In our last article, we discussed ‘modeling‘. It’s when children learn from their external environment and how authority figures become ‘models’ for children. And in our last article, we discussed the tips for a good modeling experience, one of which included how to handle negative emotions. The truth is, children are constantly absorbing things from their environment and we never know what overwhelms them. This overwhelming stimuli from the outside world leads to them having a tantrum.

When you’re raising a child, especially younger ones, you have to be prepared for these negative emotions to crop up. How can one equip themselves to deal with this? By connecting with your child first and then redirect your child to make amends or to make a decision. This idea comes from the book called ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson.

There are two main concepts of this book.

The first concept from this book is that the brain is also divided into the ‘upstairs brain’ and the ‘downstairs brain’. The upstairs brain is the analytical part of the brain and the downstairs brain is the primitive and reactive brain. The upstairs brain contains the part of brain that includes your logical reasoning, controls your decision-making skills, and your executive brain. The downstairs brain is the brain that controls your flight/flight and freeze reactions. It is contains the brain stem which is mainly concerned with involuntarily actions.

Five Bs Affected by Trauma Part I – The Brain – The Whole House
Image sourced from Google

The second one is that the brain is divided into the left and right hemisphere. To put it simply, the right side of your brain is the emotional part and the left side of your brain is the logical part. The right brain is controlled by the left side of your body and the left brain is controlled by the right side of your body. The left brain handles the reasoning and analytical functions and the right brain is mainly concerned with imagination and feelings.

What are the functions of the left and right brain? - Quora
Image sourced from Google

When a child is overwhelmed, the right brain seemingly takes over. This is how they feel threatened or unsafe and it makes them uncomfortable. When this disconnect happens, what can the parents do?

In this book, the authors write:

“When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs. We call this emotional connection ‘attunement,’ which is how we connect deeply with another person and allow them to ‘feel felt.’” (pp. 24)

The Whole Brain Child, pg 24.

What is ‘connect to redirect?’

The strategy is simple. When a child is overwhelmed, you simply connect to their right brain (and empathize with them) and then redirect them to make decisions or calm them down. Connecting with them helps them feel that that they’re being heard and their feelings are not being invalidated. This calms them down. After connecting with them, you redirect them to see the situation in a clearer way and then they can decide what they want to do.

How to Connect with the right brain:

As previously mentioned, the right brain is the part of brain that deals with emotions. This part is activated when children are in distress. The idea is to connect with this part of the brain first. How can one connect in a situation like this?

#1. First listen and the reflect.

“It’s also crucial to keep in mind that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our child’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our child. It’s vital that we treat them as such in our response.” (pp. 24)

The Whole Brain Child.

Listening is important. Sit down with your child and simply listen to what they’re saying. Often times, they themselves are trying to figure out what they’re feeling and will think out loud. They might not even make sense to you. But you still have to listen. And after listening, you need to reflect. You can do this by saying, “that does sound tough” or “it sounds like you’re going through a lot right now.” Reflecting what they’ve said only makes them feel heard.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications

#2. Use non-verbal language.

Another important way to empathize with your child is to be physically present. Hug them, sit close to them and have a softer tone. These all really help in calming the child down and slows their brain (flight/fight reaction is not as active.)

#3. Don’t give ultimatums, instead try to understand why they’re feeling like this.

Ask them what led them to feel like this. Sit with them and try to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re feeling like this. Don’t threaten them further or ask them to ‘be normal’. This only drives them further from you. It’s also important to remember that sometimes, even if you mean well, the result will not be what you expected. So sit down with your child, empathize and then think about what you want to convey and most importantly, how you want to convey (think about the tone you will use, and how you will explain to them.)

Once you have connected with your child, and your child seems receptive to what you’re trying to say, you can use the second part of this technique which is called ‘redirect.’

How to redirect with the Left brain:

Once the waves of emotions have calmed down, the child will feel better and will be receptive of what you will say. This is time to redirect them to their left brain and analyze the situation in a better manner. (*Note: redirecting doesn’t mean distracting.) The Left brain is essential and comes into play after the child has calmed down. This makes the child analyze the situation in a better way.

“We understand that it’s generally a good idea to discuss behavior and it’s consequences after the child has calmed down, since moments of emotional flooding are not the best times for lessons to be learned.” (pp. 27)

The Whole Brain Child, page 27.

#1. Rules and boundaries still apply.

After they’ve calmed down, now is the time for the authority figure to redirect them. This means reminding them in a firm (not threatening) manner that they’ve broken rules or that their behavior was unacceptable. You can take some special privileges away.

#2. Re-frame a stubborn ‘no’ to a ‘yes with conditions’

If your child doesn’t accept the consequences, then instead of being harsh with them, negotiate with them. Meet them halfway. This gives them the flexibility but within boundaries. This is, of course, subjective. But the key here is to be flexible enough to let them know that a behavior was unacceptable.

#3. Explore options together

After your child has calmed down, it is probably best to explore options together with them. This makes them feel involved and helps build a better problem-solving strategy. Sit with them and discuss as to how the situation could have been handled better or what they will do the next time this happens. This also equips them with strategies and they will be in control of their emotions instead of feeling unsafe.

This helps the child in many ways. It, first of all, validates their experiences. Often times we forget, as adults, that children also do go through many emotions and they are learning to deal with it as well. If we are dismissive or every strict with them during these times, we’re adding more to their distress than helping them. Connect to redirecting helps them build problem-solving strategies. This technique alone will help them through some tough turbulent times.

Along with this, the role of the authority figure is very important. How you reflect and connect with the child can strengthen and empower them. This helps them know that they’re not alone and makes them feel safe. After reflecting, they will be in a better space to process what had actually happened.

“The key here,” according to Siegel and Bryson, “is that when your child is drowning in a right brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect. Also, it’s important to know that connecting might take some time. It’s essential to make sure you’re attuned to your child before redirecting. Sometimes they need to eat or sleep before they’re ready to be redirected, so patience is essential here too!

Omaiha Walajahi


Pause for Perspective