Upstairs Downstairs (In Your Brain)

Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson Ph.D. have written a book called The Whole-Brain Child. The book is aimed at parents, and provides them with “12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind”.

The strategies are based on mindfulness techniques that engage the child’s thinking instead of providing them with answers, shaming them for poor behaviour, or demanding that they obey.

The book uses a hand model to help explain the brain to a child. The thumb represents the primitive part of the brain that is found in the lower regions, and is the location of big feelings. The fingers are the upper part of the brain, the part used to think and plan, and are used to gently hug the big feelings. When the upper part of the brain is NOT engaged, we can think of this as flipping our lid – the fingers fly up, and the big feelings are exposed.

Here are the first 6 strategies:

1. Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

                Connect with the right side of the brain (where feelings are) then redirect with the left side of the brain by doing some explaining. The first part of this is so important – if the child doesn’t feel understood, then no amount of logic will do.

2. Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions

                When something happens, like a fall off a bike, draw out a story about it. Allow the child to make sense of what happened, and to tell how the problem was helped. Sometimes kids need to tell the story several times.

3. Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain

                Threats and demands may engage the downstairs brain (where BIG FEELINGS and more primitive functions take place). Engaging the upstairs brain (where thinking, imagining, and planning take place) allows the child to be a part of the solution.

4. Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain

                Let kids make decisions! It’s so tempting (and much quicker) to make decisions for them, but allowing them to decide on various actions will engage their upstairs brain. Give them tools like counting to ten, or breathing into the belly so that they can get in touch with their upstairs brain instead of letting their big feelings make the decision. Explore feelings with what/when/where/how questions. Encourage journaling when they’re old enough to write. Invite empathy when they’re faced with others’ emotions….”What do you think she’s feeling right now?” Offer hypothetical situations. Kids love to use their imaginations and we can tap into that by making up “What If” stories.                           

5. Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind

                Movement helps kids get in touch with their upstairs brain. Invite your child (when they are feeling calm) to smile for a minute to see if they feel different. Get them to try taking a slow, deep breath to notice its effects. Do jumping jacks to shift the energy of the moment (this can be a useful tactic when children are irritated).

6. Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Moments

                While letting children review events through story-telling, allow them to use a “remote” to pause, replay, or fast forward to certain parts. The idea behind this is to allow implicit memories (those that affect our feelings, but that we may not remember consciously) to become explicit awareness. The use of the remote allows the child to control the story at their own pace.

Siegel and Bryson have 6 more suggestions, and I’ll talk about them in my next blog post. For now, see if you can use some of these tools the next time you interact with your child, or someone else’s. By teaching children how to engage their upstairs brain, you are giving them the opportunity to connect with their feelings in manageable ways, to develop empathy for self and others, and to lay down the foundations for moral behaviour. These are wonderful gifts indeed!