Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, MD has a unique ability to make complicated scientific concepts accessible and easy to apply in everyday life. He has shared his insights on the brain, mindful parenting, and child development with groups ranging from mental health professionals, parents, and neuroscientists to policymakers, judges, Pope John Paul II, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Dr. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry. Executive director of the Mindsight Institute, he is the author of numerous books, including The Developing Mind, The Whole-Brain Child, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, and Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence. Topics of Dan Siegel TED Talks and TEDx Talks include compassion, mindsight, and mindfulness and neural integration. Dan Siegel mindfulness tools have been used by thousands of people of all ages.
Dr. Siegel spoke with Newport Academy about mindful parenting, the teenage brain, and how to cultivate parent-child relationships that support the development of self-awareness and resilience.
Interpersonal Neurobiology Theory, Brain Development, and the Parent-Child Relationship
What is interpersonal neurobiology theory? How are interpersonal neurobiology theory and trauma related?
The term emerged in 1992, from a journey I was on with my colleagues to figure out how to bring the fields of science together. People attribute it to me, but it was a group experience, including anthropologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, biologists, and mathematicians. We were trying to understand the world and the nature of the mind through a multidisciplinary lens.
Interpersonal neurobiology theory (IPNB) looks for common ground across disciplines to understand the processes that happen in culture and in the cortex. If we’re going to understand trauma in a society, we can use the lens of IPNB to see how society itself can be traumatizing and what that does to the brain. At the FPR-UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, Development, and Mental Health, we look at trauma through studying what it means to have a healthy mind and what trauma does to the mind.
In terms of how trauma affects the brain, trauma in general leads to two huge chemical reactions. One is the secretion of cortisol, the stress hormone, and the other is the release of high levels of adrenaline. Adrenaline increases implicit memory—visceral, emotional memories of the traumatic event. Cortisol can block the activity of the hippocampus, which helps to integrate memory. Moreover, the release of cortisol over extended periods of time can be neurotoxic, especially to the developing brain. Meaning, it can inhibit growth and connection. In addition, it can destroy synapses that are already established and kill existing neurons.
In what ways do relationships in childhood shape the development of the brain?
The physiological health of children is affected by their relationships with parents in all kinds of ways—the degree of inflammation in their bodies, their cortisol levels, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, and so on. All of these necessary components of the body system are affected by relationships. They literally affect the molecules and structure of the body, including the brain.
In my almost 30 years of studying this, we’ve found that integrated parent-child relationships that honor differences and create compassionate linkages promote integration in the brain. According to the IPNB view, this is the essential way in which parent-child relationships literally shape the structure of the brain.
Integration means that the different regions of the brain are connected to one another in a balanced way. Functional integration involves communication between the different areas. It is complemented by structural integration—how the different areas of the brain are linked. You can see this in functional imagery of the brain and its activity. In a set of studies we call the Human Connectome Project, we found that the best predictor of every measure of well-being was how interconnected your connectome is—that is, how integrated the brain is. Moreover, in every study of people with serious psychiatric disorders, including trauma, we see impairment to the integration of the brain.
All forms of regulation or executive functioning—attention, emotion, mood, thoughts, memory, how you make sense of the world, morality—depend on integration of the brain. When a system is integrated well, it functions with harmony. Therefore, it has the five qualities we refer to as FACES: flexible, adaptive, coherent/resilient, energized, and stable. When the brain is not integrated, it goes toward one of two extremes: chaos or rigidity. All of the different mental health challenges result from one or the other of those two extremes.
Brain structure is most vulnerable during childhood and adolescence. However, adults can use processes like meditation, for example, to create more integration in the brain.
Mindful Parenting and Fostering Resilience
How do you define mindful parenting? How can parents foster resilience and “Yes Brain” in their children from an early age?
Every book I’ve written builds on the proposal that parents need to learn the simple steps for cultivating integrated relationships that support a child’s brain to grow in integrated ways. It’s the same message in every book. To cultivate an integrated relationship and promote resilience, you honor differences and create passionate linkages.
For example, your child comes into the house and is excited about a bug they found in the yard. How do you acknowledge that their inner state is enthusiastic about the bug, even if yours is not? The non-integrated response is “Get that bug out of the house!” But you’re missing an opportunity to be present. So instead, you recognize and honor their excitement, and maybe join them in walking outside to bring the bug back home. That’s the linkage part. No one’s saying that you have to live with bugs! But you want to honor the child’s differentiated enthusiasm about the bug.
I’ve developed a mindful parenting training for each of the books I’ve written or coauthored. We offer both short and extensive online mindful parenting trainings.
With mindful parenting, parents can help children develop a Yes Brain. A Yes Brain includes four key characteristics: balance, the ability to manage emotions and behavior; 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 empathy, the ability to understand the perspective of another person, then care enough to take action to make things better.
How does brain development influence teenage behavior and relationships? What are some myths around teenage brain development?
One of the myths is that adolescence is a horrible period of time when your beautiful, wonderful child is going to be taken over and become crazy and lazy and all these terrible things that adults say. It’s just not true and it freaks everyone out. A second, related myth is the idea that this is happening because of angry hormones that are out of control. If you talk to an endocrinologist, you’ll learn there is no such thing as “raging hormones.” Yes, hormone levels rise and have effects on the body, but teens are not going to be taken over by a “raging” molecule.
Some of the other myths are that adolescents should become totally independent, that they shouldn’t be independent at all, or that we should just get through adolescence as fast as possible. That’s not true! The essence of adolescence is what you should hold on to as an adult if you want your brain to stay vital.
When I wrote Brainstorm, my own kids were in mid- to late adolescence. I had looked around for a book for them to read, and there was nothing that offered scientific insight into what’s actually happening during this time.
I use the acronym ESSENCE to describe the four vital features of adolescence. The Emotional Spark (ES) is the enhanced way emotion is generated during this time. This creates emotional storms and moodiness, as well as a powerful passion to live life fully. Social Engagement (SE) emerges as teens turn more toward peers than parents. The downside here is falling prey to peer pressure, and the upside is creating peer relationships that support their health and happiness. Novelty-seeking (N) emerges from shifts in the brain’s dopamine system. As a result, teens engage in risk-taking behavior. But the upside is having the courage to leave home to explore the unfamiliar world beyond. The Creative Exploration (CE) of adolescence describes the way teens push against the status quo.
Tools for Mindful Parenting
How can parents use the ESSENCE paradigm to empower teens during adolescence?
As a parent, if you look at each of the four aspects of ESSENCE, you can understand the purpose for each one, as well as the downsides and risks. Then you can look at how to support your teen to cultivate the upsides of these four anchor points of adolescence.
The Emotional Spark is like waves at the shore. If someone doesn’t teach you how to ride the waves, you either avoid the shore (rigidity) or you jump in and get trounced by the waves (chaos). Parents can teach teens how to surf the waves and actually enjoy them. When an adolescent has an intense emotional response, parents often don’t know what to do and they don’t respect it. If you understand that being more emotional is part of the natural development of an adolescent’s brain, then you don’t have to take it personally. Instead, you can let your child know that you accept them and what they’re going through. When you understand that the adolescent brain is more prone to taking risks, you can help them find safe ways to support that drive. That’s how parents can continue to create those integrated relationships with their children, through both respectful differentiation and loving connection.
Adolescents are wired to push against the adult point of view. That’s how we evolved. It’s good for individuals and for society to have a population of adolescents that don’t accept the world as we’ve created it, but instead think about how the world should and could be. In adolescence, the brain doesn’t just continue accumulating information. It begins a remodeling process: It begins to prune down the connections in the brain and become more specialized. In later adolescence, the brain creates more intense interconnections. The job of mindful parenting is to offer the kinds of experiences and tools, such as the mindsight exercises I’ve developed, that your adolescent can use to become a more integrated person.
What are mindsight exercises?
When I was an adolescent in medical school, I found that my professors would treat patients like a bag of skin enclosing chemicals, rather than people with emotions. So I made up this word “mindsight” and used it when studying medical culture.
Mindsight refers to the perception of the mind, of your sensations, feelings, and thoughts. It activates a different set of circuits in the brain to give you a map of what’s happening right now in your experience. Mindsight teaches you to how to take your attention and focus on energy patterns, emotions, sensations, or intentions that you might have been oblivious to before, and that structure who you think you are.
Becoming aware of these can liberate you from a prison of narratives about yourself, such as I’m no good, I always fail. It offers a way to regulate your internal state. Thus, it can help adolescents feel empowered—to know where they are now and where they want to go in the future.
Describe the Wheel of Awareness, and how it can be used to shape our lives. How does Wheel of Awareness meditation work?
The Wheel of Awareness is a practice I developed and have taught to tens of thousands of people, using the metaphor of a wheel. Around the rim of the wheel are all the things that we experience, the “known.” That includes our inner and outer perceptions, what we feel through the five senses, the energy patterns in the body, our thoughts and emotions, our relationships with other people, etc. At the hub is our awareness of all of this activity on the wheel—the “knowing.”
For adolescents, learning to come back to the hub helps them avoid being trounced by the waves of emotion coming up on the rim. Therefore, they can make more discerning judgments about their relationships and their impulses. Creative exploration also happens at the hub. What’s so fascinating about the Wheel of Awareness is that you get a chance to literally see the mind in action. You begin to notice that you were lost on the rim, and you learn to train yourself to get back to the hub.
It’s been amazing to see how powerful this is for 5-year-olds and 55-year-olds alike. A kindergarten teacher told me a story about teaching her students the Wheel of Awareness, using a drawing of how it works. One of her students had been kicked out of school for beating up another child. And after she taught the Wheel, he came to her during recess and said, “Joey took my blocks and I’m lost on my rim and I’ve gotta get back to my hub!” It was absolutely beautiful to hear how this little 5-year-old was empowered just by a drawing.
Photos by Newport Academy, and Jake Givens from Unsplash.