Inside the Brain of a Threenager

by Meghan

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A few months back, I posted the 25 Reasons My Threenager is Having a Meltdown – which just happened to be the 25 reasons for that particular week. And clearly, many of you out there identify. It was my first viral post, and having only been blogging for less than a month at the time, was highly encouraging. I am overwhelmed by the support and commiseration. And while misery may love company, it’s also nice to have some explanation for the seemingly irrational behavior of these children, and better still, parenting coping mechanisms. The Whole-Brain Child provided me with just that – a scientific look, in layman’s terms, at the inside of the brain of a Threenager.

Brain of a Threenager

Inside the Brain of a Threenager

The Whole-Brain Child is written by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychology, and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist.  The premise behind it is straightforward – if you better understand the basics of how the human brain works and develops, “you’ll be able to better understand your child, respond more effectively to difficult situations, and build a foundation for social, emotional and mental health.”  Frankly, I was just trying to figure out how to stem the meltdowns over the ridiculous, but my inner student was intrigued by the subject-matter more broadly, and so I read on.

How the Brain Works and Develops

Most are familiar with the left-right brain dichotomy.  The left brain is associated with logic and organization, while the right brain, often known as the creative side, experiences emotions and nonverbal cues.  What many may be less familiar with is the fact that the brain is also divided top to bottom, often referred to as our reptilian and mammalian brain, or as the book calls them, the upstairs and downstairs brains.  Our reptilian brain controls basic functions, like breathing, natural instinctive behaviors and fight-flight reactions.  The mammalian brain sees a bigger picture, and drives our desire to make broader connections and form relationships.

For young children, these separate brain hemispheres are not fully integrated and haven’t learned to operate together well yet.  The result is the overwhelming emotions over a small plastic toy or a piece of fruit cut the ‘wrong way’, resulting in tantrums, meltdowns and aggression.  Young children are very right brain dominant through age 3, and the upstairs brain, which helps us see the big picture – it isn’t fully mature until a child reaches his mid-twenties.  Understanding this really helped me as a parent better frame my approach and conversations with my girls. There is no appealing to logic with a 20 month old, and expecting even a 3.5 year old to fully understand the ramifications of her actions is a lot to expect.

Examples of the Whole-Brain Strategy

The Whole-Brain Child, after explaining the way the various parts of the brain works, provides parents with strategies for discipline, guiding their child through decision-making, and helping their child work through their big emotions given the developing state of their brain.  Two of the strategies offered early in the book instantly clicked with me, and unsurprisingly, I had the opportunity to apply them soon after.

Connect and Redirect

Since our young children’s brains aren’t fully integrated, as parents, we have to help the sides connect.  The Whole-Brain Strategy advocates parents Connect and Redirect.  As the book points out, “when a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs.”  While many parenting books advocate acknowledging a child’s feelings, for the first time, I understood why.

“…when a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs.” -The Whole-Brain Child

As a very left-brained, type-A parent who is not overly emotional, understanding the science behind why I needed to comfort my crying 3 year old over crumbs on her tutu made me a lot more willing to do so.  Once you have acknowledge those feelings, and your child is in a calmer state, you can appeal to their left brain – “You know, Big M, if you take your tutu off before you eat like I asked, you wouldn’t get crumbs on it next time.”

Name It to Tame It – Story Retelling

Another strategy the book advocates to help young children understand and cope with overwhelming emotions is story retelling.  When a child is in pain, disappointed, scared or overwhelmed, they often may not readily remember why they feel the way they do or the sequence of events that led them there.  By encouraging them to not only talk about their feelings, but telling the story of what led them to have those feelings, you can help them connect their emotions to logic, often lessening their fears or even teaching them why their behavior may not have been acceptable.

I had the opportunity to employ this with Big M last December.  Like most toddlers/preschoolers, she struggled with transitions.  And preschool is full of them – moving from free play to circle time to snack time, and coming in from the playground.  The last one seemed to be a sticking point with her.  One day, I arrived for pick up and was summoned by her teacher to come and retrieve her from the playground because she was refusing to come inside.  As I walked out there, the assistant teacher had already scooped her up and was physically carrying her inside.  And as threenagers are wont to do, she was thrashing her arms and legs, yelling, and in the process, knocked off her teachers glasses.

I got her in the car, hysterical and we came home for lunch and quiet time.  After quiet time, I asked her if she could tell me about what happened at school today.  She clammed right up.  I asked her if she wanted to draw a picture of what happened, and she seemed agreeable.  I asked her a few leading questions as she drew… and the story that eventually unfolded was she wanted to go down the slide one more time, and had been waiting her turn when the whistle blew to come in.  She was upset she hadn’t gotten one last slide in.  She was very sorry she “broke Mrs. Jones glasses” (more extreme than the reality, but I let her keep her version of the events).  The picture she drew included a very geographically accurate playground, slide, swings and a pair of glasses on the ground.  I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture of it!  We turned it into an apology card for Mrs. Jones, which she handed to her along with a big hug the next day at school.

By the time my husband got home from work that night just before bedtime, she was able to retell him the story of what happened at school that day, with heavy downcast eyes, in striking accuracy and detail, and with significant remorse.

One Page Cheat Sheet

To help us mentally-taxed parents out, the book’s authors created a printable, refrigerator cheat sheet with all the different Whole-Brain strategies.  Just like in high school, the Cliff’s Notes may teach you the list of characters and main events, but I highly encourage you to read the book to really understand the rationale and deploy the strategies appropriately.

Printable Refrigerator Sheet

In addition to the refrigerator sheet, the authors also provide an outline for applying their strategies at various ages: Infant/Toddler, Preschool, Early School (6-9), and Later School (9-12).

I don’t read a ton of parenting books, and when I do, it’s usually for specific purpose, because I am struggling with something as a parent.  In this case, how to deal with the overwrought emotions of a threenagerThe Whole-Brain Child not only helped me better understand what my child was going through mentally, but equipped me to better handle her emotional outbursts, redirect her energies and teach her to better handle her emotions going forward.

Yes, we still have meltdowns (or to those offended by that term, ‘tearful episodes’) on an almost daily basis… BUT by employing Whole-Brain strategies, they are more short-lived and definitely far less frequent than they were just 3 months ago.  I love now when she catches herself on the verge of an outburst over a wet spot on her shirt, and after a few sniffles, tells herself, “It’ll be alright, it can dry!” I highly recommend this book to parents of all ages.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the complete Early Childhood Transitions series. You can find this post, the full series and all my favorite parenting content from around the web on my Practical Parenting board on Pinterest!

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Nell April 5, 2015 - 12:02 pm

Thanks for sharing these great tips! I loved this book and have incorporated many of these ideas in to my daily life with my threenager 🙂

Nicole Schwarz April 4, 2015 - 8:28 am

Love this book! It’s one of my favorites!


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