telling stories

I had a rare moment of instant feedback on a parenting book today. My friend C (who is both a doctor in training and super-mom) recommended The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind to me a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been reading it over the last few days.

The book is by Daniel J Siegel, a neuroscientist, and Tina Payne Bryson, who has a PhD. The most interesting element of their argument so far is the idea of storytelling.

They start by conceptualizing the brain in various competing regions, each with its own strengths and agenda. The “upstairs brain,” for example, is the seat of reason and higher order thinking. The “downstairs brain” the place for emotion, impulse, and attachment.

As parents our best bet is to try and identify in what part of the brain the child is reacting out of, especially during tantrums. the best response to an “upstairs brain” tantrum, for example, is laying down the law since the child is in full control of their actions and using the tantrum to manipulate a situation. A “downstairs brain” tantrum, on the other hand, needs to be treated with more empathy since the kid is literally unable to control their actions.

This is all apparently rooted in recent research, but they allude to that rather than give examples. Still, some of it sounds an awful lot like Freud’s ego/id distinction.

As for storytelling, Siegel and Bryson advice finding ways to get the upstairs brain engaged to help a child overcome a block or waves of overwhelming feeling. In one of the most interesting passages they relate this to memory. After a traumatic experience, a child needs help making sense of the feelings of helplessness and fear that, while irrational, are floating around in their psyche.

So flash forward to this morning in the playground. K has been very enthusiastic about climbing lately. Over the weekend she very proudly scaled first a chair and then climbed right up onto the table, stood up, and did a little dance. At the playground, she has been holding onto a bar on the jungle gym and kicking up her feet so she can hang as long as she can. I usually cheer her along and count seconds (she has gotten as high as nine).

This morning she was going through this routine, but apparently her right hand grip wasn’t good enough because she slipped off the bar and bopped her head against the jungle gym. It couldn’t have hurt very much through her fluffy hat, but it did make a sound and clearly upset her enormously. And after that, she refused to lift her feet while hanging off the bar. She would suspend, and take a little weight off, but then quickly stomp her feet back down. Clearly she was traumatized.

So the payoff is: the story thing worked beautifully. I sat next to her and sympathized for a while, and then started describing exactly what had happened with some pantomime and sound effects. We both took turns whacking the offending bar and trying to make the sound that her head had made when it had hit. She was a little shaky, but she did eventually give another little four second hang before going off to use the slide.

So, as far as I’m concerned, bravo Siegel and Bryson.

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