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When it’s brains, it pours: How to Develop a Child's Brain Correctly

Updated: Jun 5

Last week, we spoke about the neurological explanation behind why talking is important for our mental health. This week, I’m going to discuss how to integrate this into parenting and teaching because even when language isn’t available, we have a role to play in the development of our childrens’ and students’ brains. I highly advise that you read the previous post as all this brain talk will make little sense otherwise.

So last week, we explained that our non-verbal right brain needs to be in sync with the linguistic left brain. Now these neurological concepts are far too complex for young children, so how do we ensure brain integration in our children? Let’s take the highly emotional example of a young child called Emma being bitten by a dog while out in the park with her parents.

The dog is ripped off the child and after being bitten, Emma is understandably in a high level of distress, uncontrollably crying. After Emma is taken to the hospital and stitched up, she continuously repeats “me, ruf ruf”. Of course, me refers to herself and ruf ruf refers to the dog. In many cases, her parents will want Emma to forget about the traumatic incident and just ignore what she said and change the subject. However, from the neurological perspective, what is actually happening here is the emotional right brain is trying to make sense of the situation. Therefore, if her parent fills in the blanks by explaining that the dog got angry because he thought she was bad and attacked her but now she is ok, Emma’s emotional right brain is on the same page as her linguistic left brain. ‘Yes the ruff ruff bit you because he thought you were someone else and that made you feel sore, but now you’re ok and safe and you won’t see that ruff ruff again’.

It’s also important to remember that our right brain is attached to our autobiographical memory, meaning that it replays in our head over and over again. If the story is ignored and never explained, the story remains jumbled up in the mind with no explanation and the brain understands it as a reaction that needs to happen anytime we see a dog. This means that anytime Emma senses a dog as she gets older, her fight or flight mechanism will activate and cortisol will pump around the body. Emma will want to avoid dogs for the rest of her life. By explaining the story and ensuring that it was that one dog and not all dogs, Emma’s parents prevent Emma from developing a phobia around dogs.

Then, when they are old enough, you can begin getting them to explain what they understood about what happened that made them feel a certain emotion. Note that children are more likely to open up while they are doing something else, hence why child psychologists have so many toys in their offices. So stories are really important in order for children to integrate their right and left brain. And what do good stories need? They need a good plot (the order of the left brain) along with scenes that make you feel (the emotion of the right brain). It’s all about balance.

It should also be noted that children and teens are highly right brain dominated. As they grow older, we can see their left brain developing (we all know the dreaded and continuous ‘why this and why that’ phase) but the right brain remains dominant for many years. This explains why young David throws a huge tantrum when he can’t get his cookie cereal and why Sophie can’t stop crying because her favourite celebrity couple broke up. There is a correct way and incorrect way to deal with these situations where children and teens are overly emotional. For example, if Rebecca comes downstairs hysterically crying that her toy has broken, it is important that we use a technique known as connect and redirect. This involves connecting with the emotional brain and then redirecting to the logical left brain. Many parents and teachers will have the immediate response to be logical. “It’s only a toy. It’s not the end of the world. You can just get another one”. However, when children are in a high state of emotions, the logical left brain has shut down and the emotional right brain doesn’t care about logic. Therefore, we simply need to connect. Validate their emotions with something like “wow that must be frustrating” or “if that happened me, I would be really annoyed too” combined with non-verbal support such as a rub on the back or a hug and something else to keep them occupied such as ice cream or a movie. Let time and emotions pass, as they will after a short period and then redirect. While guzzling down their vanilla ice cream, ask them what they could play with instead of that broken toy. Or is there any way they could fix that broken toy? Notice that you’re not telling them how to be logical here, but you are instead guiding them to think logically about the situation. You’ve not only dealt with the distressful emotions. You’ve got them to problem solve. Remember, connect and redirect.

So when you’re faced with a situation that makes your child or student feels strong negative emotions, never ever shy away from it. Don’t let your discomfort effect their brain development. Instead, explain a distressful events through stories, appeal to their right brain and help their left brain make sense of what happened. Then voila, you have an integrated brain.

Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.

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