The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

by Fred Ingham, March 1, 2013

On March 1, Dr. Dan Siegel gave the inaugural public lecture for the new “Mindful Living and Practice” initiative at the University of Washington's Center for Child and Family Well-Being. The topic was his recent book, "The Whole Brain Child". His goal in the book, and the lecture, was to provide information and practical tools to parents based on the latest research on brain health and development.

Dr. Siegel spoke rapid fire for an hour and a half. He covered a wide range of topics, from brain anatomy to the nature of what we call "mind", from the definition of mental health to 9 different practical applications of the latest brain research to parenting. It was a wonderful and inspiring presentation, and a bit overwhelming. It felt like a semester long course packed into an hour and a half, so, rather than try to repeat that pace here, I will just pass on a few points that stood out for me. I highly recommend the book for a more in-depth treatment of these topics.

Brain Anatomy and the role of the Pre-Frontal Cortex

Dr. Siegel began with a discussion of brain anatomy. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brain that is responsible for integrating all the others. It gives us the ability to be emotionally balanced and self-aware, responsive instead of reactive, intentional with our bodies, empathic and intuitive. What research demonstrates is that the PFC is strengthened in children who have patterns of secure attachment. This was interesting to me because it linked how children relate to their care givers to the actual structure of their brains, not just learned habits of behavior. How we treat our kids socially and emotionally impacts them physically.

Fostering Secure Attachment with the 4 “S”s

As parents, Dr. Siegel said that we can foster secure attachment if we remember the following 4 "S"s. Our children need to be:

  • Seen - this is not just seeing with the eyes. It means perceiving them deeply and empathically - sensing the mind behind their behavior, with what Dr. Siegal calls "mindsight".
  • Safe - we avoid actions and responses that frighten or hurt them
  • Soothed - we help them deal with difficult emotions and situations
  • Secure - we help them develop an internalized sense of well-being

I like this summary because it provides tools and ideas that stretch beyond the core “attachment parenting” ideas that are common for infants (“baby-wearing”, co-sleeping, breast-feeding, responsiveness to crying, etc.). The 4 “S”s are tools that can work with our kids up through adolescence.

The Role of a Coherent Narrative

Dr. Siegel emphasized that all parents can have a secure attachment with their children, regardless of what their own childhood experiences were like. The key for us as parents is to have developed a coherent narrative of our own upbringing. If our kids are showing signs of insecure attachment, doing our own work on our own past may actually be the best place to start to address the issue. Dr. Siegel covers this idea in depth in his book "Parenting from the Inside Out." This is a powerful idea because it means that we’re not doomed to replay past patterns, and that even if we ourselves suffered from insecure attachment as children, we can provide secure attachment to our own kids.

The River of Well-Being

Dr. Siegal offered an image of mental health as a flowing river, bounded on one side by rigidity and on the other by chaos. The healthy flowing state in the middle is flexible, coherent and integrated. The banks represent extremes that our minds fall into when we're not doing well. Dr. Siegel believes that all difficulties of the mind, whether severe disturbances such as schizophrenia or something as common as an episode of road rage, can be understood as a failure of integration that leads us to become chaotic, rigid or to oscillate between these extremes. He described what it's like when we're in a state of mental integration using the acronym "FACES": Flexible, Adaptive, Coherent, Energized, Stable.

Healthy Mind Parenting Tip: Connect and Redirect

Of the many practical tips that Dr. Siegel gave for helping out kids with mental integration, I particularly liked the idea of "Connect and Redirect". This recognizes that when our kids are in a "right brain" state, dominated by emotion and physicality, trying to address them in a "left brain" mode with words and reason won't work. We need to first connect emotionally, using touch, tone, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact and appropriate intensity to show them that they are "seen". When their right brain state feels "met", we can then redirect our children with our left brain tools - such as planning what to do next, or clarifying boundaries. My wife and I have been trying this model as my son has struggled to get used to a new school situation, and I think it’s been helpful. It can take a little more time, but it seems to work well to first connect and reflect emotionally before moving on to problem solving or boundary-setting.

Using our Minds to Change our Brains

Dr. Siegel said that one of the most important things we can do to improve our own mental integration is to strengthen our PFC through a regular practice of mindful awareness. He likened a daily meditation practice to brushing our teeth - it's a bit of regular hygiene that, over time, can dramatically improve our health. On his website, drdansiegel.com, there is a free 10 minute guided meditation podcast which can serve as a guide to getting started. I tried it, and it is very straightforward. There’s no need for special cushions or poses or incense. All one needs is any old chair and the willingness to focus one’s attention for 10 minutes. Since the lecture, I’ve added meditation time to my daily routine and I’ve enjoyed the experience so far.

Integration Made Visible

Dr. Siegel closed with the following question: "What is integration made visible?" His answer was, "Kindness and compassion." By increasing integration in our brains, we improve the likelihood that we’ll engage the world from a balanced, healthy place. We’ll act better, which will help us feel better. Our kids will experience that, and we’ll feel positively bonded with them, which will make it easier to relate to each other with kindness and compassion, creating a wonderful virtuous cycle. It seems well worth 10 minutes a day (and practicing some of his other tips)!

Our children’s minds are everything – their personality, their character, their intellect, their talents, their actions, their resilience and their judgment. As parents, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to support their mental health, and the way we relate to our kids day-to-day plays a critical role. Dr. Siegel has provided a valuable resource for us to help us make the most of these everyday situations, and I expect that I will continue to refer to his book for many years. 

The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. Bantam. 192 pages.