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We tend to think that our emotions reside in our brain. And they do, but they also can begin with our bodies. In fact, by the time you realize that you’re anxious, your body has already known for a while—your shoulders are tight, your jaw is clenched, your stomach might be churning. By the same token, you can make yourself feel more calm and peaceful, just by focusing on your body. Try it right now. Wherever you are, pay attention to your body for the next few seconds. Take a deep breath, then slowly let it out. As you do, relax your shoulders. Do you feel that? Do you feel some of the tension in your body begin to dissipate? Do it one more time. Deep breath, relaxed shoulders. Do you see how you can feel more calm and serene just by adjusting what your body’s doing?
The reason is that our emotions are intensely connected to the sensations of the body. Because the nervous system runs throughout the body and is part of the brain, what our body does significantly impacts our brain, including the way we experience our emotions.
This is great news, because it’s just one more example of how we can intentionally influence, to a fairly significant extent, how we experience the world. We can’t always choose how we feel, but in important ways, we really can influence our own emotions. You might have heard about experiments where smiling for a bit actually made people feel happier, and frowning made people feel down.
One simple way to shift our emotional states, especially when we’re feeling upset, is by moving our bodies. Because physical movement can alter the chemistry in the brain, it can change the way we feel.
This can be a powerful tool for parents to have at their disposal. For example, if you have a young child who’s having a hard time handling her behavior or emotions, have her move her body. Grab a big ball and begin a game of catch. Or turn on music and dance together, quickly shifting things for both of you when frustrations are running high. You can also have her do a few yoga-type stretches. Or play animal charades: ask her to show you how an alligator snaps its jaws, or how a bear would climb a tree. This can be a surprisingly quick (and fun) way to move moods in better directions.
It works for older kids, too. I told my nine-year-old’s Little League coach about this principle, and he ended up having the boys jump up and down in the dugout when they got discouraged after giving up a few runs during the championship. Their shoulders were slumped and they had given up, but energetic movement brought a shift of excitement and new energy into their bodies and brains, and they eventually came back and won the game. (Chalk up another victory for neuroscience!)
Yesterday my eight-year-old was making a smoothie. He’s been making one every day for the last week and now takes pride in his “smoothie-making mastery.” These repeated experiences, along with the delicious products of his efforts, have made him confident in his ability, and the science of neural plasticity confirms his due confidence. The brain changes – yes, actually physically changes – from repeated experiences, so his memory has now been wired for how to make a good smoothie. And yet, even though I know this, when I hear the blender going longer than what I think is the right amount of time – twenty seconds can be a very long time, by the way – my reaction is to step in and say, “Luke, that’s probably long enough. Should you turn it off?”
He says, “Mom, I know what I’m doing. I like it really smooth and creamy, and the trick is to let it blend a little longer so the ice isn’t as chunky.”
Then I have to respond, “You’re right. I’m sorry to mess with the Smoothie Master.”
We learn best from doing. But ask yourself: Do you step in and help when your kids don’t need help? When they ask for assistance, could still do it themselves? How often do you request that they do something your way, when the way they’re doing it is fine (just different)? Do you do things for them that they could do for themselves? You probably do at times when you don’t even realize it, just like I did yesterday with my smoothie intrusiveness.
Sometimes we need to lend a hand because we’re on a schedule and we need them to finish something so we can get out the door quickly and peacefully. Sometimes we need to assist because our child is getting too frustrated and they need help. Sometimes we should step in because they need to learn the right way to do something – like when they need to learn that “flushing doesn’t actually CLEAN the toilet. You need to use actual cleaning supplies.”
But sometimes we’re stepping in because it makes things easier on us or them. And of course that’s a good reason at times, but not all the time. Sometimes we are taking over because we’re being too particular or controlling, or we underestimate them and their ability to do something or handle the struggle and frustration of working through it. Just be thoughtful about why and when to butt in, to rescue, to assist. They know what they’re doing lots of times. In those moments, the problem can be that we don’t know what we’re doing.
You already know that THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD is a bestseller. I'm also excited to let you know that my new book, co-authored with Dan Siegel, has been or is now being translated into 14 different languages!
Harvey Karp (The Happiest Baby on the Block) says that Dan and I "turn leading brain science into simple, smart--and effective--solutions to your child's struggles," and Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia) calls The Whole-Brain Child "my new baby gift." You can see other blurbs to the right.
Order your own copy! (Or order two and give one to a friend or family member.)
Thanks for reading.
Did you know that a loving touch, like a hand on our arm or a warm embrace, releases feel-good hormones (like oxytocin and opiods) into our brain and body, and decreases the level of our stress hormone (cortisol)? When your child--or your mate--is feeling upset, a loving touch can calm things down and help you connect, even during moments of high stress.
As a mom with three boys, who are three, six, and nine years old, my experience has been that ages three and four are the hardest ages (so far.) The parts of the brain that help control impulses and calm emotions are just still very undeveloped, but their emotional range and desires are in full force! At these ages, when they are losing it and having a full blown tantrum, they are not really in a teachable frame of mind. So what do you do? 1. Identify with the feeling: "You're really angry/annoyed/frustrated."
2. Give the directive to stop the behavior "Hitting is not OK" or “No more throwing, please.”
3. Change the situation (either remove her, distract her, or get her onto something else).
4. Talk about the behavior when she’s in a calm state of mind.
I want to focus now on this last step. Conventional wisdom says you have to address misbehavior immediately, or the child won’t remember. But the fact is that a child won’t hear what you’re trying to teach if she’s tantruming. So yes, address the issue as soon as you can, but only when the child is in a calm and receptive state of mind (and it might even need to be the next day).
You can do it in a way where she feels like you two are just talking, not like she's in trouble. Just something like, "Hmmm. You know yesterday, you got so mad. You hit your friend, then you kicked mommy. I wonder why you were having such a hard time. . . Do you have any ideas about why?" This way, she's being given the opportunity to get practice reflecting on her behavior and getting into the practice of self-insight. I know you won’t usually get great answers at ages three and four, but you’re laying the groundwork.
Also, ask her what she could do differently next time she gets so mad. Ask what she would like for you to do to help her calm down. Asking questions like these will help her continue to learn about relationships, planning ahead, the need to regulate emotions, expressing herself appropriately, etc. It will also communicate how important her input and ideas are to you. She’ll more and more understand that she's an individual, separate from you, but that you are very interested in her thoughts and feelings. LOTS of opportunities here for wonderful experiences that are great for a growing preschooler!
Renowned pediatrician Berry Brazelton explains that when a child has a new developmental spurt, they often lose some of their current abilities while they learn to incorporate the new skill or development. This is why when your little one learned, say, to walk, aspects of their speech might have regressed a bit during that time. It’s the same now that your child is older. You can probably think of “phases” they go through—often lasting one-to-four weeks—where they’re just not themselves. You repeatedly wonder, “Is she sick? Tired? Hungry? What’s going on with this kid?” And especially if this is your first child, you worry that this isn’t just a phase, and that they might be like this forever.
When this happens, there’s a good chance that some big changes are happening in their brain. This “spurt” of brain development could explain these “just not themselves” times. When I realize that this may be going on, it helps me feel more patient and nurturing when my kids act up. And I don't know if you've noticed this, but for my boys, it seems that they seem to eat more during these “spells” and sometimes experience growing pains overnight. Then in the next week or two I notice that they've outgrown their pants or shirts—in other words, their bodies are growing during these times as well.
The good news is that the phase doesn’t have to last forever. Eventually, your child will become themselves again, with another step taken toward growing up.
Try to remember that your child’s brain is still under construction. They can’t be perfect all the time, yet without realizing it, we often expect perfection. During times you feel increasingly frustrated with your child, remember that most of the time they are doing the best they can at that particular moment. And be gracious with yourself, because you’re usually doing your best as well. This doesn’t mean we don’t have high expectations for our kids, or that we don’t require them to be responsible and do what they’re supposed to do. It also doesn’t mean we don’t take time to understand ourselves more deeply in order to parent more intentionally. It just means that we need to be patient, understanding, and forgiving—with our children, and with ourselves.
One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that even young children are capable of understanding some important basics about the way their brain works. It might seem strange to talk to kids about the brain – it is brain science, after all – but a little neuroscience presented in just the right way can give your children control over themselves. Here’s a way you might approach the topic of tantrums and other high-emotion moments.
We tend to think that our emotions reside in our brain. And they do, but they also spring from our bodies. In fact, when you realize that you’re anxious, your body has already known that for a while—your shoulders are tight, your jaw is clenched, your stomach might be churning. So, one way we can change our emotional states is by moving our bodies
Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.
Being a parent to a new baby is really hard. When your basic needs like eating, peeing, showering, and sleeping are being taken away, it’s easy to feel like you're at his mercy. Just hang in there. I promise it will be better soon. These days (and nights) are really long, but they will go quickly. And, it may be hard to believe, but you'll likely long for the days of just holding him all day, just relishing his skin and little breath and holding his little hand.
Do you ever get so upset with your kids that you do something that leaves you (and the rest of the family) asking, "Where did that come from?" At times we’re not really listening to our children because our own internal experiences are being so noisy that it’s all we can hear. We often try to control our children’s feelings and behavior when actually it’s our own internal experience that is triggering our upset feelings about their behavior. An example of this would be when your child is being really clingy, and instead of seeing that she’s communicating that she needs your comfort and attention, you get furious with her. Your fury is not really because of her developmentally appropriate need for you—it’s because you feel smothered because you haven’t done anything for yourself in a long time, or because you had a parent who relied on you to meet her needs, and in this moment, you feel resentment again at being needed.
We all lose it from time to time. We say mean things, we yell, we may even pull our child’s arm too firmly. Why don't we talk about moments like these with other parents? Is it really such a shocking epiphany that all parents occasionally lose control of their emotions and their better judgment? I am convinced that we pay a price when we choose to keep silent, rather than honestly sharing our own stories about times when we get furious with our kids and throw our own fits. Sharing our worst moments with each other allows us to comfort each other, to laugh about how crazy our kids are and how crazy we are right back, and then to look at our behavior with some insight so we can make better choices the next time.
cutting-edge science on the adolescent brain that helps shed some light on these questions. Let me give you two “teen brain facts,” and then we’ll talk about how to apply that knowledge, so you can make good parenting decisions that will strengthen your relationship with your teenager, and help them become the best person they can be.
Sometimes we act like we only speak and understand left-hemisphere-ese. But we’re missing at least half of the message when we ignore the right-hemisphere-ese. The challenge is for us to use our whole brains and listen to and VALUE EQUALLY the languages of both sides of the brain. To do this well, we have to listen and pay attention with our right hemispheres, too.