Teen psychology expert and Managing Director of Motus Learning Christopher Shum reveals the best way to nurture your teenager's growing brain.
The majority of mental health campaigns emphasize the importance of talking to help deal with mental health issues. But why? What is it about the act of talking about how you’re feeling that makes you feel better? Does unloading the burden of your negative emotional cycles onto someone else really help? Is it that simple? It appears so. Neurological research is beginning to fill in the gaps and explain why. Here's everything you need to know to nurture your teenager's brain and look after their mental health.
A Brief Tour of our Brains
It is now common knowledge that we have two sides of our brain: the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere, which we'll call the right and left brain. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body.
While they are connected by something known as the corpus callosum (I promise no more big fancy words), they do operate independently. The left hemisphere (the side of your left hand) is the more logical and linear side and this likes lists. It is the side of the brain that allows us to speak and write.
On the other side, the right hemisphere is non-verbal. It is the emotional side and is responsible for remembering facial expressions, body language and eye contact. The gut feeling we get is from the right hemisphere. Oh, and the right brain is also attached to our autobiographical memory, which allows us to remember emotional situations.
And finally, this might scare you but the right brain essentially has a life of its own, despite not being able to talk. To be amazed but slightly freaked out, take a look at ‘You Are Two’ on YouTube, which refers to epilepsy patients who had their corpus callosum removed.
So we have two independently operating brain areas and it’s crucial that we have both working together. If we had no linguistic left brain, we would be no different from our chimp counterparts and if we had no emotional right brain, we would basically be robots.
Brain Integration: Working with Both Sides of the Brain
The right brain and the left brain are like two little children that need to be told stories to comprehend what is happening in the outside world. However, the difference is that the left brain can talk back to you while the right brain cannot because the right brain has no language. The left brain will articulate everything but it might not be correct all of the time. For example, it might tell you that John didn't invite me to the party because he hates me.
Regardless of if it's correct, it will then pass on this information to the right brain. Let’s take an example. You’re at the cinema and you think a film is particularly enjoyable. While your right brain is experiencing joy and interest, it doesn’t know why because it does not have any language.
However, your left brain will articulate that you’re feeling joy and interest because the film is well-produced, has an interesting plot and great acting. It can explain this because it has language. You will think about these thoughts and you will then discuss them with your friends afterwards. They will help verify your thoughts or create a better articulation.
By thinking and talking about it, the left brain makes sense of what is happening and then passes on the information to the right brain via the corpus callosum. Everything makes sense and the brain is said to be integrated, a term coined by neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel. Because the right brain is also attached to our autobiographical memory, we will also have fond memories when we think about the movie in the future. The brain is operating successfully.
When the Brain Doesn’t Integrate
So what then happens if the brain isn’t integrated? Well, let’s take a more serious situation here to really explain the dangers. A young child called Emma has been bitten by a dog while out in the park with her parents. The dog is taken off the child and after being bitten, Emma is understandably in a high level of distress, uncontrollably crying.
After Emma is taken to the hospital and stitched up, she continuously repeats “me, ruf ruf”. Of course, "me" refers to herself and "ruf rug" refers to the dog. In many cases, her parents will want Emma to forget about the traumatic incident and just ignore what she said and change the subject. However, from the neurological perspective, what is actually happening here is that the emotional right brain is trying to make sense of the situation. If it’s ignored, the brain does not integrate. It’s also important to remember that our right brain is attached to our autobiographical memory, meaning that it replays in our head over and over again.
If the story is ignored and never explained, the story remains jumbled up in the mind with no explanation and the brain understands it as a reaction that needs to happen anytime we see a dog. This means that anytime Emma senses a dog as she gets older, her fight or flight mechanism will activate and cortisol will pump around her body. Emma will want to avoid dogs for the rest of her life.
How to Ensure Brain Integration
Therefore, the parent needs to fill in the blanks by explaining what the dog did and reassuring Emma that she is safe now. This allows Emma’s emotional right brain to be on the same page as her linguistic left brain. ‘Yes, the ruf ruf bit you because he thought you were someone else and that made you feel sore, but now you’re ok and safe and you won’t see that ruf ruf again’. By explaining the story and ensuring that it was that one dog and not all dogs, Emma’s parents help to prevent her from developing a phobia around dogs.
Then, as your children grow older, you can begin getting them to explain what they understood about what happened that made them feel a certain emotion. Note that children are more likely to open up while they are doing something else, hence why child psychologists have so many toys in their offices. So stories are really important in order for children to integrate their right and left brain. And what do good stories need? They need a good plot (the order of the left brain) along with scenes that make you feel (the emotion of the right brain). It’s all about balance.
How the Brain Develops
It should also be noted that children and teens are highly right brain dominated. As they grow older, we can see their left brain developing (we all know the dreaded and continuous ‘why this and why that’ phase) but the right brain remains dominant for many years. This explains why young David throws a huge tantrum when he can’t get his cookie cereal and why Sophie can’t stop crying because her favourite celebrity couple broke up.
How to Manage your Child’s Overly Emotional Brain
There is a correct way and an incorrect way to deal with these situations where children and teens are overly emotional. For example, if Rebecca comes downstairs hysterically crying that her toy has broken, it is important that we use a technique known as connect and redirect.
This involves connecting with their emotional side and then redirecting to the logical side. Many parents and teachers will have the immediate urge to be logical. “It’s only a toy. It’s not the end of the world. You can just get another one”.
However, when children are in a high state of emotions, the logical left brain has shut down and the emotional right brain doesn’t care about logic. Therefore, we simply need to connect. Validate their emotions with something like “wow that must be frustrating” or “if that happened me, I would be really annoyed too” combined with non-verbal support such as a rub on the back or a hug and something else to keep them occupied such as ice cream or a movie. Let time and emotions pass, as they will after a short period and then redirect.
While guzzling down their vanilla ice cream, ask them what they could play with instead of that broken toy. Or is there any way they could fix that broken toy? Notice that you’re not telling them how to be logical here, but you are instead guiding them to think logically about the situation. You’ve not only dealt with the distressful emotions. You’ve got them to problem solve. Remember, connect and redirect.
So when you’re faced with a situation that makes your child or student feel strong negative emotions, never ever shy away from it. Don’t let your discomfort diminish their brain development. Instead, explain distressful events through stories, appeal to their right brain and help their left brain make sense of what happened. Then voila, you have an integrated brain.
Christopher Shum is Managing Director of Motus Learning- progressive psychologists who believe that every child has a right to be educated on how to take care of their mental health. For more information, visit motuslearning.com.