When you’re in a “Yes” brain state, everything seems possible – you’re courageous, resilient, and creative. When you’re in a “No” brain state it’s nearly impossible to learn, grow, or interact in a positive way with others. This yes/no brain state impacts everything you do – how you meet the world, and, if you have children, how you show up as a parent. So how do you cultivate a “Yes” brain state in yourself? How do you teach the children in your life to recognize the signs of being in a “No” brain state – and, even better, show them how to shift back into a “Yes” brain? Today we’re talking with Dr. Dan Siegel, founder of interpersonal neurobiology and co-author (along with Tina Payne Bryson) of the new book “The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child.” His strategies for understanding your own reactivity will transform your relationships and your parenting. You can also help the children in your life understand their own emotional world, and show them how to come back online after big emotions get the best of them.
Here is a link to my first conversation with Dan Siegel – Episode 57: Mastering Mindfulness in Your Relationship
Click here to receive the Transcript for Dan Siegel
Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host Neil Sattin. How do you show up when there are kids involved? In other words, how do you bring what we know today about attachment and the best way to parent children into the context of your relationship so that whether it’s your own children or you’re entering a relationship where children already exist, you know the best way to show up to help kids interact with you in ways that are positive and to help them have successful outcomes? In other words, have lives where they feel happy and fulfilled and like they really know themselves well. These are the questions that we’re going to cover in today’s episode and we’re going to talk about it in a way that not only gets at the heart of how we parent, but also how we ourselves show up to the equation. So we’re not acting on our children or with our children mechanistically or like behaviorists trying to get them to do the right thing and jump through the right hoop. We’re bringing to bear everything we know about our own emotional makeup and how we interact with the world to help our kids also have positive, alive interactions with the world, ’cause that’s what we’re all about on this show.
Neil Sattin: In order to have this conversation, we’re going to be talking with Dan Siegel, who is returning to the show after his last episode, which was all about mindsight. Today, we’re going to talk about his latest book which is just coming out, co-written with Tina Payne Bryson, called “The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity and Resilience in Your Child.” And I have to laugh at that a little bit only because I feel like on this show we’re often talking about how to cultivate courage, curiosity and resilience in each other and in ourselves in our relationships. So who better to have on this show than Dan Siegel, the father of interpersonal neurobiology, which is at the cutting edge of the science of how we relate and how the way that we relate affects our brains, our biochemistry and our ability to be healthy and alive and effective in the world and not crippled by anxiety or depression or disconnection. So Dan Siegel, thank you so much for joining us again today on Relationship Alive.
Dan Siegel: Neil, it’s an honor to be here with you.
Neil Sattin: Great, great. I think a great place to start is at the end. And I like to start there only because sometimes it helps provide a really nice context for the overall conversation. And by the end, I’m thinking about the end of your book where you start talking about what is it that we’re really after in children? How do we measure success and I’m wondering if you can talk for a moment about the kind of culture clash that’s happening in terms of how we encourage this kind of external success and sometimes we’re missing out on the internal success that The Yes Brain is all about.
Dan Siegel: Well Neil, you’ve picked up on, I think, one of the central issues that Tina Bryson and I really wanted to address in The Yes Brain book and in our work as teachers and clinicians and in our life as parents and partners with our spouses, this idea of thinking deeply about what success is for ourselves and for our kids, is at the heart of a strategy for how you parent because if you’re just going along with what in modern society you hear is a measure of success like what your numbers achievement is, like what kind of elite college you get into, or your bank account alone or the number of cars you have, or these things that you can measure in numerical ways that give us a feeling like, “I could always do more. I don’t have enough fans on my social media page. I didn’t get enough hits when I put out that photograph.” You can always feel like there’s someone who’s doing better than you. We even have a set of circuits in the brain that are ready to give us a comparative stance toward other people and if success is measured by these very common, contemporary culture ways of saying, “Yes, I achieved this bank account and yes, I have this kind of car and yes, these are the number of things I have.” Then it’s a treadmill that continually leads to a feeling of inadequacy and I gotta do more and more and more and more.
Dan Siegel: In contrast to that kind of treadmill that goes nowhere but that most of us get on, even as parents thinking about what we want for our kids, in contrast to that, think about the idea that someone could develop an internal compass that gave them a feeling of incredible gratitude for being alive, for the privilege of having this journey that we call a lifetime for the honor of connecting with other people. For the excitement of having curiosity for what the world and life is all about, for the way we can have this courage to actually try new things beyond what we’re just given. And when life doesn’t go the way we may have expected it to go, we have the resilience to bounce back. So that resilience and creativity and courage come from an internal compass, that you can help construct in a child as you parent them in a certain strategy that we call a ‘Yes Brain’ strategy.
Dan Siegel: So in The Yes Brain book, what we’ve done is give a way to parent with discipline, with structure, so sometimes people hear the word Yes Brain and they’d go, “Oh, permissive parenting.” And that’s not at all what we mean. What we mean is that you as a parent have the opportunity to understand that the brain can get into a No Brain state. And that’s where you’re feeling threatened, where you feel inadequate, where you activate these survival reactions of fight, flight, freeze and faint, the four Fs, that come along with the reactive No Brain state. And in that No Brain state that comes when you say, “No” harshly several times, is the thing I do in workshops. That shuts down learning and shuts down your access even to connecting not just with other people but even to your own internal compass.
Dan Siegel: And in contrast, that you can cultivate a Yes Brain state which is where a person feels open to new experience. Aware that life is about challenges and disciplined effort, and that sometimes what you accomplish with your effort isn’t what you expected, and we call that a disappointment, some people call that an un-success or a failure. But instead of collapsing with that experience, you rise up and say, “Wow, here’s an opportunity for more learning, for me to try again, for me to learn new skills.” And then when you do that, there’s where you get the courage and resilience, and really the ability to say, “Let me try things in new ways,” which is what creativity is.
Dan Siegel: So when we use those phrases, you know, creativity and courage and resilience, we don’t use them lightly. We’re literally defining them very carefully, talking about what’s the brain state that enables them, and then giving parents strategies for basically creating a Yes Brain state, which develops the trait of courage, the trait of creativity, the trait of resilience, and that’s what the whole approach is about.
Neil Sattin: Now, are parents going to be able to create, or cultivate, a Yes Brain state for their kids without getting to know a Yes Brain state for themselves?
Dan Siegel: Well, the first step is exactly like you’re saying, Neil. It’s about having the insight to feel inside yourself when you’re reactive, that’s the No Brain state versus when you’re receptive, that’s the Yes Brain state. And so the first step is to know yourself. And in a book I wrote, Parenting from the Inside Out, with Mary Hartzell, that book was all about the research finding that parents who do have self awareness, and especially awareness of how their own past shaped their present experience of being alive and their present experience of parenting. Those parents are actually the ones most likely to have a relationship with their child that cultivates security. Secure attachment is the best predictor of what we can do as parents to help our children have resilience, basically.
Dan Siegel: So, when you look at that research, it shows that yeah, exactly like you’re saying, “Self awareness is the starting place.” And then once you have that self awareness, then you say, “Okay, well, that’s my inner reflective skills, now what do I do with my parenting actions?” And that’s where you get onto the Yes Brain approach where we say, “Okay, your goal as a parent is, he has to know what a Yes Brain feels like and a No Brain feels like, so that you learn from the inside out.” How… If you are doing things with your child that are repeatedly creating a sense of threat, or your child is coming home from school and feeling that threat state. Not from anything you did but from what happens with their peers, or teachers, or being on the internet. There are all sorts of things that create a No Brain state. Whatever it is, your sensing it in yourself is the starting place so you can then sense it in your child.
Dan Siegel: And then when you sense that fighting, fleeing, freezing or fainting, No Brain set of re-activities, then you can teach them how to move from a No Brain state to a Yes Brain state. So instead of being shut down in either rigidity or chaos, you actually allow them to transition into a Yes Brain state. And we teach these very practical steps on how to do that, so now your child is in a receptive Yes Brain state where learning happens, openness to new things happens, connecting with others happens, and even developing this internal compass which is basically a feeling in your gut and a feeling in your heart that gives you this literally felt experience that directs you even beyond words in your mind or beyond the thoughts you might have. It’s kind of an internal compass, is what I call it, that is directing you to the true north of things that matter to you and things that are important in your relationships with others.
Neil Sattin: So perhaps a great place to dive in would be to talk about the different characteristics of The Yes Brain and how we actually can… Some actual strategies as parents for helping children understand these concepts and then to put them into practice. And I really think this is great because so much of the work that we’re doing here in relationship has been about helping people recognize when they are triggered. And we had Steve Porges back on the show in episode… What was it? 34, to talk about Polyvagal Theory and basically what’s happening in our brains. But what I love about your book is that it makes it really practical to see not only how it happens in a child, but also ways to talk about it that get you some place else so you’re not feeling trapped by your biology. So maybe we should start with balance. That’s the first concept that you talk about. And so how do you convey what balance means?
Dan Siegel: Right. Well, the first thing to say in terms of people who love acronyms is I’m kind of an acronym nut, so the whole book is an acronym of… Especially if you like cheese, it’ll be easy to remember, it’s Brie cheese. So the first of B-R-I-E, I don’t know if you noticed that Neil, but is balance. And here the idea is just to start with I think that beautiful way you introduced this segment of our conversation is the sense of awareness we have of our internal state. In our interpersonal neurobiology series, Steve Porges has two books in our series, one is the Polyvagal Theory, the other is the Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory, both beautiful books. And the idea is that you have a physiological state, which we can describe in a moment. And the key to making this practical in a parent’s life is for you as a parent, or ’cause you were just talking about a relationship with… Close relationships, with you as a partner to become aware of what that internal state is.
Dan Siegel: And a state basically means a pattern of energy and information flow that’s happening. And we can talk about an inner state; so the internal milieu of your whole bodily system, including what happens in your head. So when we talk about the brain, it’s really the embodied brain. It’s never just the head alone. Even though we’re all excited about the brain, ’cause we can now look beneath the skull. But it’s really the embodied brain. But you even have a relational state, you can call that an interstate, but you’ll probably think it’s a highway going between Tennessee and another state. So these inner states and interstates are patterns of energy and information flow. So for example, in the relational world, I work with two wonderful researchers at MIT, Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, and we’re studying something that we call generative social fields.
Dan Siegel: And in this work, what we’re trying to do is identify relational fields – that is social connections, relationships, that we call a social field – that have a generative quality to them. That is, they promote curiosity, they promote creativity, they promote compassion, anything with a C. It’s good stuff. I think they’re what are called integrative fields. Integrative means you honor differences and promote linkages. That’s my take on it, for the work Peter, Otto and I are doing. And if you look at it that way, you say, “Well, what is it really comprised of?” And from an interpersonal neurobiology point of view, the field I work in, energy and information flow is something that happens between us as well as within us. So you can look at a field, which is energy and information flow patterns, flow is change, information is a pattern of energy with symbolic value.
Dan Siegel: Energy is this process that has CLIFF variables, another acronym that’s contours, locations, intensities, frequencies and forms. And other aspects to it too, that you can look at how literally energy is being shared within a relationship. And then within us, we also have these energy and information of flow states. And these are the inner states, that Steve beautifully described in The Polyvagal Theory, that could activate the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve or the ventral branch. And you can also look at how not just the parasympathetic but the sympathetic system is involved, and to say it very… In an outline kind of way, when we’re threatened, a system that Steve calls neuroception, that is constantly looking for, “Am I safe? Am I not safe? Am I safe? Am I not safe?” The neuroceptive monitoring process ascertains even without consciousness, “Right now, I am not safe. I am being threatened.” And when it does that, it can go down one of two major pathways. One is an activating pathway that turns on the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. That’s a branch that comes down from the head brain into the body.
Neil Sattin: And that’s fight, flight, right?
Dan Siegel: That’s fight, flight, freeze even. The freeze part is tightening up your muscles to figure out, “Should I fight or should I flee?” [chuckle] So it’s like giving yourself temporary paralysis. It’s a very activating system. I know in the past, everyone called that the third part of the system. But actually what Steve, and Pat Ogden and I did in a book I wrote called The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology – we wanted make it clear for people that there’s actually four Fs. That you have an activating freeze, which is sympathetic, but then that is like the accelerator, but the fourth F is fainting or feigning death, which is when you activate the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, you shut down heart rate, you shut down blood pressure, and literally, if it’s extreme enough, you faint. And there’s all sorts of benefits to collapsing, because basically, carnivores don’t eat dead meat. So that if they think you’re dead, and you fainted, they’ll throw you around but they won’t eat you, and you’ll survive. The other is the telephone booth phenomenon, whereas we don’t have telephone booths for the most part anymore because if people heard of bad news on a telephone call, and you fainted but stayed sitting up, then it would be terrible for you. So, that’s not good. So you want to, if you’re not getting blood flow going to you and you’re fainting, you want to be flat.
Neil Sattin: Oh, so if you’re in a phone booth, keep the door open before… [chuckle]
Dan Siegel: Keep the door open for sure [chuckle] absolutely. So anyway, those are just funny little stories, but the bottom line is you have this parasympathetic, dorsal branch of the vagus nerve that shuts you down, collapses in the faint… A faint situation when you feel totally helpless, that’s one response to threat. And the other three are activating, freezing up; thought, fleeing or fighting. So the bottom line, any of those three are all threat reactions either shutting down or activating you to temporarily paralyze yourself, or run or fight. And these states are not open to new learning. So, when you move from those reactive states of a threat, which you can induce in a workshop, let’s say by saying no, or if you’re a parent and you’re constantly screaming no at your kid, you’re always creating a No Brain state. So a Yes Brain state is when your neuroceptive system, that’s Porges’ term, is assessing, “Okay, I’m no longer threatened.” And then turns on Steve’s beautiful phrase of a social engagement system that then relaxes your muscles instead of getting ready for fight or getting ready to run or tighten you up or collapsing you.
Dan Siegel: You actually improve the way you’re relaxing into what’s going on. You’re more receptive to what’s happening. The bandwidth of sound that you can take in is much broader. You’re open to engaging, not just with others but even with yourself, and you’re ready to take risks and try out new things. And that’s what learning depends on, and creativity depends on, and curiosity is nourished by this Yes Brain state. The Yes Brain state is the receptive, open, connecting state that we want to relate to our children and how we want to relate to our partners. And it’s where optimal learning takes place. So as a parent, when you learn to feel the difference in yourself and in your partner and in your child of a Yes Brain versus a No Brain state, you learn to create that balance of a Yes Brain state. That’s the balancing part. And the resilience of the BRIE acronym is you learn that when you’re in a No Brain reactive state of either chaos or rigidity that tend to come with those states, you learn to help a person move from those reactive states of no, the No Brain, to the receptive state of a Yes Brain. And that’s what resilience is – how you come back into this optimal receptive Yes Brain state.
Neil Sattin: So in an ideal world with our kids, one, how are we opening them up to this awareness of what’s happening within them? And two, what is our task, when… ‘Cause how many times have you witnessed or maybe experienced this yourself, where your child is going offline, [chuckle] they’re getting really frustrated or whatever it is, and the impulse is to want to intervene right there and say, “You know, you shouldn’t do that or you shouldn’t hit your sister or whatever it is”? And what you’ve just explained is exactly why children aren’t going to be receptive to anything that’s trying to explain to them why they should or shouldn’t be doing whatever it is they’re doing in that moment. So how do we invite our children into this knowledge, and how do we show up as parents when we start to sense that our children’s neuroception is telling them that they’re not safe for whatever reason?
Dan Siegel: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Let’s start with the first part of your question, which is just so clear and so elegant. The idea is as a parent to remember that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. There just isn’t. And why in all my parenting books, I always put the ways I’ve goofed up as a parent and my kids are always dismayed.
Dan Siegel: In their terms, why am I sharing what a jerk I can be, [chuckle] ’cause I tell them, I want people to know, that no one does perfect parenting. Even if you’re writing books on it, have your degrees in this area, you’re board certified, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t matter. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. So we need to support each other on the journey, because when you’ve made a rupture to the direction you’re trying to take, it’s really important to make a repair. So that’s the place to start. And you say, “Well, what’s this whole rupture repair thing all about?” And so you start with this idea of a No Brain state. So, as you’re saying Neil, if your child or an… You could translate everything we’re saying, by the way, for a close friendship or a romance or anything. We’re talking about the teaching part about it. That maybe a little different in parenting. But connecting it’s the same fundamental issue. So when your child enters a No Brain state, fighting, fleeing, freezing, collapsing – they tend to go towards these rigid or chaotic states that can induce in you – as the parent – a similar state as you’re present for them and attuned to them. That attunement is focusing on their internal world, you can begin to then resonate with that.
Dan Siegel: Now, if you’ve not taken the time to become more skillful at being self aware- and what self aware means is nothing fancy – it means, what’s your body’s state right now? Are you reactive – in a No Brain state? Or are you receptive in a Yes Brain state? That’s the first question. And if you’re in a No Brain state, there’s no good parenting that can happen when you’re in a No Brain state. So you need to use your own balance and resilience and get yourself back into a Yes Brain state no matter what your child’s doing. Now that’s a skill you can develop, and we teach you how to develop that in the book, which I can talk about in a moment. But in terms of directly connecting with your kid, you need to make sure you yourself are in a Yes Brain state first. Now, they keep on screaming or yelling or whatever they’re doing in their reactive No Brain state, you need to realize that’s going to start inducing frustration in you. If you’re in public, it may induce a feeling of shame. You may start getting angry and frustrated, both with your kid and with yourself. And in that social situation, if it’s public, you can start losing your temper, even though you don’t want to. And even in private, you can feel like, “Wow. I’m at my wit’s end. I can’t do this anymore.”
Dan Siegel: When you get to those kinds of places of No Brain reactivity in yourself, you need to take a break. And depending on the age of your kid, if your kid is not hurting herself, and can be left alone, you need to go for a walk, take a stretch, get a drink of water. You need to get yourself back into a Yes Brain state. So that’s the first thing to say. A lot of our meltdowns in parenting, a lot of the ruptures that happen are when we ourselves are in a No Brain state, and we try to parent in that state. It is not possible. And what people tend to do is, they justify their behaviors, hitting their kids, squeezing their arm, cursing at them, demeaning them. And they say, my kid deserved it. And you see, and I’ve seen this even in my friends, this kind of rationalization, that what they’ve done in that No Brain state, which in that state felt right, and then they remember that they did it. They then, when they’re out of that state, justify it. And it is the saddest thing, because it actually is not very helpful to their kid. And it’s actually creating this prison for themselves as they continue to rationalize that what they’ve been doing and this pseudo-strategy for parenting that’s coming from this reactivity is okay. They think somehow it’s a sign of strength.
Neil Sattin: Can I ask you a quick question about that actually?
Dan Siegel: Yeah. Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Because I think, I hear from some parents this notion that “I can’t let my child see that I’m uncertain”. Or “I’m supposed to be providing safety for my child, so that’s going to be setting harsh limits. And even if they’re freaking out, it’s like me being really clear and direct with them”. And what I’m hearing from you suggests that maybe that’s not entirely true. That there is a way to maintain a child’s sense of safety and at the same time be a fallible human as well.
Dan Siegel: Well, let me ask you something and let me ask your listeners who have asked you those very important questions. When your child gets to be an adolescent and has learned from your role modeling, do you want them to be the kind of adolescent who does something at a party, and then says, “Well, for me to look like a strong friend to my friends, I’ve gotta say that what I did was absolutely right, even if what I did was actually wrong, and I can learn from it?”
Neil Sattin: Right. I’m guessing the answer is, no, I would want them to have an internal moral compass that helps them do what they really, truly think is right in a moment and not be ruled in that way by the need to not stand out or to… Yeah. Or just to be in a reactive place when they are making choices or not really even making choices.
Dan Siegel: So exactly. An internal moral compass, an internal compass is what you can role model for your child. So if, as happens to all of us, you get reactive and are reacting from a No Brain state rather than responding from a Yes Brain state. I’m emphasizing the term ‘Reactivity’ versus ‘Responsivity.’ When you’re receptive in the Yes Brain state, you’re able to respond in a flexible way. When you’re reacting in a No Brain state, it’s coming like a knee-jerk reflex. So we all can get into those No Brain states. If all your child is learning is that sometimes you’re acting like a complete jerk and making no sense and then standing up for what you did in that jerk state you were in, then all they’re learning is that you’re kinda out of your mind.
Dan Siegel: Seriously. And they can’t make sense of it. I’m serious about that. And in contrast, if you say, “Hey, what I did 10 minutes ago, what I did yesterday, what I did two hours ago… ” Whenever you got yourself back into a Yes Brain state. “I just want to tell you, I think what I did was a mistake. I was really frustrated and I was coming from a… ” And now you have the language for this. “I was coming from this No Brain state of reactivity, and any human being can do it, it’s the way the brain works. So it may not be my fault but it is my responsibility to reconnect with you and say, ‘I think what I did was wrong. And I’m going to really try to learn it. Let’s try to understand from that experience.'” Now in all of that stuff, I didn’t say, “You made me act like that, you stupid kid.”
Dan Siegel: ‘Cause any parent can do that, and most parents do do that, and that’s not helpful. You’re the adult. So our kids are learning to be in life by pushing on boundaries. And so coming back to the main thread of this question you’re asking, it’s so beautiful, is what you can do is learn yourself what a No Brain versus Yes Brain state feels like. Sense that in your child, so that you’re role modeling for them, that you’re a human being too. And if you pretend like you’re not, you’re just creating this… Literally, a delusion – a belief that’s not consistent with reality. So if you try to pretend like you’re not a human, unless you are in fact a cyborg robot.
Dan Siegel: But if you are a human being then you are a human being, so to pretend like you’re not one doesn’t make any sense. So goofing up and making a mistake is human and then making a repair of that mistake is heartful humanity. And so, what you want to do is be that full human being. So now what you’re doing is you’re role-modeling for your child that you’re aware of these two states. Now you can very directly, and we do this in The Yes Brain book. We teach you how to understand that in yourself, and understanding your child, and even to teach you how to speak to your child about this, ’cause every child should know about their brain. So you say, “Look, what happened five minutes ago is really hard. I think you were in a No Brain state. You were reactive like that, and I understand why ’cause I got reactive too. We were both really tired, we were really hungry, and we were both frustrated. It was raining, we wanted to go to the zoo. And now we were stuck in the car, and you didn’t want to put on your seatbelt. And I got frustrated and yelled at you, and then you said, you definitely wouldn’t do it, so I forced… ” You know, all the stuff that happens in parenting.
Dan Siegel: So you can tell the story of the experience with the framework that you understand people’s behavior in a No Brain state is quite different from a Yes Brain state. So what you’re doing in that communication is you’re saying to your child, “Behavior is shaped by the mind beneath the behavior; and the mind is shaped, in part, by the state of mind you’re in, which is created by either a No Brain or Yes Brain state. So when you’re feeling reactive and not open to what’s going on, all sorts of things can be said that can be harmful to others or even to self. And so recognizing that that was the state driving it allows you to move from this No Brain state of reactivity and learn the skills of how to move to a Yes Brain state of being receptive.” And listen, the fun thing about this, I gotta say, and it was really beautiful to have Carol Dweck write an endorsement for the book ’cause Carol Dweck has done beautiful work in the mindset of what she calls a fixed versus growth mindset.
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Dan Siegel: And in the fixed mindset it’s like, “I am a fixed way and my behavior just shows it. Whether I succeed or not in a race or with friends at a party or with the way I perform on a test, that shows my innate talents that can’t be changed.” Whereas a growth mindset says, “Hey, I have these things I do.” All those things I just described. “That come from my effort, and the skills I’ve learned, they come from disciplined ways of learning. So if I don’t accomplish what I think I was going to accomplish in a race, or get the score I wanted to on a test, or have a successful outcome at a party where I didn’t know many of the kids, I can use that as a disappointment for sure, okay, but then let that inspire me to learn the skills in a more disciplined way so I can try again.” That’s a growth mindset.
Dan Siegel: And what Carol Dweck beautifully wrote about was that these are skills, “The Yes Brain” approach are skills that parents can use. And they’re also, by the way, the skills that are beneath “Grit” – Angela Duckworth’s work – that allows you to see how a child can have this kind of perseverance in the face of challenge that requires a growth mindset that you can then see the strategies for building grit and a growth mindset.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so I’m wondering if we could just tackle something specific for a moment, because I’m imagining a situation that many parents have multiple times, which is being faced with their child in a state of frustration or disappointment. And you talk beautifully in “The Yes Brain” about this balance as a parent between being differentiated because you want your children to have their experience, but also staying linked to them and feeling with them. So that might be a great way. If you could illustrate, what would you do with a child who was feeling really disappointed about something? What’s a way that you could approach that that would foster their own growth in developing some of this, I think that would be more like resiliency, which you talk about as expanding their ability to handle disappointments and stressful situations without going into the red zone of fight, flight, freeze?
Dan Siegel: Right, exactly, exactly. So if you take the four of those things, the BRIE components of balance, resilience, insight and empathy, let’s do an example that illustrates all four…
Neil Sattin: Great.
Dan Siegel: With what you’re inquiring about, about a frustrating experience. So let’s take that example I gave you. You’re going to the zoo and it starts to… You have pouring rain, so you can’t go to the zoo. Your child, let’s say seven, he was so excited about going to see the panda bears and now he can’t, and it’s really, really raining, so you’ve gotta have an alternative plan. And he is really angry, he won’t put his seatbelt on the back seat, in his car-seat, and you’re just frustrated beyond belief because you wanted to see the pandas too, and you’re both hungry ’cause you were going to go have lunch in the zoo, or all these things. Okay.
Neil Sattin: Right, and now you’re getting frustrated because your child is not putting their seatbelt on and not listening to you and not enabling you to move on to the next thing.
Dan Siegel: Exactly, exactly. And so you get out, you’re getting wet, you’re trying to reach over there and he’s pushing on you ’cause he’s in a fight mode, and you’re trying to buckle that seat and then he hits you in the face. Whatever is going to happen, this can happen.
Neil Sattin: Right. Clearly, neither you nor I has ever experienced this before. [chuckle]
Dan Siegel: No, no, never. I’m talking about theoretical people. And so now he hits you in the face and so now you grab his arm, and now you’re screaming, and he’s crying and he’s looking terrified of you because you look terrifying, and neither of you want to be doing this, but this is what’s happening. [chuckle] This is Parenting 101. So it’s really hard, it’s the basics. Okay, so you take a break, you close the door so he doesn’t get wet, you don’t continue with what you’re doing because you recognize you’re really doing stuff that’s not so good, and maybe you get the umbrella and go for the walk around the car, but you don’t abandon him, maybe go sit in the front seat and say to him, “Joey, let’s both take a couple minutes just to calm down, let’s just focus on your breathing,” and he’s screaming, yelling, but you do not interact with him, but you’re in the car. So you’re not abandoning him, but you’re getting yourself back into the Yes Brain state. We call it the green zone, green for go.
Dan Siegel: So once you’re really in that green zone, you check in with yourself. How’s my heart doing? How are my muscles doing? Is my jaw clenched? You look for, I call it SIFTing the mind. So the S is the sensations in your body we just went over, the I are any kind of images, so maybe you’re seeing red and maybe you’re really furious, and maybe you’re thinking of images of how you’ve spoiled him because you take him to the zoo all the time or whatever. Feelings of frustration or anger. Thoughts. “God, I’ve done a terrible job. This is horrible,” or, “This is what my father always did with me. I’ve made a big mistake in becoming my father.” All these things. So you’re SIFTing your mind.
Dan Siegel: And now, as you sift through this stuff, you’re naming things so you can tame them, because what the studies show is that when you name an emotional state, you can actually regulate it. So this is the insight part of BRIE. And now you’re going to do the E of BRIE, the empathy. You’re going to say, “Well, of course he was frustrated.” He entered a No Brain state ’cause he was hungry and tired; maybe he had a sleepover the night before at a friend’s house or something. And you both didn’t expect it to rain and he loves going to the zoo with you, so of course he’s really disappointed. He’s seven. He’s not 47 like you are; he’s seven.
Dan Siegel: Okay. So, now once you get yourself SIFTed through, you get back into the Yes Brain state. He’s still kicking or whatever he’s doing. So here’s the move. You connect before you redirect, and what you’re doing there is you’re able to say to him, “I can understand why it would be so frustrating for you that we couldn’t go to the zoo.” And then you pause. Now, in that moment what you’re doing is, instead of reacting to his reactivity by saying, “Stop yelling! Stop screaming! It’s okay, blah, blah, blah,” you’re actually attuning to where he’s at. I remember this with another acronym, PART. You’re present for Joey, that’s the P. You’re attuning, this is the A, which means focusing attention on his inner world, not just his kicking legs and his screaming voice. You’re attuning to his inner mental state. In this case, he’s fighting back ’cause he’s in the No Brain state. He’s really mad and upset ’cause he’s really disappointed, so he feels threatened because he didn’t get to have his time with you, all these things. That’s attuning.
Dan Siegel: Resonating is, you are being shaped by his internal state. Maybe initially it was too much and you’ve lost differentiation because you became him. Now you can resonate without over-identifying with him, and that’s fine. You can feel that frustration. And the T of PART… So presence; attunement is focusing on the internal world; resonating is feeling, some of his feelings not becoming him. T is trust, and now trust is created, ’cause you say, “Joey, of course you were frustrated, of course it was so hard. I even understand why – it’s not okay but – you hit me in the face, ’cause you were feeling so mad, because I didn’t recognize how frustrated you were. I get that.”
Dan Siegel: And then you just sit there. Now in that moment, what’s happening to energy and information flow that’s within you and within him, is you’re becoming joined, because you’re not judging his state, you’re not trying to teach him a lesson, you’re not trying to criticize him, you’re just being with him. Instead of being alone, you two are now together. And if you look at the mathematics of that, basically two separate systems becoming joined, as differentiated and now linked, allow the whole system to do what’s called “increased complexity.” Basically it’s becoming more integrated, and the thing that’s really fantastic about that is it becomes more regulated.
Dan Siegel: So instead of being alone in his frustration and fear and fury, he’s now joined with you, and in that joining things start to shift. And in that joining, he moves, little bit by little bit from No Brain reactivity to Yes Brain receptivity. And now, in the joining now, you can then problem-solve together. “We both got really in a No Brain way, didn’t we?” “Yeah, we really did.” He starts to cry, “But I really wanted to see the pandas.” You go, “I know. I did too. Gosh! Oh, my God! I just realized there is a panda movie at the movie theatre. We can go to the movies, if we can get in ’cause maybe everyone is going, so we don’t know we can – but why don’t we go get some lunch first, see when the movie is playing and let’s go to the movies.” “Okay, dad, that’s great.”
Dan Siegel: And so what you’ve done there is so many things. You’ve taught him how he can go from reactivity to receptivity, so that’s the resilience part. You’ve taught him how to feel the joy and the balance, that’s the B part. You’ve taught him that when he’s now joined with you and can reconnect and redirect his focus of attention. The insight is, you’ve taught him that you were aware you would become reactive. And you’re teaching him to become aware of his own state by saying, “Yeah, I guess you were in that reactive state when you hit me. You didn’t want to hurt me but you hit me.” And then the E, the empathy part is, you’re teaching him that you can look beyond the outwardly manifested behaviors, at the mind driving the behaviors.
Dan Siegel: And so often parents don’t learn that skill, and yet it’s a mindsight skill that’s at the basis of… The way we teach an internal compass is, by ourselves, tuning into the internal experience of our child, and then the child learns to focus not only on the internal states of others but on their own internal state. So when we come back to that first question, Neil, would you want your adolescent to have an internal compass that drives their moral decisions? And you said yeah, the answer is yes. This is how you do it. You get them in touch with their internal state beyond just outwardly manifested behaviors. That’s the key. Mindsight skill-building, is the basis of a Yes Brain strategy approach and being real. You are a real human being who is in the real position of being a parent.
Neil Sattin: Well, and I notice with my own son that the more that I show up that way, joining him first and then doing problem-solving, then I’ve just seen his whole emotional state really flourish and blossom just from adopting that approach more and more, and I’ve even… I was experimenting a little bit more aggressively while I was reading “The Yes Brain,” and what I love about this work is that you illustrate it so clearly in the book, and it’s not a very long book, it’s a really easy read, and it’s really practical and has very immediate effects in terms of the lightness, that I was perceiving anyway, in my own children.
Dan Siegel: Exactly. Well, this is the thing that’s so incredibly rewarding for Tina and for myself is, we get together and we think, “Okay, where have our parents in our workshops been asking questions? And what could Tina and I do to try to articulate in a very simple way?” And believe me, it is hard to write a short book [chuckle] ’cause often I write long ones. So to really write in a short way for busy, tired parents, something that actually has immediate, practical things you can do and also a conceptual framework that we’re trying to build in this library of books. We have “The Whole-Brain Child”, “No-Drama Discipline” and the others down the pipe that parents can take in, and instead of them being just separate things, it builds this kind of mindsight approach to parenting.
Neil Sattin: Well, Dan, I really appreciate your work and Tina’s work with this book, and I just have so many questions I could ask you but we’ve reached the top of the hour and I want to honor our time commitment that we made. For you listening, if you’re interested in finding out more about Dan’s work and mindsight, you can listen to episode 57 of the Relationship Alive podcast. You can also download the transcript and the action guide from this episode if you visit neilsattin.com/yesbrain, and we will have a link to Dan Siegel’s website, this book, his other books, so that you can get all the information that you need about Dan Siegel and his work. In the meantime, Dan, so much to talk about – so I hope we have the opportunity to chat again in the not too distant future, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Dan Siegel: Neil, thank you and thank you for all your wonderful work in bringing me this material for the world out into access for everyone.
Neil Sattin: It’s my pleasure. You’re most welcome!
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