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.