Book Review: The Whole-Brain Child


It’s a familiar scene. A young child at the mall, tired and overwhelmed, begins to scream and throw a tantrum, much to their parents’ humiliation and frustration. When this occurs, there might seem to be no logical reason for the continued lashing-out of the emotionally-charged little one. A parent’s diligent efforts to calm their child down are often met with nothing else but further explosions.

Because a child’s brain will not completely develop until their early twenties, it is no wonder that he struggles to handle a situation like an adult. That is not to say, however, that there are not things parents can do to assist in the development of their child’s brain and self-control skills. One of the most influential books in understanding how to work with children through their problem behaviors is The Whole Brain Child, written by neuropsychiatrist, Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and psychotherapist, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. From their real experiences in raising their own children, Siegel and Bryson offer an entertaining, practical guide and relatable counsel on dealing with such tricky situations, all from a basis on brain science.

The following are three of the twelve guidelines given in The Whole Brain Child, Connect and Redirect”, “Name it to Tame it”, and “Engage Don’t Enrage”:  

  • The Right Brain and the Left Brain. A child’s brain- and everyone’s- consists of two sides. The right side is focused on the emotional, autobiographical, and experiential aspects of daily experiences. The left brain handles the logical, linguistic, and literal thoughts of the mind. A child’s right side of the brain tends to take over for her under-developed left-side.
  • Connect and Redirect. When a child is upset and flooded with emotion, their right brain is completely in control, and it doesn’t do any good to try and use logic or reasoning with your child. First, an adult must connect with the child’s right brain, through validating their emotions, non-judgmental listening, and a sympathetic touch. Once this is done, a child can calm down enough for a parent to redirect them to thinking and reasoning about their behavior, recognizing the physical needs that might be behind the behavior like fatigue or hunger. Sometimes a consequence for behavior is needed, and sometimes a child needs to wait out the difficult emotions and calm down.
  • Name it to Tame it. Giving a name to a child’s feelings can be powerful for calming them down.
  • Additionally, Siegel and Bryson compare a child’s brain to a house with an “upstairs” and a “downstairs”. The upstairs brain is in charge of planning, self-control, decision making, empathy, and introspection. This part of the brain is still “under construction” during childhood, and so a child often acts on the downstairs brain, which is in charge of impulses, emotional reactions, automatic responses, physical needs, strong emotions, and “basic functions.” Being “stuck in the downstairs brain” means that your child might seem to lose control, acting on a knee-jerk response or an impulse, rather than a planned-out response.
  • Engage don’t Enrage. Trying to make children act a certain way when they are operating at a downstairs level, may only lead to them being more angry Compromise and problem solving can help ease them to learn to think at a higher level, by engaging the upstairs brain.

This book is one of my personal favorites because of the clear way it explains the development that is happening in a young child’s brain and how it presents truly effective strategies for guiding children towards positive management of emotions.

It all begins with an understanding of how the brain works! 

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Empowered to Connect Organization. (2017). The whole brain child. Retrieved from:

Divecha, D. (Feb. 15, 2012). A guide to your child’s brain. In Greater Good Magazine: Science-based insights for a meaningful life. Retrieved from:

Ingham, F. (Mar 1, 2013). The Whole brain child: 12 strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Retrieved from:

Siegel, Daniel J., and Tina Payne Bryson. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.

Video of Dr. Siegel sharing about the importance of left and right brain integration.

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