Washington Post: "When death goes to the movies: How to help kids cope with the scary stuff"

This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on July 2, 2019. Article by Grace Lovelace and

Erika Flesher.

This summer many parents are already humming “Hakuna Matata” as they anticipate taking their children to see the new version Disney’s “The Lion King.” 

Some of us will no doubt have seen the film the first time around, perhaps when we were children. We know that the majestic Lion King falls to his death, cruelly murdered by his own brother. Still, when watching the movie alongside our own children, we might worry about their reaction to little Simba trying to cuddle with his dead father’s body.

Death is a weirdly ubiquitous feature of kids’ movies. A sweeping study of the top box office films from 1937 to 2014 concluded that violent death was more likely in children’s films than films targeting adults, including thrillers and horror movies. Children’s animated films, “rather than being innocuous alternatives to the gore and carnage typical of American films, are in fact hotbeds of murder and mayhem,” the developmental psychologists in charge of the study reported.


But those same experts also affirm what we instinctively know: All that death is there for a reason, and with guidance from parents, it can be a positive thing. Foundational work by psychiatrist Irvin Yalom found that children are preoccupied with death from an early age, and also that these thoughts can be both haunting and pervasive. Movies depicting loss can provide a constructive way to explore these common fears.

[Common Sense Media on 'Toy Story 4,' 'When They See Us' and more]

“Movies can be a friendly way of introducing children to some difficult concepts and an age-appropriate way of normalizing an experience they may have already had,” says Kristy Labardee, a marriage and family therapist whose practice includes helping parents strengthen their skills. For example, young viewers can grieve alongside Simba, and realize along with him that his father’s sudden death is not his fault.

That’s not to say that parents should throw caution to the wind. As pressure mounts to broaden the audience base for big-screen releases, some family films are depicting more intense situations.

Children’s movies have evolved from the off-screen shooting of Bambi’s mother to the massacre of mother and siblings that starts “Finding Nemo.” Guy Ritchie, a poster child of ’90s indie bloodshed, helms the recent live-action remake of “Aladdin,” which includes a scene in which Jafar tortures Jasmine’s father. Blockbusters such as “Avengers: Endgame” interweave kid-friendly superhero action with complex adult themes. For parents, it’s not always clear how to help our kids make sense of Captain America leading weepy grief counseling sessions, or Hawkeye watching his entire family vaporize in the instant between his wife asking what condiments their kids want on their hot dogs and their reply.

The switch from animation to live action can also make such scary scenes more harrowing for kids, especially younger children who have more trouble distinguishing between reality and movie scenes.

“Children can’t tolerate fear as well as adults because the area of the brain that calms emotions and puts things into perspective isn’t fully developed until later in life,” says pediatric psychologist Mona Delahooke. “So we must ask ourselves, for whose benefit is the intense content? The adult buying the ticket or the child’s? Watching a movie should be an enriching experience for a child and not a stress-inducing one.” 

So how can parents make good choices about which movies to see? It’s important to look beyond the ratings. Family therapist and parenting author Noha Alshugairi points out that movie ratings do not reflect the values of all families, nor are they decided in consultation with mental health experts. She adds: “It falls onto each family to determine its own guidelines.” 

The experts we consulted all agreed that it is important for parents to do their due diligence about movies’ thematic content using websites such as CommonSenseMedia.org, and via word of mouth.

Part of what can help parents make the call for an individual child, says Labardee, is considering the losses your child has experienced, as well as any individual sensitivities to particular themes. Losses and sensitivities warrant extra caution, especially if the child struggles to manage their emotions or has a hard time reaching out for support.

Tina Payne Bryson, a parenting expert and the co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child,” says: “It’s also important to base our decisions on the child’s developmental stage of emotional maturity, not their cognitive maturity. When kids are really bright and verbal, adults may assume they are ready for more mature content.

“If you’re not sure, err on the side of protecting them from content that you think might be too upsetting, particularly in their younger years."

Once they’ve made to the choice to go to a movie, parents can prepare kids for what they are about to see. Kids generally don’t mind spoilers, as evidenced by their fondness for endlessly re-watching movies. Previewing key story elements can help children better handle challenging themes in the more intense environment of a movie theater. Many studios have websites with trailers and extended clips that you can watch with your children after you check whether they are appropriate. Studios often also publish picture books and novelizations of movies before their release date.

Telling young children that a movie isn’t real can help, but it’s not enough.

“If you think about the times you’re watching a movie, and you clearly know it’s imaginary, the suspense and devastation and intense emotions have a significant impact — our muscles tense, our attention narrows, our hearts beat faster, etcetera,” Bryson says. “This suspension of disbelief and the way in which we enter into the make-believe is what makes movies so compelling and intense. This separation of real and not-real is even more blurry for children. The brain doesn’t process actual threat and virtual threat that differently.”

That physiological experience of threat, even when we know it’s not real, can be overwhelming for some. Alshugairi points out that it’s important not to dismiss those reactions (“But it’s just a movie!”) or overreact (“You poor thing!”). The former can lead to children not expressing their feelings later by giving the message that parents are not comfortable discussing sadness or fear. The latter can teach them to depend on parents to manage their strong emotions for them.

Instead, help children learn to handle their reactions by helping them to identify what they are feeling.

“Ask open-ended questions without judgment, such as ‘Wow, that was quite a movie! What did you think about it?’" Delahooke says. “Or going further, you can share your own reaction: ‘I was a little scared when so-and-so happened in the movie. What about you?’”

Given that you can’t always predict what scenes will be in the movie, or how your child will react to them, it’s good to equip children of all ages with a plan for how to cope if something is too much.

“Setting up a small signal with the child ahead of time — like squeezing their hand twice — may be helpful to remind them that it’s pretend, that they’re safe, and that you’re there with them,” Bryson says.

A sense of control over the moviegoing experience helps children of all ages to be more resilient. “Letting kids know we can turn this off if it’s too much, we can leave the theater, etcetera, is powerful,” says Cynthia Olaya, a school psychologist who works with teens, adding, “feeling trapped is what can lead to trauma.” 

Sharing control can be challenging for parents who may have been raised to do what they were told. Bryson points out it can also pay huge dividends: “What a wonderful skill for a child to learn that if something is making them feel unsafe that they can do something about it and care for themselves.”

Click here to read the article on WashingtonPost.com.

Valpo Life: Building ‘Yes Brains’ at Porter-Starke Services’ 2019 Living, Balance & Hope Symposium

“What we give attention, what we really pay attention to, can change how our brain is firing and wiring," said Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, keynote speaker at Porter-Starke Services’ tenth annual Living, Balance & Hope Symposium.

Held Thursday at Valparaiso University, this year’s symposium focused on engaging children and adolescents in mental health practices. Dr. Bryson works closely with young minds as Founder and Executive Director of The Center For Connection and The Play Strong Institute in Pasadena, California.

She and co-author Dr. Dan Siegel have written extensively about their experiences, most recently in their book, “The Yes Brain,” as well as in two New York Times Bestsellers, “The Whole Brain Child," and "No-Drama Discipline.”

Click below to read more and view photos from the event.

Mattel.com: "Understanding the importance of play with the developing mind"

[This article originally appeared on Mattel.com.]

Years ago, when Dr. Tina Payne Bryson was a graduate student earning her Ph.D. in child-rearing theory, she also happened to be in the trenches as a new mother. At school, she would study the emerging science of the brain and, specifically, how relationships impact our development. Then she’d go home to her young son and recognize, thanks to her research, that the usual phrases we say to our little ones when they are in the throes of a tantrum – “use your words” and “make a good choice” – were useless at an age when the developing brain hasn’t reached a stage of maturity to do that successfully without some help.

“I found that if I could connect with my son and soothe his distress and reactivity, only then could I very quickly move him into a space where his brain was working optimally,” she explains. “That is when he really could choose his words and make good decisions.” She shared her findings with her teacher at the time, Dr. Daniel Siegel, along with parents she was working with in her own clinical practice. Those discoveries led to her bestselling book, “The Whole Brain Child,” co-authored with Dr. Siegel. In it, she describes the simple ways we can use that science to help children succeed with challenges both large and small.

In this Q+A, we catch up with Dr. Payne Bryson and learn more about those effective approaches, which often use play as a powerful tool to forge meaningful connections with our children – and ultimately foster their growth.

Q: In your book, you describe the left and right brain, and what you call the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain. Why is it important for parents to consider these factors when it comes to understanding a child’s behavior?

A: A lot of the things we expect a kid to do consistently actually take a while to develop. For example, when our emotions run high, the lower part of the brain – where our “big feelings” live – can hijack the abilities of the upstairs brain, or the prefrontal cortex, which is all about regulating emotion, regulating our bodies, making sound decisions, being flexible, and more. As a parent, this knowledge helps you see tantrums in a whole new light. They are a stress response. It takes until our mid-20s to develop this “upstairs” part of the brain that helps us have great coping skills, social and emotional intelligence, and healthy relationships. As parents and educators, we have a really long time in which we can influence the development of that part of the brain.

Q: Empathy for a child is a theme that pervades your thinking. Is playing with a young child a way to plug into that state of empathy? How does that work?

A: Some parts of the brain are like a muscle, and it’s a use-it-or-lose-it kind of thing. So, the more we give kids opportunities to see and feel with the mind of another – empathy, for example, the stronger and more equipped they are to be better at relationships. Building empathy through play happens when, for example, we play a game and imagine what a character might say or feel. Or when you’re watching television or reading books with a child you can say, “Tell me, what do you think her face shows us that she’s thinking right now?” At the same time, it doesn’t have to be so intentional. Kids have a natural drive to play when they interact with objects in the world and with each other, and when they do that, they are building their brain as well.

Q: What are some of the most powerful outcomes that result from play?

 A: When children feel frustration in play or they don’t get their way, they tend to tolerate those negative emotions longer because it’s fun or interesting. Playing with others also helps children learn to tolerate frustration and disappointment. It’s worth it to them to keep going, so it builds resilience. Play develops our capacity to have better self-regulation.

Unfortunately, what we see among modern families is an adversity gap. Many kids have too much adversity in their lives without loving, present adults, but others don’t have enough adversity. Some parents don’t want their kids to experience any negative emotions, but that is not helping them develop the resilience they will need as they mature. The important lesson to learn is that stress and difficulty can be tolerated with enough support – and emotional responsiveness and soothing from an adult can help. So, if a child is frustrated or upset, you can say, “You are so disappointed.” This validates the experience he or she is feeling, calms the child’s nervous system, and shows that you are right there with him while he or she is disappointed. The research shows that this gives the brain practice going from reactiveness to being receptive, at which point they can learn and problem solve.

Playing with peers is so great, because when we are connected with each other, our capacity is higher to endure adversity. The brain is a social organ. There is a drive to have peers feel positively about you, and to be connected with others. If a child plays in ways that alienates others, there is an instinct to work it out because otherwise the child misses out on all of the fun.

Thinking about how someone is thinking and feeling really first starts to happen during play. It is the foundation of empathy and is very powerful.

Q: Sometimes it can be hard for parents to shift gears and stop to play with their children. Any tips on how to navigate this?

 A: The key is being present, even if just a few minutes. Shift your lens and think to yourself: “I am going to learn something about them and be curious about the way that they are playing.” It’s a special time when they are showing us a lot about what they are interested in and how they see the world.

Also, sometimes parents feel a lot of pressure to play in a certain way. You really can simply follow your child’s lead and as the master expert of play. And you are there to support and enjoy.

We can think of play as relationship building, intimacy building, trust building. When our attention is split during play – checking our phones or folding laundry – that is when it can become unsatisfying for our child and for us. But if we really are present, even for a short amount of time, that can fill our kid’s tank and be rewarding for us too.

Washington Post: "A parent’s guide to the mind of a 5-year-old boy"

This is a great and mentioned The Whole-Brain Child which was co-authored by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson.

Below is a cut and paste from the original article:

Q: My twin boys will turn 5 soon. They're great, bright, normal kids (backed up by their preschool teachers), but in my mind, 5 feels like the transition from toddler to kid, and I'm afraid I'll start expecting too much of them. For example, they aren't especially interested in learning their letters, which I've been figuring they'll come around to when they're ready, but I'm afraid that when they're 5, I will start worrying and push it too much. Can you give me an overview of what to expect from active 5-year-old boys?

A: I have never raised twins, but from what I have heard, you have made it through a pretty tough (but exciting and fun ) couple of years. Two toddlers throwing tantrums , two toddlers whining, two toddlers running in opposite directions, two toddlers giving you sticky kisses and two toddlers to cuddle. And now they are in preschool! Developmental changes are afoot , but I am not sure why you are panicking now. Is it because this feels like “real school”? If that is the reason, I don’t blame you. Schools in the United States are moving toward more rigorous standards in the younger grades, which can result in unreasonable learning expectations .

[I’m a mom of twins. The movie ‘Three Identical Strangers’ changed how I parent them.]

In general terms, 5-year-olds are coming into their own. You may find that your boys are more empathetic and kind to others, but may also accuse others of cheating if they lose a game. Children this age love to play and use their imaginations, but these imaginations can also scare them. You may find that your boys are sharing their newly found opinions often and loudly, and that they cannot be fooled or manipulated into moving on from a subject or place easily. With this stubbornness, you also can get defiance that does not disappear with punishments; instead it worsens. Parents also find that their 5-year-olds enjoy potty humor, and storytelling can be imaginative, funny and (sometimes) boundary-pushing. Five-year-olds love to have real work that means something to the world and the family. And because their attention spans can last a bit longer, they can focus on more complex projects and instructions.

Even though your twins may appear to be mature at times, ­
5-year-olds still have tantrums, resort to violence and call people names. If the school days have been long and their nervous systems are taxed, you will find a 5-year-old regressing into 3-year-old behaviors. This is completely normal.

As for what to expect from active little boys, our culture loves to think that boys and girls are opposite, but their brains are not as different as people imagine. Boys’ brains tend to excel in visual-spatial integration, while girls’ brains excel in reading social cues.

What does this mean for your twin boys? It doesn’t mean that a girl cannot be coordinated and that your boys cannot be highly verbal. Instead, it can show how, if a boy’s brain excels in spatial issues, his body longs to jump, climb and test out the space around him. It also tells parents of boys to do (at least) two things: Let the young boys move frequently, and use emotionally expressive language with them.

Because 5-year-old boys typically love to move, most educators and parents focus on getting them outside and into activities such as soccer and karate. I encourage more movement for all children, especially during school hours. But just because boys’ brains quickly assess spatial relations doesn’t mean they don’t have a need for us to model and use productive emotional language with them. Parents can use phrases such as, “I felt really frustrated that I got stuck in traffic today, and because of that, everything got tough at work. I was angry about it for a little while, but I took a walk and cooled down,” or, “You’re sad that we ran out of cookies; I am, too. It really stinks, doesn’t it?” This has a huge impact on all children, especially boys. Even the simplest show of emotions can help a 5-year-old express and regulate his feelings.

Remember, development is not a steady climb uphill; it comes in fits and starts. For instance, one of your boys may begin eating like a horse, napping again or acting more agitated, and you may think, “Wow, Ralph is getting sick,” or, “Ralph is really being out of control.” But what is actually happening is that he is in a growth spurt. Like being in the eye of the storm, you cannot see the whirlwind around you until you are out of it — or in this case, until you go to your pediatrician and the doctor says, “Ralph grew three inches!” It’s not easy having two boys around the same age with their own developmental road maps. So be kind to yourself. Practice asking, “What is this behavior really about?” when you find yourself stumped.

Finally, don’t forget the power of connecting to each child as an individual. Maybe it is roughhousing, maybe it is cuddles, maybe it is foot rubs, maybe it is walking around the block, or maybe it is reading together. Just be prepared to continuously reach out to both children with love, especially when they are moody.

For books, I would begin with “The Whole Brain Child” by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. I find their explanation of the child’s brain and how it relates to their behavior to be clear, nonjudgmental and science-based.

Good luck.

San Antonio Express News: How to keep a child in the ‘green zone’ and avoid the ‘red zone’

This article first appeared in the San Antonio Express News and features an interview with Dr. Tina Payne Bryson. In it, she talks about The Yes Brain and methods for keeping your child in the “green zone” — which Dr. Bryson explains as “…a neurological state or way of being that is receptive and flexible and open to new information. It’s learning to see obstacles as challenges and taking chances to explore. It’s children learning over time to regulate their emotions to become balanced and resilient. Eventually, the brain wires itself that way and children become adults who approach the world in this manner.”

Below is an excerpt of the interview:

Question: What is the “yes” brain in kids?

Answer: One thing it’s not about is being permissive or saying yes to everything. It’s a neurological state or way of being that is receptive and flexible and open to new information. It’s learning to see obstacles as challenges and taking chances to explore. It’s children learning over time to regulate their emotions to become balanced and resilient. Eventually, the brain wires itself that way and children become adults who approach the world in this manner.

Q: So, what’s a “no” brain?

A: It’s a brain that’s reactive and shut down, rigid and stuck in negative emotions. We’re talking about the flight-or-fight-or-freeze response, when children are feeling anxious and reactive and on guard. Again, if children are in this state repeatedly over time, that’s how their brains get wired.

Q: What’s the difference between the “green zone” and the “red zone?”

A: Kids are in the green zone when their nervous system is telling them they’re safe and things are OK. They’re relaxed and their brains are in a receptive state. In contrast, in the red zone, where the nervous system is highly activated — sweating, heart beating faster and so on — the brain becomes reactive. That’s where you often see acting out, defiant and aggressive behaviors. A child can also shut down, becoming withdrawn. The brain is still reactive, not balanced and resilient and flexible.

Q: How do parenting practices based on empathy and connection work with these brain states?

A: The whole purpose of discipline is to teach and build skills, so kids learn self-discipline as they grow up. It’s not at all about punishment. But much of what we do in the name of discipline is yelling at kids and punishing them, which is actually counterproductive, because it pushes kids into the red zone and out of the green zone, where their brains are receptive to build new skills. Empathy and connection are how you move them back into the green zone.

Q: But how do you do that with a child in a meltdown?

A: You respond with soothing. You say, ‘I can see you’re angry right now. I’m right here with you and I will listen.’ When we respond with connection and empathy, it changes a child’s neurophysiology and their whole nervous system. A child moves from a threatened, reactive brain to a more receptive learning state. Over time, even when they’re experiencing big, intense emotional reactions, their brains get wired where they able to soothe themselves. They develop the capacity to self-regulate.

Q: But aren’t you talking about spoiling kids?

A: We don’t have to worry about spoiling our kids when it comes to connection and empathy. Where spoiling comes in is when we’re permissive with our boundaries. You still have high expectations and firm boundaries when you practice empathy.

Here’s an example: Say your child doesn’t want to get out of the bathtub. He’s yelling and misbehaving. You say, ‘I’m going to lift you gently out and it’s OK for you to cry and be upset, to feel your feelings. I’m right here with you.’ He’s still getting out of the tub, but you’re giving him a safe place for him to express his feelings. You want to convey to your children that, at their worst, they can’t lose your love. That’s not the same as saying all behaviors are OK. We’re saying all feelings are OK, but you can’t hurt other people.

Q: What’s so wrong with punishment?

A: Especially when children are young and their brains are immature, research shows punishment is counterproductive. When a child is punished, they focus their attention on how mean we are and how they’re a victim. Instead, use empathy and after they’ve been soothed, you have a reflective dialogue. What can you do different the next time? It gives the child moreaccountability, not less. You’re teaching skills and increasing their capacity, whereas punishment just teaches them to be angry.

As a parent, you have to practice behaviors yourself to stay in the green zone, so you can model that behavior and respond appropriately, as opposed to yelling, getting angry, issuing random punishments. All that behavior does is make it more likely our kids move out of the green zone. Sit in a relaxed posture. When you talk to your child, get beneath their eye level. This is not submissive: It communicates there is no threat. ‘I’m here to help you.’ Then say something empathetic; ‘Buddy, I feel bad you’re so angry right now.’

Q: Why is all this so important?

A: Building empathy and resilience in our children is foundational for their mental and emotional health and even their academic success. These sort of skills are essential for the next generation of parents, teachers, politicians. We need to be intentional about building these skills, and what’s lovely is that we can do it in just our daily interactions with our kids.

For more information about the luncheon, visit www.thedoseum.org

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | mstoeltje@express-news.net | Twitter: @mstoeltje

VoyageLA: Meet Dr. Tina Payne Bryson & The Center for Connection

March 20, 2018

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Tina Payne Bryson.

Dr. Tina Payne, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a social worker by education, and when I was in grad school, I realized where I wanted to spend my energy trying to improve people’s lives. While my classmates focused on important issues like addressing the damaging effects of poverty, helping addicts, and fighting prejudice, I became convinced that I wanted to contribute by teaching and supporting parents to care for their kids more effectively. It seemed to me (and I believe this still) that many of society’s ills and the high incidence of trauma can be greatly mitigated if parents are emotionally responsive and connected with their children. When parents provide calm, safe presence and focus on the mind behind their children’s behavior, it can radically change how a child’s brain is developing. Relationships and connection make all the difference.

In my studies I became more and more interested in understanding the brain, specifically a lens called Interpersonal Neurobiology, and I realized that many parents and educators didn”t know basics about the brain that could help them understand their kids (and themselves) better and more effectively provide their children with the skills and knowledge that can help them live happier and more meaningful lives, both in childhood and as they became adults.

So I began teaching parents, doing parenting consultations, and working with kids and, with my mentor Dan Siegel, eventually wrote The Whole Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, and The Yes Brain (which came out just last month). Soon I began traveling all over the world, speaking to parents, educators, and fellow professionals hungry for our message.

I was gratified to see the enthusiastic response to our work, and soon I was unable to keep up with the demand from families wanting to have me see their kids in my clinical practice. At the same time, I was training like-minded clinicians who were anxious to work with their own clients from more of a Whole-Brain perspective. In response to these two realities, I created The Center for Connection, an integrative, collaborative network of independent professionals who also work from an Interpersonal Neurobiology lens, where we focus on the power of relationships and Mindsight tools to integrate the brain and build relationships.

The CFC represents a unique model in direct response to the needs expressed by families. Our interdisciplinary approach alleviates the tension of running around to far too many different locations, professionals, and specialists. By collecting the best of the best in various fields and offering them all in one location, we greatly improve the overall quality of care each person receives, while significantly reducing the stress and anxiety on the individual and family.

Current clinical models make communication among professionals difficult or nearly impossible, despite the obvious advantages of having specialists from different disciplines working together. That’s why the CFC’s connection-based model is based on providing more comprehensive services for families, with independent professionals ranging from psychotherapy to parent education to neuropsychological assessments, from physical health and educational therapy to occupational therapy, and more. Our independent therapists meet weekly to learn together and work in an integrated manner, which allows us to assimilate various approaches and better assess, understand, and address the challenges facing the whole child and the whole family. One of the things I’m most proud of about our practice is that we work to peel the layers back of symptoms and behaviors in order to find the source of the issue so that we can provide the most effective intervention. We’re not focused on managing behavior. We’re interested in building connections between people and creating experiences that change how the brain is wired so that the individual—child, adult, or couple or family—builds resilience and balance which then leads to lasting behavioral changes.

I’m proud of the way our team of experts is helping the children, adults, and families in the San Gabriel Valley through the power of relationships.

Emporia Gazette: Connecting with Children

Elementary and secondary school staff from around the state gathered inside the Clint Bowyer Building Wednesday for a pair of presentations by renowned psychotherapist and author Tina Payne Bryson.

Presented by CrossWinds Counseling & Wellness, the two seminars offered continuing education credits and explored aspects of brain anatomy and behavioral science to give better insight into the emotions and developing personalities of young children and adolescents.

“What makes my work meaningful is impact,” Bryson said. “Lots of times there’s opportunities to come speak in bigger cities, but in a smaller town like Emporia where there’s not as many opportunities like this, a small change can have a huge ripple effect. If I can reach the educators and clinicians here, and it starts creating cultural shifts and big changes in terms of how we see a child’s behavior and respond to them, that can have a bigger impact than it would even in larger environments.”

In the morning session focusing on elementary-aged children, Bryson stressed that a child’s physical behavior is one of their greatest forms of communication. A gentle hug or a huge, red-faced tantrum can often be a method for a child to express their deeper needs the only way they know how. Bryson said it was especially important for educators and counselors to consider a child’s past experiences and traumas when analyzing their disruptive classroom behaviors.

While a child’s frequent negative outbursts can often be attributed to boredom, lack of discipline or need for attention, their root cause may be found in Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Possible ACEs can include past verbal, physical or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, or instances of household dysfunction such as a parent with a mental illness, an incarcerated relative, substance abuse and divorce.

“The number one type of child abuse, which is four times as common as physical, emotional and sexual abuse combined, is neglect,” Bryson said. “A 2011 study of 100,000 families by the National Survey of Children’s Health found that 48 percent of the kids suffered from one Adverse Childhood Experience, while 23 percent suffered from at least two or more ACEs. Children who have experienced three or more ACEs in their lifetime are three times more likely to fail out of school, five times more likely to have severe attendance problems, six times more likely to have severe behavioral problems and four times more likely to have poor health.”

Bryson illustrated how ACEs can have a large impact in shrinking a child’s “green zone” in their reactivity scale. The imaginary scale consists of a red area representing hyperactivity, a blue area representing low activity and lack of interaction and a green area in between that marks the ideal conditions in which a child is most receptive to emotional and educational instruction. Bryson said children who frequently experience ACEs are often in the red or blue because their brains are either in a constant state of flight or stress avoidance.

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: Modern Family

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....