Not long ago, the brain was thought of as a static hunk of tissue that stopped growing after a neuronal “pruning” period early in our lives. However, one of the surprises that has shaken the very foundation of neuroscience is the discovery that the brain is acutally “plastic,” or moldable. This means that the brain physically changes throughout the course of our lives, not just in childhood, as we had previously assumed*.

Understanding how the different parts of the brain works and the importance of horizontal and vertical integration provides revolutionary insight into our children’s behavior which will lead to very different and yet much more effective parenting.

The left side of our brain helps us think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and the right side helps us experience emotions and read nonverbal cues. We also have a “reptile brain” (downstairs brain) that allows us to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a “mammal brain” (upstairs brain) that leads us towards connection and relationship. The right-and-left and up-and-down integration is the key to mental health. In his book “The Whole-Brain Child”, Daniel Siegel describes mental health as our ability to remain in a “river of well-being.” Whenever you’re in the water, floating along with the flow, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you. You have a clear understanding of yourself, other people and your life. You can be flexible and adjust when situations change. You’re stable and at peace. Sometimes you veer too close to the one of the river’s two banks. One banks represents chaos, where you feel out of control. The other is the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos. Rigidity is when you are imposing control on everything and everyone around you. An integrated brain results in improved decision making, better control of body and emotions, fuller self-understanding, stronger relationship and success in school.

When I picked up Jake from Safe ‘N Sound on Tuesday afternoon, it was obvious that something wasn’t right: his eyes were red and he ignored me.

After Jake buckled himself in the car, I inquired gently “Jakey, do you want to talk about what happened?”
“Maybe later?”

As soon as we arrived home, Jake asked if he could play computer for a few minutes.
“Why don’t we talk about what happened before computer?” I pushed back.
Jake went into my bedroom, closed door and started crying.
Five minutes later, he came out. Since reasoning with him at the moment when he was carried away by his right brain emotions wouldn’t be useful, I tried to connect with him right brain to right brain.
“Come to mama, baby!” I opened my arms and enveloped him with my embrace.
Jake sat on my lap, still crying while I rubbed his back.
“Did you hit someone?”
Jake shook his head.
“Did someone hit you?”
His head went from side to side.
“Did you hurt someone’s feelings?”
“Did someone hurt your feelings?”
“Did you do something inappropriate?”
A little nod. “I wasn’t being a good sport.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Do you want to tell me what you did?”
“Okay. Why don’t you play computer for a few minutes while I go get dinner ready? We can talk about this later and figure out how to be a good sport in the future?”

Jake was his happy and confident self at the dinner table. He moved on quickly to do his workbooks and take a shower right after without me reminding him. It seemed to me that his left brain had sprung into action and it was time to continue the conversation.
“So Jake, tell me what happened at Safe ‘N Sound.”
“Well, we were playing a game and my team won… Here comes the embarrassing part … so embarrassing that I won’t tell you unless you promise not to tell anyone else.”
“OK, I promise I won’t tell.”

So I can’t write about what he had told me because of my promise. It was something totally innocent for a six-year-old to do. But I am aware of my bias and Jake’s tendency to over-react sometimes.
“Jakey, I don’t think it’s that terrible. But if it’s something not appropriate for Safe ‘N Sound, then you should remember not to do it again.”
“I know. I had to give back a Safe ‘N Sound dollar because of that.”

On Tuesday afternoon Jake was floating to the bank of chaos. With my knowledge of how the brain functions, I made a conscious effort to connect with him emotionally first, and then slowly steer back into the gentle flow of the river by giving him the time and space to engage his left brain. Getting him to talk about the incident further enabled the integration of his left and right brain and allowed him to put things into perspective and get over the overwhelming feeling of embarrassment he had imposed on himself.

* The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson