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How to Inspire Your Child to Be More Courageous, Curious and Resilient

Photograph by Twenty20

“There’s so much I want for my kids: happiness, emotional strength, academic success, social skills, a strong sense of self and more. It’s hard to know where to even start. What characteristics are most important to focus on to help them live happy, meaningful lives?”

As doctors, we get some version of this question everywhere we go. Parents want to help their kids become people who can handle themselves well and make good decisions, even when life is challenging. They want them to care for others but also know how to stand up for themselves. They want them to be independent and also enjoy mutually rewarding relationships. They want them to avoid melting down when things don’t go their way.

Whew! That’s quite a list, and it can put a lot of pressure on us as parents (or as professionals who work with kids). So, where should we focus our attention?

Our book "The Yes Brain" is our attempt to offer a response to that question. The essential idea is that parents can help children develop a "Yes Brain," which produces four key characteristics:

  • Balance: the ability to manage emotions and behavior, so kids are less likely to flip their lids and lose control
  • Resilience: the ability to bounce back when life’s inevitable problems and struggles arise
  • Insight: the ability to look within and understand themselves, then use what they learn to make good decisions and be more in control of their lives
  • Empathy: the ability to understand the perspective of another, then care enough to take action to make things better when appropriate

In "The Yes Brain," we discuss practical ways you can nurture these qualities in your children and teach them these important life skills. You really can help your kids become more emotionally balanced, more resilient in the face of struggles, more insightful when it comes to understanding themselves, and more empathic and caring toward others.

This science-inspired approach is about helping kids say "yes" to the world. It’s about encouraging them to open their minds to new challenges, to new opportunities, to who they already are and all they can become.

If you’ve heard Dan speak, you may have participated in an exercise where he asks his audience to close their eyes and pay attention to their bodily and emotional responses when he repeats a particular word. He begins by somewhat harshly saying “no” over and over again. He repeats it seven times, then switches to “yes,” which he says much more gently, again and again. He then asks the audience members to open their eyes and describe what they experienced.

They report that the “no” portion of the exercise left them feeling shut down, upset, tense and defensive, whereas when Dan repeated the affirming “yes,” they felt open, calm, relaxed and lighter. The muscles of their face and vocal cords relaxed, their breathing and heart rate normalized, and they became more open, as opposed to restricted or insecure or oppositional. (Feel free to close your eyes now and try the exercise for yourself. Maybe enlist the help of a relative or friend. Notice what goes on in your body as you repeatedly hear the word “no” and then “yes.”)

This science-inspired approach is about encouraging kids to open their minds to new challenges, to new opportunities, to who they already are and all they can become.

These two different responses—the “yes” response and the “no” response—give you an idea of what we mean when we talk about a "Yes Brain," as well as its opposite, a "No Brain." If you expand that and think about it as an overall outlook on life, a "No Brain" leaves you feeling reactive when you interact with people, which makes it nearly impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defense kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight-flight-freeze-or-faint response: Fight means lashing out, flight means escaping, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself, and faint means collapsing and feeling utterly helpless. Any of these four reactive responses to threat can become triggered, preventing you from being open, connecting to others and offering flexible responses. That’s the reactive "No Brain" state.

The "Yes Brain," in contrast, emerges from different circuits in the brain that become activated and lead to receptivity rather than reactivity. Scientists use the term “social engagement system” to refer to the set of neural circuits that help us connect openly with others—and even our own inner experience. As a result of receptivity and an active social engagement system, we feel much more capable of addressing challenges in a strong, clear and flexible way. In this "Yes Brain" state, we open ourselves to a sense of equanimity and harmony, allowing us to absorb, assimilate and learn from new information.

("The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child," by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., is available now.)