Young kids tell you what they want. The iPad. Angry Birds. Skylanders and Lego Ninjago. American girl dolls and My Little Ponies. A pop tart. A fruit rollup. Goldfish. Noodles with butter. Sound familiar?
If only they knew what their brains wanted … to help regulate their physical and emotional states. Their pleas might then sound like this: “Mommy, my brain is hungry! I gotta have some protein to focus. I need some avocado to think of something else before I hit my brother!”
The brain/nutrition link is elementary. The brain runs on neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are made from food, specifically protein. Neurotransmitters are carried on the superhighways between cells that are coated with fat. [Fat, you say? Good fats.] And sugars provide glucose for brain energy. Complex carbohydrates supply sustained, long-lasting energy; simple, quick burning carbs only give rapid, short-lasting energy, leading to “zoom and crash.”
A parent might as well say,
“Blood sugar, go to your room!”
An after-school tantrum can reflect low blood sugar. Classroom distraction can reflect inadequate intake of quality protein. Poor impulse control can reflect deficiencies and DHA and EPA. I am no longer content to blame behavioral problems on “psychological” issues when the body may be the problem, or at least part of it. How silly that distinction even sounds… the distinction between mind and body is history.
Parents bring kids to psychologists to help change how their minds work … when it’s children’s bodies that often get them into trouble. The unspoken assumption is that the child mind can control his body, given the proper “tools.” But it’s more and more clear to me ~ we often have to help the body and brain first before I can do much with the mind.
Nothing is more proximal to your child ~ closer to his interior being ~ than what’s in his cells at any given moment.
… closer than your hug, your touch, your loving words or threatened punishment … closer than therapy interventions.
Knowing children’s brains are hungry, I now routinely recommend a nutritional consultation at the commencement of care. Sometimes, I advise parents at the intake to return in 30 days after implementing nutritional changes. No longer can I accept parents’ money and take their time if I believe a child’s body needs help before her mind can respond. How would I know this?
Over the past 4 years of my practice, my referrals for child psychiatry consults have plummeted. Why? Because parents are trying nutrition first with profound results. Many kids accept new food routines and even request specific foods at key times. They quickly recognize how different ~ and better ~ they feel. These children actually start to say, “Mom, I need some protein…” My colleague Jan Katzen, former Montessori teacher and Certified Nutritionist, often says, “I have yet to meet a brain that does not respond to better nutrition.” Jan is one of my most valued referral sources. Learn more about her at http://www.NutritionforLearning.com.
Do I lose business with all my nutrition referrals? Sort of! Some kids improve by eating differently and no longer need my services. But more often, kids come back after a nutritional boost. Then therapy is more efficient and effective. That’s because a child’s brain chemistry and blood sugar is working with me.
Findable, affordable foods could potentially transform your child’s brain and body from dysregulation to balance. Changing the timing and composition of snacks and meals can make all the difference. Canned black beans, apples with almond butter, stone-ground tortillas, walnuts and cage free eggs can turn around brains and behavior. Not being a nutritionist, I’ll stop there and leave it to the experts. Picky eater? Nutritionists of often have sneaky ideas for helping gradually change your child’s palate.
Does changing your child’s diet take some time and money? Yes. So does therapy. Try one, and you may not need the other.
Imagine your sleeping child … rosy cheeks, languid limbs, lost in dreamland. And you have to wake her up. You know it will a challenging transition to the waking world. Instinctively, you know — the journey from sleep to wakefulness is a colossal transition between brain states. So you offer a gentle nudge, a tender stroke, a soft whisper. You know gentle brain transitions keep everyone happy.
Moving from play to clean-up is a brain transition, too. A shift from flexible fantasy to order and organization. The enormity of this shift and effort it requires often elude us. “OK, playtime is over, time to clean-up” we rattle off, expecting an immediate shift. The resulting push-back tells us an earthquake has just erupted, the young child’s resistance like the rumble of tectonic plates! It’s a very strenuous brain shift for young kids, especially those age 7 and under.
Stern voice, expressions of displeasure and threatened consequences are simply not effective ways to inspire clean-up. Young kids need a bridge, a navigable, appealing bridge from the tragically sad end of play to the brutally unappealing work of cleanup. We grown-ups can build that bridge in thin air.
What is a Brain Bridge? It’s a development-wise, brain-smart style of engagement that helps young children shift (body, mind, & soul) from one activity to another. Such as, from play to your next agenda item! The Play-CleanUp Bridge links the right hemisphere and the frontal lobes. This notion vastly over-simplifies brain function, but the general concept is instructive. So, what do those brain areas have to do with play and clean-up?
Play lights up the right hemisphere. Not this brain area exclusively, but significantly. The right hemisphere, which delights in symbols, fantasy, imagery, creativity and spontaneity lends a lot of support to imaginative play.
Clean-up requires the frontal lobes and their activities called Executive Functions. From only a few of their names, you’ll detect their relevance to clean up: Response Inhibition (stopping one’s play), Task Initiation (starting to clean up), Working Memory (remembering 2+ step directions), Sustained Attention (resisting getting sidetracked). These behaviors take SKILL power, not just will power. Brain specialists say the frontal lobes require 18 to 20 YEARS to fully develop! And we want clean up done (with cooperation, no less) in ten minutes?
So let’s build a Brain Bridge. The work of cleanup is simplified by incorporating the spirit of play. Your young child has been reveling in her right hemisphere. Join her there for best results.
1) Celebrate first. Wrap things up with joyful concluding remarks! Comment on your child’s play and how fun it has been. And get down on eye level instead of towering overhead.
2) Give a countdown with fingers. Time is a total abstraction to the young child, let alone its passage. Make it visual. Say you have 5 minutes left and show fingers. Not just 5 fingers but 4, 3, 2, 1 and zero fingers as you sit nearby. Add the encouragement, “You can have a lot of fun in 5 minutes!”
3) Talk to the toys. This highly effective back-door brain route sneaks messages to the frontal lobes and bypasses the volatile limbic system. Address the toys: “Guys, I’ve got some kinda sad news – it’s almost clean-up time. I know you’ve had fun with Brandon, but you can play with him again tomorrow.”
Advise the toy to obey your child. “T-Rex, in a minute Brandon is going to put you in the bucket … I know you’re sad to get picked up. But it’s important you listen to him, because he knows it’s clean-up time. You can do it, T-Rex.” If the child says, “T-Rex can’t understand you!” just reply, “I know, I’m pretending.” And co-pretending will resume.
4) Make piles. To kids, picking up a toy-strewn floor is akin to cleaning up the planet. Help this job look do-able. Cluster like-items into separate piles for your child. Describe what you’re doing. Teach these skills by being your young child’s frontal lobes, modeling skills to come.
5) Thank the toys for the fun we’ve had. Farewell play-talk borrows lightness from the imagination, facilitates emotional coping and supports cooperation. (Dr. Dan Siegel would say it integrates the left & right hemispheres too, which helps kids self-regulate.)
6) Describe each item & action: Bye yellow chopper, curly ribbon. Is your child using one hand or two? Do toys drive or dance into their buckets? Cleaning up can take 150 separate behaviors. Describing them gives your child credit and celebrates objects as they get put away.
7) Meet them halfway. A.k.a., give it to them on a silver platter. Hand your child the toy. Point to where it goes. And hand him the next thing. Soon you’ll hear “I can do it myself!”
8) Add pretend media. Narrate like a fascinated radio host or a Monster Truck announcer. Tell America how fast Megan is cleaning up. Want to grow your child’s executive function skills? Then keep this task appealing with joy and fun in your voice.
9) Invite “Searching Eyes.” When items go unnoticed, say “Use your searching eyes to see if anything is hiding from you.” (Note: This is the opposite of “You missed that one.” Why demean and deflate when your child is working so hard?) Exclaim, “You found it! That puzzle piece couldn’t hide from you!” Searching and finding fills a child’s heart with achievement and pride.
10) Give a Praise Re-cap. Crouch down, arm around your child, and gaze upon the cleaned-up landscape. Recall each thing put away. “Amazing! You put away all the books, markers, frogs, snakes & lizards. What an excellent cleaner-upper today. You really know how to do it.”
When you build a Brain Bridge, you respect your child’s mind and, in the process, your child’s spirit. And that benefit extends long after the last lizard is put away.
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References: The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson; Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare; The Family Coach Method by Lynne Kenney.