The Value of Cultivating a Yes Brain””

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is co-author with Daniel J. Siegel of the best-selling book “The Whole Brain Child” and, more recently, of “The Yes Brain Child: Help Your Child be More Resilient, Independent and Creative.” Based in Los Angeles, she will present a webinar as part of the Parent Encouragement Program’s Noted Parenting Author Series on Wednesday, January 30, at 8 p.m. EST. I interviewed her on how parents can equip their children to thrive.

Three key factors for children

Q: In your book, “The Yes Brain,” you focus on how parents can build courage, curiosity and resilience in their children. Are these more urgent now? Why is this the area we should focus on?

A: When I talk to teachers and people who have worked with children for decades, they’re telling me that kids have more difficulty regulating themselves than they ever have, and research is indicating that anxiety, depression and suicide risk factors are higher than they’ve ever been in our kids. And, we also have an adversity gap in our country, where some kids have way too much adversity, as we see in the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) incidence studies, and then we have kids who have parents who are hyper-involved in their children’s lives, helping their kids avoid any negative feelings or experiences. Kids are spending more time in structured activities, doing academics and on screens, and far less time playing and being outside than ever before.

All of these things, among other factors, make it urgent and necessary to increase courage, curiosity and resilience in kids. We should focus on building these skills and creating an intentional culture to cultivate these qualities because they are essential things that allow kids to be truly successful (which is way different from achieving). And while there is nothing wrong with achievement, and we can celebrate our kids’ successes, many parents think only of achievement. We encourage parents to think about success as having an inner compass, as being balanced, resilient, insightful and empathetic. When we focus on building these skills, we can actually build the connections in the brain that allow these qualities to become wired. Where attention goes, neurons fire, and where they fire, they wire. So when we give attention to courage, curiosity, resilience, balance, insight, empathy, etc., we are activating and wiring our kids’ brains. (And our own!)

The four types of Yes Brain

Q: Can you talk about the four types of Yes Brain you discuss in your book (balanced, resilient, insightful and empathetic)?

It’s not by chance that we start with balance. If your emotions and your life aren’t balanced, you can’t be resilient, insightful or empathetic. When we talk about balance we mean emotional regulation and that our nervous system is in a state of balance, which can only happen when we perceive that we are safe and we are in a receptive state. Our brains are either in a balanced/receptive/flexible/open state (a Yes Brain) or in a reactive/closed/defensive/rigid state (a No Brain). Our lives have to be balanced as well, in order for our emotions and our nervous systems to be balanced. One area where balance seems to be off for many families is in the area of sleep. Many of our kids are chronically sleep deprived, which makes it very difficult to stay balanced. Earlier bedtimes or later sleep in the mornings are crowded out by screen time, too many enrichment activities, excessive academic pressures and parents’ overwhelmed schedules.

Resilience develops when we give kids practice dealing with challenges with enough support that they can be stretched outside of their comfort zone, but also weather the storm with enough success to feel that they can handle difficult things. When we over-protect our kids from any difficulty or from feeling disappointment or negative emotions, they don’t get the opportunities to build skills and learn that they are strong. Specifically, this can look like this: “You’re disappointed that you can’t stay up later with the older kids. It’s hard to be disappointed. It’s time to sleep now, but I’ll be here with you while you’re sad about that.” They also develop resilience by learning skills that help them have the strategies to deal with negative emotions and difficult situations.

Insight is the superpower of self-understanding that allows kids to pay attention to their inner landscape with curiosity. Being able to tune into the feelings and thoughts inside of ourselves allows us to not be victim to our feelings and circumstances and to shift our emotions.

Empathy allows us not only to see others’ perspectives and to feel with others, but also to find joy in reducing the suffering of others and to celebrate the successes of others. All of these abilities are functions of the middle prefrontal cortex and, since this is the last part of the brain to develop, we have a long window in which to help build the connections and the capacity of this part of the brain.

One important step for parents

Q: What are the biggest mistakes you see parents making?

A: I think parents are overwhelmed and taxed. I think one thing that seems fairly common and changeable, is that when kids get reactive or disrespectful or have problematic behavior because they’re dysregulated and have lost balance, parents join them in that reactive state of mind and it just amplifies the distress all around. Making sure we’re balanced and regulated, both in the moment (taking a break or waiting if needed), calming our own nervous systems and emotions before we engage or interact and – in the bigger picture – taking care of ourselves and getting enough sleep so that we have the capacity to parent the way we’d like to parent, is essential. If we want to teach our kids to be balanced, resilient, insightful and empathetic, we have to model that. We don’t have to be perfect, and when we mess up, we can repair with our kids, but these are areas we can cultivate in ourselves as well.

Making changes

Q: When parents first hear about your ideas, how do they start to shift their behavior to really make a difference in their homes? What are the first steps to changing entrenched habits?

A: One thing we can do that is so important for our children is to be present. We are often distracted and disconnected on our own technology/devices, we’re not giving ourselves enough self-care to be balanced.

Q: Often parents feel that they can manage their emotions and help a single child as well, but when siblings come into it, everything goes haywire. Do you have advice in that situation?

A: Triage. I’ve often found that separating kids, when possible, and working with each one individually is the most effective way to defuse and soothe and teach skills. When it’s not safe to leave kids alone or they’re too young to do that, you just stay as calm as possible, de-escalate the situation with calm presence and empathy. Sometimes it’s best just to name what is happening (especially when in the car): “You’re mad. You’re mad. I’m mad. We’re all angry right now. Let’s take a pause and listen to music until we are all calmer, and then we’ll listen to each other and be problem-solvers.”