Yes brain parenting: A gift that keeps on giving – An interview with Dr. Dan Siegel

A conversation with Dan Siegel: Interview by Fiona Douglas-Crampton

For any adult who supports the development of children and teens — counsellors, parents, teachers, mentors — finding ways to build capacity for resilience, compassion, and creativity is of utmost importance.  When faced with challenges or unpleasant tasks, children often shut down and move to a state of reactivity. This is what Dr. Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, calls the “No Brain” response. How do we get children to move out of this state? According to Siegel, this can be changed when children develop a “Yes Brain,” which helps them embrace life in a different way, with openness, curiosity, compassion, and creativity.

In his new book published this January, The Yes Brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child, Siegel explores practical strategies for parents and caregivers to better support children and teens on the path to a positive way of living in the world.

Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education’s President Fiona Douglas-Crampton has asked Dan Siegel to share a few insights on what it actually takes to engage in yes brain parenting.

Fiona Douglas-Crampton: In your new book, you provide caregivers with tools to help children develop a “Yes Brain.” Tell us briefly what is the Yes Brain?

Dan Siegel: Our brains have two fundamental states: a receptive state and a reactive state.  In my workshops, if I say the word “no” harshly several times, participants experience the reactive state as if they were being threatened. This is a survival state the brain creates of fight, flight, freeze, or faint.  When we are in this reactive state, we can’t learn well and we can’t connect well with others, or with our inner mental experience.

In contrast, saying “yes” repeatedly and in a soothing way evokes a very different state. A feeling of openness and safety emerges, one that reflects the brain’s state of being receptive.  The scientist Steven Porges describes the turning on of a social engagement system, a neural set of circuits that enables us to reach out to others and even be more open to our own self-awareness, engage in learning, and be more flexible and at ease. This is the “Yes-Brain” state of receptivity.

With parenting, it is possible to provide a strategy that intentionally cultivates this receptive Yes Brain state in a child.  With repeated activation of a state, the process of neuroplasticity is engaged which can transform a temporary neural firing pattern, a state, into a long-term structural change in the brain, making the propensity of that way of being a trait in a person’s life.  Yes Brain parenting is about creating the balance, resilience, insight and empathy at the heart of a positive way of living in the world.

FD-C: What work do we need to do ourselves as caregivers before we can start nurturing these special qualities in our children?

DS: Research on parenting suggests that the best gift parents can offer their children is of self-understanding. This self-awareness means making sense of how the past has shaped us into the present time and how we can be aware of our current state and learn to be as open and receptive as possible in connecting with our kids.  Coherent self-understanding is possible to attain through an inside-out approach that builds the capacity for mental time-travel, to connect the past with the present, and to free ourselves up for living in the future in a positive way.

When we learn how to recognize our own Yes Brain or No Brain state in the moment, we begin the important steps of self-awareness that enable us to then change from a reactive state to a more receptive one. This capacity is the basis of our own resilience and enables us to role model this skill for our children.

When we are open in the Yes Brain state we can play the important PART we need to play as parents and be 1) Present—open and receptive to the child’s experience, and our own; 2) Attuned—focusing our attention on the inner experience of our child’s beneath behavior—doing this for ourselves as well; 3) Resonating—feeling the feelings of our child but not becoming them or over-identifying with their experience; and cultivating 4) Trust—a state of receptivity and reliance on another, and even on ourselves.  A Yes Brain is essential in ourselves to provide these core aspects of a loving relationship in the PART we play with our children.

FD-C: Can you give us an example of the difference it makes in children’s lives when they are able to develop a Yes Brain.

DS: Children who are prone to entering the No Brain state and haven’t been offered the tools enabling them to maintain a Yes Brain state, or to move toward this receptive state if they’ve left it, are at a disadvantage in many aspects of their lives.  Feeling threatened shuts down learning, decreases compassion, alters how we connect with others, and leaves an individual prone to feeling insufficient and continually comparing him or herself to others.

In contrast, a Yes Brain trait can be cultivated in a child that parallels Carol Dweck’s notion of a growth mindset in which a child can experience challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn more, to try harder and in a different way, rather than as a failure or sign of weakness.  Having the persistence in the face of difficulties draws on the Yes Brain qualities of having balance internally, resilience to move back to receptivity, insight into one’s own inner experience, and empathy to embrace the reality of our interconnectedness.  These are all strengths that support courage, creativity, and living life guided by an internal compass, rather than simply the expectations of others.  A Yes Brain way of parenting helps us redefine what “success” means, giving meaning and connection to a child supporting their growth of an internal compass in their lives.  Yes Brain parenting is a gift that keeps on giving.

Fiona Douglas-Crampton is the president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, a charitable organization focused on “Heart-Mind Well-Being.” 

February 23-24,2018: Daniel Siegel will speaking on effective strategies for developing a Yes Brain at the Heart-Mind 2018 Conference hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education in Langley. The conference explores how self-acceptance, being kind to ourselves, and connection with others improve our well-being and make it possible for us to be more present and caring for the children and adults in our lives.

For information and to register for Heart-Mind 2018:  Take Care of Yourself – the Science and Practice of Well-Being, visit: http://bit.ly/2AidVbQ

Resources

Books

  • Gabor Mate: When the Body Says No
  • Karen Salmansohn: Think Happy
  • Carol Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
  • Brene Brown: Daring Greatly
  • Dan Harris: 10% Happier

Websites