The Whole-Brain Child Post 3

Upon reading my previous post you may have concluded that “Whole Brain” principles are like magic beans. After all, my preschooler’s fear of dogs disappeared in a matter of days! Well, let’s just say that applying them to teenagers is a whole ‘nother ball game…

As is to be expected, conversations with my teenagers tend to revolve around the same one or two topics. You know, the one privilege that “everyone else” has that you’re not quite ready to give?

I get that its “normal” for us to disagree much of the time. However, these interactions are especially frustrating, because at their conclusion, it’s clear

Upon reading my previous post you may have concluded that “Whole Brain” principles are like magic beans. After all, my preschooler’s fear of dogs disappeared in a matter of days! Well, let’s just say that applying them to teenagers is a whole ‘nother ball game…

As is to be expected, conversations with my teenagers tend to revolve around the same one or two topics. You know, the one privilege that “everyone else” has that you’re not quite ready to give?

 

that neither of us feels heard or understood by the other.  I start out ready to have a rational discussion; instead we end up chasing what seem to be a multitude of tangents that send us spiraling into one argument after another.

I get that its “normal” for us to disagree much of the time. However, these interactions are especially frustrating, because at their conclusion,or understood by the other. I start out ready to have a rational discussion; instead we end up chasing what seem to be a multitude of tangents that send us spiraling into one argument after another.

Upon reading my previous post you may have concluded that “Whole Brain” principles are like magic beans. After all, my preschooler’s fear of dogs disappeared in a matter of days! Well, let’s just say that applying them to teenagers is a whole ‘nother ball game…

As is to be expected, conversations with my teenagers tend to revolve around the same one or two topics. You know, the one privilege that “everyone else” has that you’re not quite ready to give?

I get that its “normal” for us to disagree much of the time. However, these interactions are especially frustrating, because at their conclusion, it’s clear that neither of us feels heard or understood by the other. I start out ready to have a rational discussion; instead we end up chasing what seem to be a multitude of tangents that send us spiraling into one argument after another.

After a recent “debriefing session” with my husband, we realized that “Whole Brain principles” are very applicable here! (By the way, in 2013, Dr. Siegel released a book specifically for parents of teenagers, called Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. I’m looking forward to checking it out sometime.)

In Chapter 3 of “The Whole-Brain Child,” the authors explain that the mind not only has a left and a right side (see my previous blog post), but it also has a top and bottom. The “upstairs brain” is highly sophisticated and controls planning, decision-making, and empathy. The “downstairs brain,” on the other hand, is responsible for primitive responses like breathing, knee-jerk reactions and strong emotions. As we help our children (and ourselves) develop into healthy adults, the goal is to develop the staircase that connects the upper and lower brain, so they can work together.

The part of the brain that controls this staircase is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh). Its job is to be the “watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened.” In situations where we are in physical danger, the amygdala’s ability to close off the connection between upper & lower brain is crucial, because it enables us to act before thinking. However, it can prove

The part of the brain that controls this staircase is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh). Its job is to be the “watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened.” In situations where we are in physical danger, the amygdala’s ability to close off the connection between upper & lower brain is crucial, because it enables us to act before

The part of the brain that controls this staircase is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh). Its job is to be the “watchdog of the brain, remaining always alert for times we might be threatened.” In situations where we are in physical danger, the amygdala’s ability to close off the connection between upper & lower brain is crucial, because it enables us to act before thinking. However, it can

problematic in everyday situations, when we really would be better off using the upstairs brain to think first and then act. The authors call this an “amygdala hijack,” when access to the upstairs brain is cut off and prevented from participating in a situation that requires clear thinking and consideration of another’s point of view.

thinking. However, it can prove problematic in everyday situations, when we really would be better off using the upstairs brain to think first and then act. The authors call this an “amygdala hijack,” when access to the upstairs brain is cut off and prevented from participating in a situation that requires clear thinking and consideration of another’s point of view.

prove problematic in everyday situations, when we really would be better off using the upstairs brain to think first and then act. The authors call this an “amygdala hijack,” when access to the upstairs brain is cut off and prevented from participating in a situation that requires clear thinking and consideration of another’s point of view.

Bringing it back home…while my husband & I view our conversations as simple, logical progressions from A to B to C, we realized that our teenager feels as though his/her entire world is hanging in the balance. In fact, it has become clear that even before the conversation begins, the young amygdala is already on high alert, rendering the mind in a “closed, reactive state” rather than an “open, receptive one” (p. 129). (As a side note, we are relatively new to our community & school, so making friends and fitting in are understandably high on the priority list for our kids.)

The authors continue, “When the nervous system is reactive…it’s almost impossible to connect in an open and caring way with another person,” and “even neutral comments can transform into fighting words distorting what we hear to fit what we fear” (p. 129).

This revelation changed everything! We realized that even though our teenager approaches us with questions about these issues (particularly “why” a certain privilege remains off the table), the amygdala has already “hijacked” the brain, and he/she isn’t really able to hear the answers to his/her own questions.

So, we came up with a plan: The next time our teenager began a conversation with, “I just don’t understand why I can’t _____? Tell me why…” I actually refused to answer the questions – not in a mean way, but I turned it around and asked a few questions instead.

“Tell me more about why you want _____.”

“Why is it so important to you?”

“What kind of limitations do you see as beneficial, and how will you be accountable?”

As the conversation ebbed & flowed, I watched my teenager relax. As he/she jabbered, I remained mostly silent, just listening. Every now and then, the original question would pop up and “demand” an answer. However, each time I gently refused to take the bait and instead continued to give an opportunity to talk and share ideas and opinions.

We didn’t solve all of life’s mother/child problems that day, but I do believe we made progress. I grew in understanding of a teenager’s world, and my adolescent felt heard. It is also interesting to note that in the 6+ weeks since that conversation, I haven’t been “cornered” on that topic even once, and everyone seems much more at peace with our current family technology agreement (which actually became a little tighter for the summer).

To be entirely transparent, I must admit that the positive conversation chronicled here is only one sunny spot amidst quite a few “storms.” (The combination of my heightened pregnancy hormones & typical teenage ones has been a bit overwhelming lately!) However, it is so helpful to recall even one small success to be reminded that there is hope for improved relationship. I hope my story imparts hope to you as well.

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