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How to help your children thrive – not just survive

Survive and Thrive

You’ve had those days, right? When the sleep deprivation, the muddy shoes, the peanut butter on the new jacket, the homework battles, the Play-Doh in your computer keyboard, and the refrains of ‘She started it!’ leave you counting the minutes until bedtime. On these days, when you (again?!!) have to pry a raisin from a nostril, it seems like the most you can hope for is to survive.

However, when it comes to your children, you’re aiming a lot higher than mere survival. Of course, you want to get through those difficult tantrum-in-the-restaurant moments. But your ultimate goal is to raise kids in a way that lets them thrive. You want them to enjoy meaningful relationships, be caring and compassionate, do well in school, work hard and be responsible, and feel good about who they are.

Survive. Thrive.

We’ve met with thousands of parents over the years. When we ask them what matters most to them, versions of these two goals almost always top the list. They want to survive difficult parenting moments, and they want their kids and their family to thrive. As parents ourselves, we share these same goals for our own families.

In our nobler, calmer, saner moments, we care about nurturing our kids’ minds, increasing their sense of wonder, and helping them reach their potential in all aspects of life. But in the more frantic, stressful moments, sometimes all we can hope for is to avoid yelling.

We’ve got great news for you: the moments you are just trying to survive are actually opportunities to help your child thrive. At times you may feel that the loving, important moments (like having a meaningful conversation about compassion or character) are separate from the parenting challenges (like fighting another homework battle or dealing with another meltdown). But they are not separate at all. When your child is disrespectful and talks back to you, when you find crayon scribbles all over your wall: these are survive moments, no question about it. But at the same time, they are opportunities, because a survive moment is also a thrive moment, where the important, meaningful work of parenting takes place.

Think about a situation you often just try to get through. Maybe when your kids are fighting with each other for the third time within three minutes. (Not too hard to imagine, is it?) Instead of just breaking up the fight and sending the sparring siblings to different rooms, you can use the argument as an opportunity for teaching: about reflective listening and hearing another person’s point of view; about clearly and respectfully communicating your own desires; about compromise, sacrifice, negotiation, and forgiveness. We know: it sounds hard to imagine in the heat of the moment. But when you understand a little bit about your children’s emotional needs and mental states, you can create this kind of positive outcome — even without United Nations peacekeeping forces.

There’s nothing wrong with separating your kids when they’re fighting. It’s a good survival technique, and in certain situations it may be the best solution. But often we can do better than just ending the conflict and noise. We can transform the experience into one that develops not only each child’s brain but also their relationship skills and character. Over time, the siblings will each continue to grow and become more proficient at handling conflict without parental guidance. This will be just one of the many ways you can help them thrive.

What’s great about this survive-and-thrive approach is that you don’t have to try to carve out special time to help your children thrive. You can use all of the interactions you share — the stressful, angry ones as well as the miraculous, adorable ones — as opportunities to help them become the responsible, caring, capable people you want them to be. That’s what this is all about: using those everyday moments with your kids to help them be more themselves, more at ease in the world, filled with more resilience and strength – to reach their true potential. How do you do that? Our answer is simple: you need to understand some basics about the young brain that you are helping to grow and develop.


What Is Integration and Why Does It Matter?

Most of us don’t think about the fact that our brain has many different parts with different jobs. For example, you have a left side of the brain that helps you think logically and organize thoughts into sentences, and a right side that helps you experience emotions and

read nonverbal cues. You also have a “reptile brain” that allows you to act instinctually and make split-second survival decisions, and a “mammal brain” that leads you toward connection and relationships. One part of your brain is devoted to dealing with memory; another to making moral and ethical decisions. It’s almost as if your brain has multiple personalities — some rational, some irrational; some reflective, some reactive. No wonder we can seem like different people at different times!

The key to thriving is to help these parts work well together — to integrate them. Integration takes the distinct parts of your brain and helps them work together as a whole. It’s similar to what happens in the body, which has different organs to perform different jobs: the lungs breathe air, the heart pumps blood, the stomach digests food. For the body to be healthy, these organs all need to do their individual job while also working together as a whole. Integration is simply that: linking different elements together to make a well-functioning whole. It’s easy to see when our kids aren’t integrated — they become overwhelmed by their emotions, confused and chaotic. They can’t respond calmly and capably to the situation at hand. Tantrums, meltdowns, aggression and most of the other challenging experiences of parenting — and life — are a result of a loss of integration, also known as dis-integration.

We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. For example, 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.

The way integration actually takes place is fascinating. In recent years, scientists have developed brain-scanning technology that allows researchers to study the brain in ways that were never before possible. One of the surprises that has shaken the very foundations of neuroscience is the discovery that the brain is actually “plastic,” or mouldable. This means that the brain physically changes throughout the course of our lives, not just in childhood, as we had previously assumed.

Right now, your child’s brain is constantly being wired and rewired, and the experiences you provide will go a long way toward determining the structure of her brain. No pressure, right? Don’t worry, though. Nature has provided that the basic architecture of the brain will develop well given proper food, sleep and stimulation. Genes, of course, play a large role in how people turn out, especially in terms of temperament. But findings from various areas in developmental psychology suggest that everything that happens to us — the music we hear, the people we love, the books we read, the kind of discipline we receive, the emotions we feel — profoundly affects the way our brain develops. Parents have much they can do to provide the kinds of experiences that will help develop a resilient, well- integrated brain.

For example, children whose parents talk with them about their experiences tend to have better access to the memories of those experiences. Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully. Shy children whose parents nurture a sense of courage by offering supportive explorations of the world tend to lose their behavioural inhibition, while those who are excessively protected or insensitively thrust into anxiety-provoking experiences without support tend to maintain their shyness.

Let’s look at another example. Now that you and your siblings are adults, do you still fight over who gets to push the button for the elevator? Of course not. (Well, we hope not.) But do your kids squabble and bicker over this kind of issue? If they’re typical kids, they do.

The reason behind this difference brings us back to the brain and integration. Sibling rivalry is like so many other issues that make parenting difficult — tantrums, disobedience, homework battles, discipline matters, and so on. These everyday parenting challenges result from a lack of integration within your child’s brain. The reason her brain isn’t always capable of integration is simple: it hasn’t had time to develop. In fact, it’s got a long way to go, since a person’s brain isn’t considered fully developed until she reaches her mid-twenties.

So that’s the bad news: you have to wait for your child’s brain to develop. That’s right. No matter how brilliant you think your preschooler is, she does not have the brain of a ten-year-old, and won’t for several years. The rate of brain maturation is largely influenced by the genes we inherit. But the degree of integration may be exactly what we can influence in our day-to-day parenting.

The good news is that by using everyday moments, you can influence how well your child’s brain grows toward integration. First, you can develop the diverse elements of your child’s brain by offering opportunities to exercise them. Second, you can facilitate integration so that the separate parts become better connected and work together in powerful ways. This isn’t making your children grow up more quickly — it’s simply helping them develop the many parts of themselves and integrate them. 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. As a result, they will thrive emotionally, intellectually and socially. An integrated brain results in improved decision making, better control of body and emotions, fuller self-understanding, stronger relationships, and success in school. And it all begins with the experiences parents and other caregivers provide, which lay the groundwork for integration and mental health.