[Two weeks from today (Oct 4), my new book with Dan Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child, comes out! Below you’ll find the third in a four-part series where I post excerpts from the book. I hope you enjoy it.] ------------------
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
--John Kabit Zinn
Here's a conversation I recently had with my 7-year-old when he wasn't at his logical best.
My son: I can't go to sleep. I’m mad that you never leave me a note in the middle of the night.
Me: I didn't know you wanted me to.
My son: You never do anything nice for me, you do things at night for Luke, and I’m mad because my birthday isn't for ten more months, and I hate homework.
Sound familiar? An encounter like this can be frustrating, especially when you’re beginning to feel that your child is finally old enough to actually be reasonable and discuss things logically. All of a sudden, though, you’re interacting with a being who becomes over-the-top upset about something completely ridiculous and illogical, and it seems that absolutely no amount of reasoning on your part will help.
This is one of those times when knowing a little bit about the brain can help us parent in more effective (and more empathic) ways.
You probably already know that your brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side of your brain is logical and verbal, while the right side is emotional and nonverbal. That means that if we were ruled only by the left side of our brain, it would be as if we were living in an emotional drought, not paying attention to our feelings at all. Or, in contrast, if we were completely “right-brained,” we’d be all about emotion and ignore the logical parts of ourselves. Instead of an emotional drought, we’d be drowning in an emotional tsunami.
Clearly, we function best when the two hemispheres of our brain work together, so that our logic and our emotions are both valued as important parts of ourselves and we are emotionally balanced. Then we can give words to our emotional experiences, and make sense of them logically.
Now, let’s apply that information to the interaction above. My son was experiencing an emotional tidal wave. When this occurs, one of the worst things I can do is jump right in trying to defend myself (“I do nice things for you!”), or to argue with him about his faulty logic (“That’s just not true, and your birthday is actually only nine months away”). My verbal, logical response hits an unreceptive brick wall and creates a gulf between us: he feels like I’m dismissing his feelings and that I don’t understand; I feel frustrated that he’s being so ridiculous and impossible. It’s a lose-lose approach.
So I have to come to an important recognition: Logic will do no good in a case like this until a child's right brain is responded to.
How do we do that? I suggest that we use the “Connect and Redirect” method.
Step 1: CONNECT with the right.
In our society, we’re trained to work things out using our words and our logic. But when your four-year-old is absolutely furious because she can’t walk on the ceiling like Spiderman, that’s probably not the best time to give her an introductory lesson in the laws of physics. Instead, you can take that opportunity to realize that at this moment, logic isn’t your primary vehicle towards bringing some sort of sanity to the conversation. (And keep in mind: your child’s feelings, no matter how nonsensical and frustrating they may be for you, are real and important to your child. It’s therefore important to treat them as such in your response.)
You can use your own right brain to connect with your child’s right brain; relate with her by using nurturing nonverbal, nonlogical, emotion-based tools, like physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, and nonjudgmental listening.
In the situation above, it was really tempting (and almost automatic) to ask my son, “What are you talking about?!” Instead, though, I pulled him close, rubbed his back, and said, “Sometimes it’s just really hard, isn’t it? I would never forget about you. You are always in my mind, and I always want you to know how special you are to me.” I listened a little longer and nodded while he expressed what he needed to. I could feel him relax and soften. He felt heard and cared for.
There are plenty of parenting situations I don’t handle as I’d like, but in this instance, knowing about the brain helped me to respond sensitively and effectively. Rather than fighting against the huge waves of the tsunami, I surfed them by responding with the right.
Step 2: REDIRECT with the left.
Then I was able to begin to use logic and words to address the issues my son had brought up, since he could now be more receptive to problem-solving and planning. In this case, after connecting with the right, I could redirect with the left by logically explaining how hard I work to be fair; I could promise to leave a note while he slept; and we could strategize together about how to make homework more fun. The point is that once the right had been acknowledged, it was much easier for the left to come in and deal with the issues in a rational manner.
I’m not saying that this “Connect and Redirect” method will always do the trick. After all, there are times when your child is simply past her point and her emotional tsunami just needs to ride itself out (or she just needs to go to sleep or eat something). You may need to wait until a later time to talk logically with her. And I’m also not saying that you don’t maintain your boundaries simply because a child isn’t thinking logically; rules about respect and behavior aren’t thrown out the window simply because we understand that our child’s left hemisphere is disengaged.
But most of the time, when your child is drowning in a right-hemisphere-induced emotional tsunami, you’ll do yourself and your child a big favor if you’ll recognize that that’s what’s going on, connect with the right, and then (and only then) redirect and solve with the left. Trust me, this method can be a life preserver that helps keep your child’s head above water, and that keeps you from being pulled under along with her.