The River Of Wellbeing – The left and right side of our brain can be imagined as the two banks of a river, the ‘River of Wellbeing’
I have been reading a book by Dr Daniel Sigel, a neuropsychiatrist, and Dr Tina Bryson, a
psychotherapist, who specialise in working with children and teenagers. Their book,
The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind,
which was a New York Times’ bestseller, explores how a child’s brain functions and
matures. Importantly, it explains why children behave the way they do, and why they can
appear to be out of control. Sigel and Bryson, offer a new approach to child rearing with 12
key strategies that help healthy brain development, leading to happier and calmer children.
It is an interesting read with readily appliable strategies and the next few blog posts are
summaries I have compiled from the book.
THE RIVER OF WELLBEING – Part One
The left and right side of our brain can be imagined as the two banks of a river, the ‘River of
Wellbeing’ (Siegel & Bryson, 2012), down which we float, day to day, in our own little canoe.
When life is going well, when we feel calm and not fazed by changing situations and when
we feel we have an understanding of ourselves, our life and those around us, we can sit and
enjoy the journey down the river from the calmness the middle affords.
All too often though as we travel throughout our day, we find ourselves being pulled closer
to either bank of the river and becoming stuck. When this happens, we move further away
from emotional and mental health and less able to respond flexibly to challenging situations
and difficult thoughts and feelings. The two sides of the river of wellbeing are called: Chaos
The Bank of Chaos – Right brain
The right side of our brain is focused on emotion, images, personal memories, intuition and
gut feelings. It sends and receive signals allowing us to communicate through facial
expressions, eye contact, gestures and tone of voice. The right brain is concerned about the
meaning and feeling of experiences and relationships and focuses on the big picture. It
concerns itself with the context of the situation rather than the content and is strongly
connected to our body sensations and input from the lower part of our brain, which
combine together to create emotions.
The right brain, highly present in 0-3 year olds, also experiences emotional waves and
floods. When this happens, we find ourselves veering too close to the bank of Chaos, feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotions and body sensations. We can feel out of control,
knocked around by the rapids close to the bank or inundated by the crashing emotional
waves. At these times, we need the perspective of our left brain to help us handle the
emotions we are feeling.
Bank of Rigidity – Left brain
The left brain, which comes into the picture around the time children start asking ‘why?’, is
interested in cause and effect. It is the logical, literal and linguistic side of the brain, placing
things in sequential order and using language to express logic. The left brain gives us order
and structure, however it is very literal and can lose perspective. Helpfully, this side of the
brain enables us to express emotion in words thus helping us ride the emotional waves
coming from the right side.
When we float too close to the bank of Rigidity, we can become inflexible and less able to
adapt, negotiate and compromise. We can become too literal, losing perspective of the
situation and missing the meaning of putting things into context. We can miss nonverbal
cues and only hear the words spoken to us and we try to control everyone and everything.
This bank of the river often feels more predictable and seems like a safe place to retreat to
when we are feeling emotionally overwhelmed. The flipside to retreating however, is that
the right brain and its feelings can often be ignored or denied, and we can find ourselves in
an emotional desert. When this happens, we or our children often appear distant with
blank expressions, voicing statements like ’I don’t care’.
As luck would have it, we often find ourselves zig-zagging from bank to bank throughout our
day, not only dealing with our own situations, but also the zig-zagging of our children who
also have their own boat on their own river of wellbeing. Our challenge as parents often
results from when our children are not in the flow of their own river and when they are
either being too chaotic or too rigid. For example, not sharing a toy – rigidity, losing the plot
when another child takes the toy from them – chaos.
How can we as parents help our children move back into the flow of the river, into a state
that avoids both chaos and rigidity?
Read Part Two here.
This post is written by Anna Young B.Nursing, GradDipNursing (Mental Health), M.Counselling, a Nurse Counsellor in Brisbane and mother of 2 kids.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to
nurture your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.