Fab Fridays 99: Your Child's Developing Brain
5 tactics to nurture your child's developing brain
All parents have moments of difficulty with their kids.
Maybe they’re refusing to put on their shoes or get ready for bed.
But with the right tactics, you can turn these challenges into opportunities for growth and connection.
In their book, The Whole-Brain Child, Drs. Siegel and Bryson share the story of Katie.
She used to love school, but after getting sick in class one day, she started to fight her dad tooth and nail every morning. One morning as he left, she yelled at him, "I'll die if you leave me!"
All kids, including Katie, are still learning to coordinate thoughts and feelings.
Their behavior might look like defiance, but it's actually them struggling to process situations. And with a little brain science, we can better empathize and guide them to handle hard things well.
The human brain has four sections:
left brain = logic
right brain = emotion
upstairs brain = thoughtful
downstairs brain = reactive
In children, these four sections haven’t learned to work together. And when kids’ logic, emotions, thoughtfulness, and instincts aren’t integrated, it makes it very hard for them to handle difficulties well.
It’s like watching a teenage boy play soccer after a big growth spurt. His left leg doesn’t know what his right leg is doing—which inevitably leads to a few awkward tumbles.
Katie, for example, struggled to balance her right-brain emotions with her left-brain logic.
Or consider Grant, a four-year-old who tried to hit his sister for losing his favorite rock. He struggled to balance his downstairs reaction with his upstairs thoughtfulness. Thankfully, their parents have opportunities to help them grow.
Our brains are incredibly plastic. They rewire themselves as we go through experiences and reflect upon them. That means parents can coach kids, help them build their brains, and develop mental health.
Drs. Siegel and Bryson offer a range of helpful insights for parents in their book.
Here are 5 of my favorites:
1. Connect and redirect
Often, kids get overwhelmed with feelings. Maybe they say something confusing like this: “Mom, you never leave me a note in the middle of the night and I hate homework!”
When kids make unreasonable assertions, it’s tempting to respond with demands:
❌ “That doesn't make any sense. And what are you doing out of bed? Go back to your room right now!"
This response addresses their left brain logic—but that’s exactly what they’re struggling to use!
Instead of demands, connect with their right-brain emotions and redirect with left-brain logic:
✅ “Want me to leave you a note tonight? And I’ve got some ideas about homework, but it’s late now, so let’s talk more tomorrow.”
This response shows them how they can accept their strong emotions and give them validity. But also sets a positive example of how they can bring their logic into play and make wise decisions.
Most of all, you’re turning a moment of frustration into an opportunity to connect.
2. Name it to tame it
We usually want to simply move on when kids get overpowered with emotion. But this only coils up their deep feelings, causing them to spring back stronger later on.
Instead, encourage kids to process their emotions out loud with you.
Siegel and Bryson share how one nine-year-old girl named Bella didn’t want to flush the toilet after she saw it overflow once.To help her overcome her fear, her dad sat her down and asked her to tell the story.
She recounted all the details—and soon her fears went away. Bella’s dad helped her activate her left-brain logic. Their conversation let her walk through what happened and tame her anxieties with reason.
As a result, the two sides of her brain had the chance to practice working together.
3. Engage, don’t enrage
When kids don’t get what they want, their downstairs brain tends to take control, triggering a strong gut reaction.
When you don’t get them the necklace they want, they might lash out: “I hate you mommy!”
Our natural instinct is to respond in kind with our own downstairs reaction:
❌ “That is not OK to say. I don’t want you to ever say that again!”
However, their downstairs brain can’t thoughtfully process your correction. Instead, try engaging their upstairs brain:
Them: “I hate you!”
✅ You: “Wow, you’re really mad. Is it because I didn’t get you that necklace?”
Them: “Yes! You’re so mean!”
✅ You: “That necklace wasn’t for sale. It’s ok if you want to keep feeling upset, but if you’d rather, we can be problem-solvers and think of another idea.”
4. Use it or lose it
Kids need their downstairs and upstairs brains to flourish. But when they're little, their upstairs brain needs extra help.
If they rarely practice being thoughtful, they’ll tend to rely too much on their gut and struggle to reach their full potential. As Siegel and Bryson put it:
“The upstairs brain is like a muscle: when it gets used, it develops, gets stronger, and performs better. And when it gets ignored, it doesn’t develop optimally, losing some of its power and ability to function.”
In other words, we need to let kids make decisions for themselves.
They need the chance to weigh different options, consider alternatives, and think through the outcomes of their choices. That practice is critical for their brains to mature and grow stronger.
5. Move it or lose it
We tend to think our brains and bodies are two separate things. But they’re actually intimately connected. As a result, physical activity can be a big help to kids when they’re struggling to stay mentally balanced.
One mother shares how her son was struggling with his homework. When she came in his room, he was curled up into a ball under his bean bag. She encouraged him to sit down and try working again, but he couldn’t make progress. Then, all of the sudden, he darted out of the house and ran several blocks. He came back, settled down, had a snack, and calmly finished his homework with his mom.
In short, a little exercise can go a long way when our kids (or we ourselves) are struggling.
In the above examples, the goal isn’t to teach them some parts of their brains are bad and others are good. To live full lives, we need all four: our emotions, instincts, logic, and thoughtfulness.
The key is to help kids integrate all four parts together so they can develop balanced, healthy brains.
With Siegel and Bryson’s insights, we can gain a deeper understanding of our children. We can go from trying to survive the toughest moments with our kids to sparking deep conversations that’ll help them thrive.
What are some similar tactics you use with your kids?
Have a great weekend,
Ana Lorena Fabrega
P.S. I am on a tight deadline to finish the manuscript of my book, so starting next week you will receive Fab Fridays every two weeks. I intend to have a good draft ready by September this year, right before baby Fer arrives. Thanks for your patience!