Let’s get a little more specific about what it looks like when a person—child or adult—is living in a state of integration. When a person is well integrated, he enjoys mental health and well-being. But that’s not exactly easy to define. In fact, even though entire libraries have been written discussing mental illness, mental health is rarely defined. Dan has pioneered a definition of mental health that researchers and therapists around the world are now beginning to use. It’s based on the concept of integration and involves an understanding of the complex dynamics surrounding relationships and the brain. A simple way to express it, though, is to describe mental health as our ability to remain in a “river of well-being.”

Imagine a peaceful river running through the countryside. That’s your river of well-being. Whenever you’re in the water, peacefully floating along in your canoe, you feel like you’re generally in a good relationship with the world around you. You have a clear understanding of yourself, other people, and your life. You can be flexible and adjust when situations change. You’re stable and at peace.

Sometimes, though, as you float along, you veer too close to one of the river’s two banks. This causes different problems, depending on which bank you approach. One bank represents chaos, where you feel out of control. Instead of floating in the peaceful river, you are caught up in the pull of tumultuous rapids, and confusion and turmoil rule the day. You need to move away from the bank of chaos and get back into the gentle flow of the river.

But don’t go too far, because the other bank presents its own dangers. It’s the bank of rigidity, which is the opposite of chaos. As opposed to being out of control, rigidity is when you are imposing control on everything and everyone around you. You become completely unwilling to adapt, compromise, or negotiate. Near the bank of rigidity, the water smells stagnant, and reeds and tree branches prevent your canoe from flowing in the river of well-being.

So one extreme is chaos, where there’s a total lack of control. The other extreme is rigidity, where there’s too much control, leading to a lack of flexibility and adaptability. We all move back and forth between these two banks as we go through our days—especially as we’re trying to survive parenting. When we’re closest to the banks of chaos or rigidity, we’re farthest from mental and emotional health. The longer we can avoid either bank, the more time we spend enjoying the river of well-being. Much of our lives as adults can be seen as moving along these paths—sometimes in the harmony of the flow of well-being, but sometimes in chaos, in rigidity, or zigzagging back and forth between the two. Harmony emerges from integration. Chaos and rigidity arise when integration is blocked.

All of this applies to our kids as well. They have their own little canoes, and they float down their own river of well-being. Many of the challenges we face as parents result from the times when our kids aren’t in the flow, when they’re either too chaotic or too rigid. Your three-year-old won’t share his toy boat at the park? Rigidity. He erupts into crying, yelling, and throwing sand when his new friend takes the boat away? Chaos. What you can do is help guide your child back into the flow of the river, into a harmonious state that avoids both chaos and rigidity.

The same goes for older children. Your normally easygoing fifth-grader is crying hysterically because she didn’t get the solo she wanted in the school play. She refuses to calm down and repeatedly tells you that she has the best voice in her grade. She’s actually zigzagging back and forth between the banks of chaos and rigidity, as her emotions have clearly taken control of her logic. As a result, she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that someone else might be just as talented. You can guide her back into the flow of well-being so that she can achieve better balance within herself and move into a more integrated state. (Don’t worry—we’ll offer you plenty of ways to do this.)

Virtually all survival moments fit into this framework in one way or another. We think you may be astounded to see how well the ideas of chaos and rigidity help you understand your child’s most difficult behaviors. These concepts actually allow you to “take the temperature” of how well integrated your child is at any given moment. 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 powerful and practical approach of integration enables us to see the many ways in which our children—or we ourselves—experience chaos and rigidity because integration has been blocked. When we become aware of this idea, we can then create and carry out strategies that promote integration in our kids’ lives and in our own. These are the day-to-day whole-brain strategies we’ll explore in each of the following chapters.
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