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You say you want a revolution…

When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change.  Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow.  That desired change?—it begins in the brain.

Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better.  Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life.  This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears.  Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.

Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough.  I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture.  It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
  2. Good nutrition.  You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better.  Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
  3. Physical activity.  Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity.  Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
  4. Novelty.  Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness.  But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change.  So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation.  It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
  5. Focus of attention.  What are you paying attention to?  Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain.  More energy and information=more growth.
  6. Safety.  Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all.  It is absolutely essential.
  7. Mindful awareness.  This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting.  I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode.   Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show.  Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.

If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list.  The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.

Keeping Kids Safe

The Austin newspaper had a frightening story last weekend about a local child abduction.  It is the sort of story that makes parents worry a little more and hold our kids a little closer.  But, it also brings up good questions about what we parents can do to keep our children safe from harm.  We know how to keep them away from the knives and the bleach, but what about dangerous people?  

Gavin de Becker’s book “Protecting the Gift” is a great guide for parents.  In it, he encourages us to really listen to our intuition–that little guiding voice we so often try to rationalize away.  Some guy creeps you out in the parking lot?  There is probably a reason why–our animal instincts still work!  We are able to evaluate lots of different signals like facial expressions, physical promixity, and of course the undefinable ‘creepy factor.’  And as parents, not only do we need to listen to that voice ourselves are parents–we need to teach our children to recognize and listen to that voice in their own heads, too.    

Have you told your child “Don’t talk to strangers”?  de Becker brilliantly illustrates why that is actually a counter-productive lesson.  First, if our children are ever in need of help, being reluctant to speak to a stranger is an obstacle to keeping themselves safe.  Children need to (a) know how to choose which stranger is likely the most safe, and (b) go to that person and ask for help–because a child sitting alone, looking lost & vulnerable, makes for a ‘perfect’ victim to a predator.  By the way, de Becker gives a suggestion about whom children should ask for
help.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t policemen–it was mothers.  Citing
plenty of statistics, he argues that a mother, or even a (non-parent) woman, is far more likely to be the safest choice for helping a lost

When your child shys away from a stranger–even a friend of yours–how do you handle it? I encourage you to keep in mind that while politeness is important, so to is learning how to keep themselves safe.  Parents can also help children learn to listen to their inner voice by asking questions: “How would you like to say goodbye to Ms. Smith?”  or “If you were in this restaurant alone, who would you ask for help–and why?”

Although the book is a little too full (for my tastes) of frightening stories, the wisdom inside is well worth it.  

(And if you live in Austin, I’m leading a 3-part series/book group to discuss “Protecting the Gift” and how to keep our kids safe.  More info here )

Dollars spent on prevention vs ‘cleaning up the mess’

Click over to “Shrink rap” (a good psychiatry blog) for the longer version of this informative post.  An except:

According to a report CASA issued this morning, federal, state and local governments spend almost half a trillion dollars every year — almost 11 percent of their total budgets — as a result of alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse
and addiction. The worst part is that, for federal and state spending,
about 95% of that money is spent “Shoveling Up” the mess created by a
failure to provide enough money for prevention and treatment.

right. Out of every dollar federal and state governments spent on
substance misuse in 2005 (the latest data available), 95 cents paid for
the enormous burden of this problem on health care, criminal justice, child welfare,
education, and other programs. And only 2 cents were invested in
prevention and treatment programs that could reduce many of these costs
— and save lives.