The Whole Brain Child discusses strategies to teach children how to deal with difficult situations in an empathetic and rational way.

Despite the focus on teaching children, the book included a lot of great insights for adults as well. In general, it is a great guidebook on how to deal with emotional situations, and how to ensure that the approach is one that accounts for the impact on others and their well-being.

The general structure is emphasizing a few key strategies when encountering an emotional and upset child. Here is my interpretation of the general ideas:

Introspect when Encountering Conflict #

The book posits that we have two different “brains” that work in tandem when encountering a difficult situation: the “lizard brain” which reacts with strong emotional responses, and the “upstairs brain” which can approach the situation rationally.

Along the theme of educating children on how to cope in situations of conflict, the book explains that, to best help someone understand the situation, it is first better to empathize with how the chid is feeling. Once the lizard brain is no longer in control, deconstruct the situation rationally. This quiets the immediate reaction of the lizard brain, and enables a discussion when your child is using their upstairs brain.

As an example: if your child is throwing a tantrum because they are not getting the ice cream they wanted, it is first best to acknowledge the feelings of the child first (“you seem angry”), then rationally explain that eating too much ice cream is not a good choice.

This lessons works great for children, but I see it as a great lesson for conflicts with adults: if you want to reach an agreement with someone and you have a strong emotional reaction, first acknowledge the emotions, then reconcile on a logical level.

Physical Activities to Clear Your Mind #

The book references a study that explains that physical activities can help calm emotional reactions, and bring someone into the state to discuss the situation rationally. Thus, a good tool may be to help pace the room, or do some jumping jacks, before diving into the conflict itself.

Talking Through the Situation Repeatedly #

When one encounters a traumatising situation, and one that is difficult to understand (like a loved one being taken away by an ambulance, or a car accident), an insecurity can linger: one may become more upset when a loved one leaves for work.

The insecurity stems from a lack of understanding, and the reassurance that, despite how traumatising the situation was, everyone still turned out ok. Talking it through multiple times, ensuring that the child has a good understand of what actually occurred during the scary part of the experience, and a reminder that the child is still ok at the end, will reduce that insecurity.

Thinking About the Larger Picture #

When a conflict occurs, one can get invested and extremely emotional. This can occur with even small conflicts that have a minimal impact on our day to day lives, such as an argument at work. In those situations, the lizard brain takes over, and one does not weigh the argument appropriately. One often becomes invested and very upset if the outcome does not go their way (e.g. a minor technical disagreement at work).

In a situation like this, taking a step back, and considering the larger impact works well. Will this choice cause me to lose my job? Will it cause my company to lose a significant amount of cash? Will I be the one responsible if things go wrong? If the answer to the above is no, then it is a sign that it may not be worth the investment, or at least being emotional about it.

I find myself in this situation often: I am opinionated about many aspects of my job, and the company I work for. It is valuable to have a logical argument for what you are advocating, and to spend time on that. However, it does not mean that, if the outcome is to move forward with a different approach, I should be upset for hours or days afterward. The impact this decision will have on the part of life I care about is minimal. Keeping perspective on what is important helps focus me on the discussions I should be having, and spending more time on those.

Use Introspection to Understand Emotions #

A major theme of the book is examing the situation in a rational light, allowing some time to consider whether the response is appropriate. Being able to explain why you feel a specific way is powerful: you can better understand why you react this way, and modify your behavior if it is appropriate.

Explaining How Others are Feeling #

Children often act without regard to how others feel, such as grabbing a toy from another’s hand, or erasing another’s work. When a child does so, it is often without malice, but rather the lack of understanding of how it feels to have that done to you.

By explaining how one feels in that situation, the child learns how to empathize. Getting the child into the habit of considering other’s feeling before taking an action helps reduce interpersonal conflicts, and can often avoid them. Deliberately educating on why one should feel empathy on a situation when the opportunity arises ensures the lesson is learned, and allows the child to achieve competency in a valuable skill early.

Final Thoughts #

For me, “The Whole Brain Child” did a great job of putting more abstract ideas in my head in writing. I use many of the techniques outlined in the book when encountering conflict, but I had never put deep consideration into why those techniques worked. I have also never thought deeply about how to share these skills.

The book does a great job at all of the above: it provides a step by step guide for moving from an emotional state of mind to a logical one, adding understanding of the situation to analyze what could be improved, and explains how to further build an empathic foundation in children.

Definitely recommmend a read.