The Whole-Brain Child | Notes & Review

Posted on March 19, 2015


Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam Books, 2012. (176 pages)

whole brain child; Dan Siegel’s page; Empowered To Connect (handouts, etc.); ParentMap; iBooks; Nichole Huff, NC University;


What do you really want for your children? What qualities do you hope they develop and take into their adult lives? (viii)

…they are opportunities–even gifts–because a survive moment is also a thrive moment, where the important, meaningful work of parenting takes place. (ix)


Parents are often experts about their children’s bodies. … But even the most caring, best-educated parents often lack basic information about their child’s brain. (3)

We want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of their brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival. (7)

What molds our brain? Experience. (7)

This wire-and-rewire process is what integration is all about: giving our children experiences to create connections between different parts of the brain. When these parts collaborate, they create and reinforce the integrative fibers that link different parts of the brain. As a result, they are connected in more powerful ways and can work together even more harmoniously. (8)

We’re also not talking about wearing yourself (and your kids) out by frantically trying to fill every experience with significance and meaning. We’re talking about simply being present with your children so you can help them become better integrated. (10)

…a definition of mental health… our ability to remain in a “river of well-being.” … One bank represents chaos. …the other bank [is] rigidity. (11)

Chapter 2: TWO BRAINS ARE BETTER THAN ONE: Integrating the Left and the Right

Your left brain loves and desires order. It is logical, literal, linguistic (it likes words), and linear (it put things in a sequence or order). The left brain loves that all four of these words begin with the letter L. (It also loves lists). | The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Instead of details and order, our right brain cares about the big picture–the meaning and feel of an experience–and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories. (16)

Significant problems arise when the two sides of our brain are not integrated and we end up coming at our experiences primarily from one side or the other. (18)

The goal is to avoid living in an emotional flood or an emotional desert. (18)

Whole-Brain Strategy #1: Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves

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.” (24)

Step 1: Connect with the Right
Step 2: Redirect with the Left

Whole-Brain Strategy #2: Name It to Tame It: Telling Stories to Calm Big Emotions

When we give words to our frightening and painful experiences–when we literally come to terms with them–they often become much less frightening and painful. When we help our children name their pain and their fears, we help them tame them. (33)

Whole-Brain Kids: Teach Your Kids About the Two Sides of the Brain

Chapter 3: BUILDING THE STAIRCASE OF THE MIND: Integrating the Upstairs and the Downstairs Brain

  • Sound decision making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-undersanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

…while the downstairs brain is well developed even at birth, the upstairs brain isn’t fully mature until a person reaches his mid-twenties. (41)

A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a terrorist. (45)

A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain. …an appropriate response to a downstairs tantrum is much more nurturing and comforting. (47)

Whole-Brain Strategy #3: Engage, Don’t Enrage: Appealing to the Upstairs Brain

Whole-Brain Strategy #4: Use It or Lose It: Exercising the Upstairs Brain

…we can give them more responsibility in the decision making and allow them to take on some dilemmas that can really challenge them. (53)

All of the above attributes of a well-integrated upstairs brain (sound decision making, controlling emotions and the body, self-understanding, empathy) culminate in one of our most important goals for our children: a strong sense of morality. (57)

Whole-Brain Strategy #5: Move It or Lose It: Moving the Body to Avoid Losing the Mind

…when we change our physical state–through movement or relaxation, for example–we can change our emotional state. (58)

…the point is to help your child regain some sort of balance and control by moving their body, which can remove blockages and pave the way for integration to return. (61)

Integrating Ourselves: Using Our Own Mental Staircase

First, do no harm. Close your mouth to avoid saying something you’ll regret. Put your hands behind your back to avoid any kind of rough physical contact. When you’re in a downstairs moment, protect your child at all costs. | Second, remove yourself from the situation and collect yourself … Finally, repair. Quickly. Reconnect with your child as soon as you are calm and feeling more in control of yourself. (65)

Chapter 4: KILL THE BUTTERFLIES!: Integrating Memory for Growth and Healing

Let’s start with two myths about memory.

Myth #1: Memory is a mental file cabinet. When you think back about your first date or the birth of your child, you just open the appropriate file drawer in your brain and call up that memory.

Instead, memory is all about associations. (67)

…memory is the way an event form the past influences us in the present. (68)

Myth #2: Memory is like a photocopy machine. When you call up memories, you see accurate, exact reproductions of what took place in the past. You remember yourself on your first date with ridiculous hair and clothes, and you laugh at your own nervousness. Or you see the doctor holding up your newborn and you relive the intense emotions of that moment.

Whenever you retrieve a memory, you alter it. …memory retrieval activates a neural cluster similar to, but not identical with, the one created at the time of encoding. Thus memories are distorted–sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly–even though you believe you are being accurate. (69)

implicit memory creates something called “priming” in which the brain readies itself to respond in a certain way. (72)

The problem with an implicit memory, especially of a painful or negative experience, is that when we aren’t aware of it, it becomes a buried land mine that can limit us in significant and sometimes debilitating ways. (76)

HALT and check the basics: is your little Jedi simply hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? (78)

Whole-Brain Strategy #6: Use the Remote of the Mind: Replaying Memories

Once again, one of the most effective ways to promote integration is to tell stories. (79)

Whole-Brain Strategy #7: Remember to Remember: Making Recollection a Part of Your Family’s Daily Life

Whole-Brain Kids: Teach Your Kids About Making Their Implicit Memories Explicit (86)

Integrating Ourselves: Moving Our Own Memories from Implicit to Explicit.

…for parents, these hidden memories are especially dangerous, for two main reasons. First of all, even when they’re very young, our kids can pick up on our feelings of dread or distress or inadequacy, even if we don’t realize we’re experiencing them. And when a parent is upset, it’s very difficult for a child to remain calm and happy. Second, implicit memories can trigger responses from us that cause us to act in ways we don’t want to. Old feelings of being left out, abandoned, or put down, by others or by our own parents, can keep us from being mature, loving, and respectful when we interact with our kids. (910)

By integrating your implicit and explicit memories and shining the light of awareness on difficult moments from your past, you can gain insight into how your past is impacting your relationship with your children. (91)

Chapter 5: THE UNITED STATES OF ME: Integrating the Many Parts of the Self

MINDSIGHT AND THE WHEEL OF AWARENESS: understanding our own mind as well as understanding the mind of another. (93)

Mindsight Hub


When children experience a particular state of mind, such as feeling frustrated or lonely, they may be tempted to define themselves based on that temporary experience, as opposed to understanding that that’s simply how they feel at the moment. Instead of saying, “I feel lonely” or “I feel sad right now,” they say, I am lonely” or “I am sad.” The danger is that the temporary state of mind can be perceived as a permanent part of their self. (97)

This is one of the best things the wheel of awareness does: it teaches kids that they have choices about what they focus on and where they place their attention. It gives them a tool that lets them integrate the different parts of themselves, so they aren’t held hostage by one negative constellation of feelings or thoughts clamoring for their attention. (98)

THE POWER OF FOCUSED ATTENTION. The point is that the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing. (99)

By directing our attention, we can go from being influenced by factors within and around us to influencing them. (102)


Whole-Brain Strategy #8: Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Teaching That Feelings Come and Go

They are states, not traits. (103)

Whole-Brain Strategy #9: SIFT: Paying Attention to What’s Going On Inside

…one of our most important parenting jobs is to help our children recognize and understand the different rim points of their individual wheel of awareness. (105)

…help them learn to SIFT through all the sensastions, images, feelings, and thoughts that are affecting them. (105)

All of the points of the points on the rim–sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts–can influence the others, and together they create our state of mind. (109)

Whole-Brain Strategy #10: Exercise Mindsight: Getting Back to the Hub

Chapter 6: THE ME-WE CONNECTION: Integrating Self and Other

Insight + Empathy = Mindsight

…the brain is a social organ, made to be in relationships…what happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain. (122)

To put it differently, the brain is set up for interpersonal integration. (122)

MIRROR NEURONS: THE REFLECTORS IN THE MIND …mirror neurons may allow us not only to imitate others’ behaviors, but actually to resonate with their feelings. (124) …For this reason, we could also call these special neural cells “sponge neurons” in that we soak up like a sponge what we see in the behaviors, intentions, and emotions of someone else. (124)

We learn early in life to use our connections with reliable others to soothe our internal distress. This is the basis of secure attachment. (126)

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that the kind of relationships you provide for your children will affect generations to come. We can impact the future of the world by caring well for our children and by being intentional in giving them the kinds of relationships that we value and that we want them to see as normal. (127)

The point is that parenting matters, even to the extent of influencing our inborn and genetically shaped temperament. We can help prepare our kids to join with others and experience meaningful relationships by offering encouragement and opportunities that help them develop those mindsight skills. (128)

CULTIVATING A “YES” STATE OF MIND: HELPING KIDS BE RECEPTIVE TO RELATIONSHIPS. These two different responses–the “no” feelings and the “yes” feelings–demonstrate what we mean when we talk about reactivity versus receptivity. (129)

Whole-Brain Strategy #11: Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy Each Other

…”playful parenting” is one of the best ways to prepare your children for relationships and encourage them to connect with others. That’s because it gives them positive experiences being with the people they spend the most time with: their parents. (131)

Dopamine is the chemical of reward–and play and fun are rewarding in our lives. (132)

…the best predictor for good sibling relationships later in life is how much fun the kids have together when they’re young. (133)

Whole-Brain Strategy #12: Connect Through Conflict: Teach Kids to Argue with a “We” in Mind

See Through the Other Person’s Eyes: Help Kids Recognize Other Points of View (135)

Listen to What’s Not Being Said: Teach Kids About Nonverbal Communication and Attuning to Others (137)

Making Sense of Our Own Story

The most important “we” in your life as a parent is the relationship you share with your child. … It’s not how our parents raised us, or how many parenting books we’ve read. It’s actually how well we’ve made sense of our experiences with our own parents and how sensitive we are to our children that most powerfully influence our relationship with our kids, and therefore how well they thrive. | It all comes down to what we call our life narrative, the story we tell when we look at who we are and how we’ve become the person that we are. Our life narrative determines our feelings about our past, our understanding of why those events have impacted our development into adulthood. When we have a coherent life narrative, we have made sense of how the past has contributed to who we are and what we do. (143)

Mindsight - Making Sense of Our Own Story…early experience is not fate. By making sense of your past you can free yourself from what might otherwise be a cross-generational legacy of pain and insecure attachment, and instead create an inheritance of nurturance and love for your children. (144)


So whole-brain parenting isn’t just about who your adorable–and at times no doubt exasperating–child is right now, but also about who she will become in the future. It’s about integrating her brain, nurturing her mind, and giving her skills that will benefit her as she grows into adolescence and adulthood. (146)

By raising a whole-brain child, you’re actually offering your future grandchildren and important gift. (147)

…the beauty of the whole-brain perspective is that it lets you understand that even the mistakes are opportunities to grow and learn. This approach involves being intentional about what we’re doing and where we’re going, while accepting that we are all human. Intention and attention are our goals, not some rigid, harsh expectation of perfection. (148)

There’s nothing more important you can do as a parent than to be intentional about the way you’re shaping your child’s mind. What you do matters profoundly. (148)

It’s not your responsibility to avoid all mistakes, any more than you’re supposed to remove all obstacles your children face. Instead, your job is to be present with your children and connect with them through the ups and downs of life’s journey. (149)

Rather than ignoring their big emotions or distracting them from their struggles, you can nurture their whole brain, walking with them through these challenges, staying present and thus seen, heard, and cared for. (149)


— via —

In the course of the human experience and development, we have a need for what I’ll call “categorization.” That is, we need books on the categories of “parenting,” or “teenagers,” or “management.” This splay has done well to captivate a wide variety of audiences with the brilliant insights of neuroscience. But the problem is simply that we may miss the broader and wider reality, that what Siegel/Bryson discuss here is not about “parenting” per se. It’s about “human development,” which can readily apply to all humanity at virtually all stages of life. I’m sure we’ve all dealt with people in our lives, adults, who have disintegration, which causes turmoil and dysfunction.

The danger of categorization? The application of such techniques as a parent to a child, without the parent themselves considering and reflecting on their own brains, to attune to themselves.

Thus, it would be my hope and prayer that those who pick up parenting books such as this, that leverage the very best of modern neuropsychology, would first turn inward, to look in the mirror and evaluate our own integrations, and bring healing and redemption first to the parent. Then turn outward, quite broadly, to every human interaction.

This book is a gift.