In order to live balanced, meaningful, and creative lives full of connected relationships, it’s crucial that our two hemispheres work together. The very architecture of the brain is designed this way. For example, the corpus callosum is a bundle of fibers that runs along the center of the brain, connecting the right hemisphere with the left. The communication that takes place between the two sides of our brain is conducted across these fibers, allowing the two hemispheres to work as a team—which is exactly what we want for our kids. We want them to become horizontally integrated, so that the two sides of their brain can act in harmony. That way, our children will value both their logic and their emotions; they will be well balanced and able to understand themselves and the world at large.

The brain has two sides for a reason: with each side having specialized functions, we can achieve more complex goals and carry out more intricate, sophisticated tasks. Significant problems arise when the two sides of our brain are not integrated and we end up coming at our experiences primarily from one side or the other. Using only the right or left brain would be like trying to swim using only one arm. We might be able to do it, but wouldn’t we be a lot more successful—and avoid going in circles—if we used both arms together?

It’s the same with the brain. Think about our emotions, for example. They’re absolutely crucial if we are to live meaningfully, but we don’t want them to completely rule our lives. If our right brain took over and we ignored the logic of our left brain, we would feel like we were drowning in images, bodily sensations, and what could feel like an emotional flood. But at the same time, we don’t want to use only our left brain, divorcing our logic and language from our feelings and personal experiences. That would feel like living in an emotional desert.

The goal is to avoid living in an emotional flood or an emotional desert. We want to allow our nonrational images, autobiographical memories, and vital emotions to play their important roles, but we also want to integrate them with the parts of ourselves that give our lives order and structure. When Katie freaked out about being left at preschool, she was working mostly from her right brain. As a result, Thomas witnessed an illogical emotional flood, where Katie’s emotional right brain wasn’t working in a coordinated way with her logical left brain.

Here it’s important to note that it’s not only our children’s emotional floods that cause problems. An emotional desert, where feelings and the right brain are ignored or denied, is no healthier than a flood. We see this response more often in older children. For example, Dan tells a story of an exchange with a twelve-year-old girl who came to see him with a scenario many of us have experienced:

Amanda mentioned a fight she’d had with her best friend. I knew from her mother that this argument had been extremely painful for Amanda, but as she talked about it, she just shrugged and stared out the window, saying, “I don’t really care if we never talk again. She annoys me anyway.” The expression on her face seemed cold and resigned, but in the subtle quiver of her lower lips and the gentle opening and closing of her eyelids, almost like a tremor, I could sense the right-hemisphere nonverbal signals revealing what we might call her “real feelings.” Rejection is painful, and at this moment, Amanda’s way of dealing with that sense of vulnerability was to “retreat to the left,” running to the arid (but predictable and controllable) emotional desert of the left side of her brain.

I had to help her understand that even though it was painful to think about the conflict with her friend, she needed to pay attention to, and even honor, what was going on in her right brain, since the right brain is more directly connected to our bodily sensations and the input from lower parts of the brain that combine together to create our emotions. In this way, all of the imagery, sensations, and autobiographical memories from the right are infused with emotion. When we’re upset, it can feel safer to withdraw from this unpredictable right-sided awareness and retreat into the more predictable and controlled logical land of the left.

The key to helping Amanda was for me to attune to those real feelings gently. I didn’t point out abruptly that she was hiding, even from herself, how this important person in her life had hurt her. Instead, I allowed myself to feel what she was feeling, then tried to communicate from my right brain to her right brain. Using my facial expressions and posture, I let her know that I was really tuning in to her emotions. That attunement helped her “feel felt”—to know that she was not alone, that I was interested in what she was feeling inside, not only what she was doing on the outside. Then, once we had established this sense of connection between us, words came more naturally for both of us, and we could begin to get to the bottom of what was going on inside of her. By asking her to tell the story about the fight with her best friend and having her pause the story at different times to observe subtle shifts in her feelings, I was able to reintroduce Amanda to her real emotions and to help her deal with them in a productive way. This is how I tried to connect with both her right brain with its feelings, bodily sensations, and images and with her left brain, with its words and ability to tell the linear story of her experience. When we see how this happens in the brain, we can understand how linking the two sides to each other can completely change the outcome of an interaction.

We don’t want our children to hurt. But we also want them to do more than simply get through their difficult times; we want them to face their troubles and grow from them. When Amanda retreated to the left, hiding from all of the painful emotions that were running through her right brain, she denied an important part of herself that she needed to acknowledge.

Denial of our emotions isn’t the only danger we face when we rely too heavily on our left brain. We can also become too literal, leaving us without a sense of perspective, where we miss the meaning that comes from putting things in context (a specialty of the right brain). This is part of what causes your eight-year-old to become defensive and angry sometimes when you innocently joke around with her. Remember that the right brain is in charge of reading nonverbal cues. So especially if she is tired or moody, she might focus only on your words and miss your playful tone of voice and the wink that went with it.

Tina recently witnessed a funny example of what can happen when the literal left brain takes over too much. When her youngest son turned one, she ordered his cake from a local grocery store. She requested a “cupcake cake,” which is a group of cupcakes frosted to look like one big cake. When she placed the order, she asked the decorator to write her son’s name—J.P.—on the cupcakes. Unfortunately, when she picked up the cake before the party, she immediately noticed a problem that demonstrates what can happen when a person becomes too left-brain literal.

When Tina told the baker she wanted the cake to say J.P. on the cupcakes, a literal, left-brain interpretation was not what she expected.

The goal, then, is to help our kids learn to use both sides of the brain together—to integrate the left and right hemispheres. Remember the river of well-being discussed earlier, with chaos as one bank and rigidity as the other. We defined mental health as remaining in the harmonious flow between these two extremes. By helping our kids connect left and right, we give them a better chance of avoiding the banks of chaos and rigidity, and of living in the flexible current of mental health and happiness.

Integrating the left brain with the right helps to keep children from floating too close to one bank or the other. When the raw emotions in their right brain are not combined with the logic of the left, they will be like Katie, floating too close to the bank of chaos. That means we need to help them bring in the left brain to get some perspective and handle their emotions in a positive way. Likewise, if they’re denying their emotions and retreating to the left, as Amanda was doing, they’re hugging the bank of rigidity. In that case, we need to help them bring in more of the right brain so they can be open to new input and experiences.

So how do we promote horizontal integration in our child’s brain? Here are two strategies you can use right away when “integration opportunities” arise in your family. By using these techniques, you’ll be taking immediate steps toward integrating the left and right hemispheres of your child’s brain.
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