Finding the Balance Between Chaos and Rigidity

If you want something done right, do it yourself. This phrase was originally credited to emperor Napoleon and perfectly represents rigidity. Many of us are control freaks and delegating to other people, even spouses, can be difficult. But when we relinquish control, we have to endure some uncertainty, which can lead to chaos. And we don’t like chaos, either.

I just finished The Whole Brain Child, which explores these ideas from a neurological perspective. It turns out, it isn’t just the voices in our head driving us crazy. This constant battle between rigidity and chaos is actually based in science. And the ever present struggle between rigidity and chaos is no different for our children. They have the same desire to maintain control and struggle when they don’t have it.

It brings us comfort to think we are in control, and to some degree, we are. But to a large degree, we aren’t. Grace is at the vulnerable age of 16 months where she develops a new battle wound every day. There is no amount of baby proofing or “helicopter parenting” that can prevent another bruise from her unsteady, newly walking legs.

This book, The Whole Brain Child, has some incredible information that has influenced my parenting. My plan is to take one chapter a week and pull out the highlights as they relate to the focus of Calm Chaos.

The first chapter introduces the reader to two main ideas:

1.       The brain is moldable, and

2.       Having a balanced, integrated brain is key.

The Moldable Brain

Understanding that the brain is moldable is incredibly helpful. It helps us realize that what we do as parents truly matters. According to the book, “the brain physically changes throughout the course of our lives, not just in childhood.”  Experiences mold our brains and can actually change the physical structure of the brain. What is really exciting is that the brain can be rewired and become healthier and happier. Therefore, what we do, what we say, and what we focus on truly helps shape our children’s brains.

Proper food, sleep and stimulation provide for basic brain development. Genes also play a large role in how people turn out, especially in terms of temperament. However, “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.”

As parents, we can’t control the basic architecture and the innate temperament of our children’s brain, but we can “provide the kinds of experiences that will help develop a resilient, well-integrated brain.” The authors note this is NOT about driving ourselves crazy to create meaningful and significant experiences every moment of the day. In contrast, it is about using the time you do spend with your children to help them become more “integrated.”

Keeping a Balanced, Integrated Brain

The second key idea in this chapter is about keeping the brain integrated. The authors describe an integrated brain as all of the many parts working in a coordinated and balanced way. Sign me up! This is important to think about for both ourselves as well as our kids. When we are not integrated ourselves, we are not capable of modeling what we expect of our children. The easiest way to understand integration is to think about a person that isn’t integrated. According to the book, children are dis-integrated when:

–          They become overwhelmed by their emotions

–          They can’t respond calmly and capably to the situation at hand

–          They experience tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression

Keeping our kids integrated is essential to our children’s well being, and our own. One of the hardest, and most frustrating parts of parenting is seeing your child in a dis-intregrated state. When writing this, I was of course thinking about my kids, however, I can’t help but think of these areas for myself, as well. I have to work hard to keep my reactions calm and not be overwhelmed by my own emotions. Whether it be bad drivers, frustrating coworkers, waiting too long for appointments, or dis-integrated children – we have numerous times throughout our day when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions.

So how do we keep our own brains integrated? If only it were an easy answer. However, the following has been helpful for me since reading this book:

  • I have increased my awareness of the fact that I am actively modeling for my kids how to keep my own brain regulated, which has helped me keep my emotions in check
  • I narrate for my kids often and say how I feel: I am frustrated. This person is driving their car very slowly which might make us late.
  • I model strategies to deal with my emotions: I’m going to take a deep breath. If we are late, it will be okay. People are understanding. Taking an intentional breath provides me with more mental space to think clearly.
  • I take my grandfather’s advice and ask myself: Will this matter in an hour? A day? A month? A year? It is easy to lose perspective when we are overwhelmed by emotion. Providing ourselves with perspective helps us realize that this is temporarily frustrating, but really, not a big deal

The last part of the chapter leaves the reader with an image/metaphor about integration. It compares being integrated to a “river of well being.” When we are integrated, we calmly float down the middle of the river in our canoe, and are able to handle what life throws our way. But, on both sides of the river are extremes. One side of the river is flanked by chaos, where there’s a total lack of control. The other side is rigidity, “where there’s too much control, leading to a lack of flexibility and adaptability.” When your toddler won’t share a toy at the park, they have bumped into the bank of rigidity. When they later erupt into crying, yelling, and throwing mulch when you tell them it’s time to leave, it’s chaos.

“If you see chaos and/or rigidity, you know she’s not in a state of integration. Likewise, when she is in a state of integration, she demonstrates the qualities we associate with someone who is mentally and emotionally healthy: she is flexible, adaptive, stable, and able to understand herself and the world around her.”

The following chapters dive into ways we can help our children, and ourselves, keep our complex brains integrated. We can’t keep our children from encountering hardships, struggles, disappointments or setbacks. But we can help guide them to the center of the river, giving them tools to help them handle the obstacles that come their way.

Stay tuned for how to integrate the logical left and emotional right side of the brain, which I have already touched on with “How to Connect with Emotional Children.” And get your copy of the book here if you want more!

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