pain — not relational pain and physical abuse — look similar on a brain scan. We are referring to a 2003 UCLA study that showed activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex produced by both relational pain and physical pain (Eisenberger, N.I. et al.). 

2. Do you believe that time-outs are hurting children? 

It all depends on what you mean by the term “time-out.” 

....

Time Magazine: 'Time-Outs' Are Hurting Your Child

Time-out is the most popular discipline technique used by parents and the one most often recommended by pediatricians and child development experts. But is it good for kids? Is it effective? Not according to the implications of the latest research on relationships and the developing brain.

Studies in neuroplasticity—the brain’s adaptability—have proved that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Since discipline-related interactions between children and caregivers comprise a large amount of childhood experiences, it becomes vital that parents thoughtfully consider how they respond when kids misbehave. Discipline is about teaching – not about punishment – and finding ways to teach children appropriate behavior is essential for healthy development.

So what about time-outs? In most cases, the primary experience a time-out offers a child is isolation. Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”

The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us. But when children lose emotional control, parents often put them in their room or by themselves in the “naughty chair,” meaning that in this moment of emotional distress they have to suffer alone.

Publishers Weekly Features The Yes Brain

Check out this article by Jason Boog which was featured in Publishers Weekly (January 8, 2018). It talks about contemporary parenting challenges and the books/ideas that address them. Click below to read the whole article. 

KPCC Article: What local development experts want parents to know

Not that long ago, science told us that 1,000 or fewer neural connections were made each second in a baby's brain. Now we know babies' brains actually make one million neural connections every second until the age of 3.

As our understanding of the brain and child development seems to expand by the minute, there’s a constant flood of new research and information about how to raise children. To help parents sort through it all, KPCC assembled a panel of local child development experts to share information they want parents to know. 

Tina Bryson, founder and executive director of the Center for Connection and co-author of "The Whole-Brain Child" and a forthcoming book called "The YES Brain," shared ways to connect the dots between neuroscience and toddler behavior. 

Ashaunta Tumblin Anderson, attending physician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and health policy researcher for RAND Corporation, discussed her research on the links between racism and increased rates of ADHD, anxiety, and other health issues in young children. 

Joan Maltese, founder and CEO of Child Development Institute, talked about how little babies can sense stress in their parents – particularly when they are arguing – and how parents can maintain calm. 

Marlene Zepeda, professor emeritus at the Department of Child and Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, spoke about the capacity of little children to learn multiple languages and what parents might expect as they go through that process.

The panelists shared a wealth of information on topics including supporting children with developmental delays, choosing preschools, and helping children through parental separation and divorce. 

US News & Reports: The ‘Yes-Brain’ Approach to Parenting and Life

Did you know that your brain has two fundamental states that shape how you experience life in the moment? 

In my educational workshops and presentations, I invite participants to learn about these two states directly. To do so, I have them close their eyes and simply become aware of the sensations that emerge when I say the word “no” harshly several times, and then I pause before calmly repeating the word “yes.” 

What I call the “No-Brain” state is described by many as involving a sensation of tightness, constriction, anger, fear, sadness and a feeling of shutting down, along with heaviness in the chest and an urge to run away. This pattern is part of what can be called a reactive state, which researchers have found is created during conditions of threat. 

Two branches of our autonomic nervous system – which regulates certain processes, like our blood pressure – can be activated as we react to a threat. One is an accelerating sympathetic branch that gets us ready to fight, flee or freeze as our bodies prepare for the potential harm. The other is a parasympathetic branch, which essentially puts on the brakes; this branch can also become activated if we feel completely helpless, having us collapse or faint in response to the overwhelming threat. With either of these activating or deactivating states, we are now reactive and no longer receptive to what is going on around us or inside us. This No-Brain reactivity shuts off our connections to others and ourselves.

 

Washington Post: A pile of advice books won’t end your parenting anxiety.

Q: As a general rule, I manage my parenting anxiety by not reading parenting books. It’s too much contradictory information, and I get nuts about it. I’ve found that following my instincts works better for me. But I do feel like I need some guidance on what I should be doing with my toddler to prevent lifelong damage and get on course to raise a good kid. Any thoughts on how to manage this push-pull?

A: Here’s the deal: We have never had so much information at our fingertips in the history of parenting. Data, studies, websites, books, podcasts, articles, blogs, columns (ahem), classes, therapists, coaches (again, ahem). There is a never-ending list of ways that parents can get advice and instruction and information. Yet we have never been more anxious and insecure about our roles. Are we good enough? Are we providing the best opportunities for our children? Are we too lenient? Too strict? Too absent? Too present? For every question we have, we can sit at the computer and search and search, giving our brain unending fodder for worry and uncertainty. For every study we find, another will disprove it.

I remember being pregnant with my second and feeling amazed by the information available to pregnant women. Breast-feeding, swaddling, diapers, sleep classes, eating — you name it, and the information was out there. I had done all of those things (and more) while pregnant with my first, and guess what? I barely needed any of the information. Life has a way of throwing curveballs and changing up the game pretty quickly....