Right-brain/Left-brain Cooperation

byMark Gardner, LCSW

Strengthening your child’s right and left brain integration to increase self control

Your child wants THAT toy right “NOW!” She doesn’t care that it’s not her turn. Her escalating whimpering and crying make that crystal clear. Explaining the situation not only doesn’t help, it makes her more upset: You tell her that she’s been playing with it all morning; that she invited her best friend over to play and that we talked about how to be a good host – that we share; that many of her favorite toys are an arm’s length away that she could play with until it’s her turn again. The wailing only gets louder. She’s in a pickle and so are you. What’s one to do?

Sound familiar? These types of episodes are part and parcel of a young child’s – and parent’s – daily life. How can we understand what’s causing it and, more importantly, what can we do to make these occur less often and less intensely?

One answer: understanding how her developing brain and mind work can provide us with some guidance. Recent advances in neuroscience – the discipline that studies the human brain and nervous system – and in Mindfulness (see Dr. Gardner’s newsletter article from last month) give us insights we can utilize on a daily basis with our children. This article will briefly explore both the underlying brain science of the right and left brain and two techniques that have been derived from it.

Much of what will be covered is drawn from a wonderful new book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. The authors explore how children’s brains work and how to improve the connections among its different parts. Below we’ll only discuss the right and left brain and how supporting their integration leads to better self control.

Right-brain emotion and left-brain logic

Our brains are divided into two halves or hemispheres, the right and the left. Each has its particular roles and abilities. The right brain is responsible for emotions and sending and receiving non-verbal communications, like facial expressions, tone of voice, or gestures. It also specializes in understanding the big picture of an experience, its meaning and feel, as well as images and personal memories.

You may be familiar with how the right brain works via its portrayal in some recent popular media: Lie to Me, a TV show which featured a psychologist who excelled at utilizing his right-brain’s ability to observe small facial expressions and then deduce their underlying emotions; and Blink, a book by Malcolm Gladwell that focused on how our initial, intuitive understandings of situations – another right-brain ability, are arrived at more quickly and accurately than those that come from lengthier analysis (a left brain ability).

The left brain, on the other hand, is logical, literal, likes words, and is linear, that is, it likes to put things in order. It excels in understanding cause and effect (I push this button and the cow pops up), naming and labeling objects, and being clear about personal actions (“I ate the cookie; I didn’t chew it”).

Some popular TV characters illustrate the left brain’s characteristics: the pointy-eared Mr. Spock, Dr. House (from House), and Bones (from Bones). They all highly utilize logical thinking.

And how are the right and left brain connected? Via a brain structure called the corpus callosum, an interstate/superhighway-like network of nerve fibers that carry messages back and forth between the two hemispheres.

Horizontal integration: getting the right and left brain to work together better

There are several characteristics of your child’s developing brain that are instrumental in helping it grow stronger. First, and no surprise to most of you, young children’s minds are right-brain dominant. Emotions and living in the moment trump the left brain’s emerging efforts to use language and logic to navigate the world. Second, the rate of brain maturation is fixed by genetics. So, our brains won’t fully mature until well into our 20s. Third, the extent and strength of the connections between brain cells and parts of the brain, that is, how well they are integrated, can be very much influenced by experience (nurturing, learning, interactions). Fourth, the relationships your child has with you and other people are the most effective ways to facilitate integration in your child’s brain.

So, you may not be able to influence how fast your child’s brain grows, but you can strengthen the connections among its many parts.

We want our children to fully benefit from the skills of both the right and left brain. We want them to be attuned to their own and other people’s emotions and be able to use language and logic to organize and communicate about their experiences. What happens if they are unbalanced? An imbalance towards the right brain leads to an overemphasis on imagery, bodily sensations, and feeling emotionally flooded. A left-brain imbalance leads to a life lived in an emotional desert and an inability to understand one’s self and other people. Think of the TV characters mentioned above and some of the mishaps they experienced.

So, how does one use your relationship with your child to influence the right and left brains’ abilities to communicate and collaborate? By practicing some simple techniques in your everyday life with your child, described below. For more details on the underlying science and how to use them, see The Whole Brain Child, referenced above.

Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

In our example above, the girl’s experience has been hijacked by her right brain. She’s in a right-brain torrential downpour. Her feelings have eclipsed any ability she has to talk or think logically about her behavior. So, we must first help sooth and calm her overactive right brain and help her “feel felt.” How do we do this? We use our right brain to connect with hers using right-brain language: We connect by acknowledging her feelings (“Wow, you are so upset that you can’t have your toy right now.”) and we connect with non-verbal communication: empathetic facial expressions, a nurturing tone of voice, physical touch, and non-judgmental listening. And we do this until the storm passes. (Please note that there are times where your child’s behavior requires additional or other strategies to help her get under control.)

Then, after she’s calm, you can use left-brain strategies to explain what happened and label feelings so they’ll be understood better (“You gave your friend the toy reluctantly because you wanted to be nice but then realized you were really upset because you weren’t ready to stop playing with it.”), and then discuss ways she can try to solve the problem or prevent it from happening the next time around.

So, in this strategy, you are exercising both right- and left-brain abilities in a specific order: first right brain and with reason only later after the storm has passed.

Name it to Tame It: Telling Stories to Tame Big Emotions

Many times, we choose to avoid talking about the painful experiences our children have had in the hopes that this will reduce their exposure to the emotional stress involved. Sometimes this works. However, brain integration theory provides us with another more effective strategy that involves purposely talking about painful experiences in order to increase self-awareness, self-regulation and build right- and left-brain integration.

Let’s return to our example situation of the angry girl. Since the right-brain remembers the emotions, images, and impressions of events very well, the next time the girl plays with her friend, or even thinks about playing with her friend, her right brain will come on line. To some degree, she’ll re-experience the same stressful emotions in her body and mind that she had when it actually happened. Now, how much she can make sense of what happened depends on the left brain: the sequence of events; what the girls and parents said; how it was resolved.

If she hasn’t had help using the left brain to order the events accurately, she may misattribute actions: she may think that it was her friend who took her toy rather than her giving it to her friend by choice. Again, remember, in the young child, the right-brain hijacks the left brain in a moment of distress. This can have unfortunate consequences if she acts based on this perception the next time she’s with her friend. She may avoid playing with her friend or not be as cooperative and friendly.

To prevent this from happening, one can use storytelling led by the left brain to help the right brain get it right. In our example, we would revisit the incident in a guided and specific way. We would utilize the left brain’s abilities to 1) order the details and 2) put the experience in words. This would have the following effects on the right-brain’s impression of the event: a) it would name the feelings and b) tame or reduce the intensity of the feelings and their future impact.

Research has found that merely giving a feeling a label can calm down the right brain’s circuitry related to that emotion.

Doing this effectively requires several other considerations: You don’t want to force your child to remember, so pick your timing well. Choose a calmer or quieter time of day, not immediately after the event, to help her retell the story. Sometimes, doing another activity together can make it easier for her to talk about the difficult situation. Also, you can give her permission to skip some of the harder parts the first time telling the story and then go back and add them using your accounting of events. Sometimes, having her draw a picture can help with recalling the event.

Then gently walk through what happened “Remember when your friend came over earlier today? Tell me what you remember.” Have her do as much of the telling that she can. If she has some of the details off, help her by restating and clarifying her narrative and by adding your observations about her feelings: “So, yes, you got upset. I remember you gave her your toy – that was so nice – and then you sat there watching her. I could see on your face that you were confused and sad that you didn’t have your toy anymore. Do you remember feeling sad when she started playing with it?” Then continue with eliciting the story: “And then what happened?” Most likely, she will remember getting angry and what she did to show her anger. Many times, however, a child will not remember what happened to help her calm down. Be sure to share that and any choices she made to assist herself.

Sometimes, you may need to stop and provide encouragement about how she’s doing or even take a break. Then, the next day, return to the story to see how well she’s remembering and how well she’s labeling her feelings accurately, After she has these aspects down, one can expand the conversation to other choices she could’ve made, how she could express and deal with her feelings at the time differently, and how to make sharing – or not sharing, appropriately – her toys could go.

So, in both of these methods, we’ve embraced and utilized the tendencies and abilities of both the right brain and left brain; and used our knowledge to intervene with our child in ways to build the connections and integration between the two halves of the brain.

Incorporating this knowledge and these methods – as well as the others in The Whole-Brain Child – into your everyday life with your child will improve their ability to manage their feelings and behavior, increase their self-awareness and build their social skills.