Yes Brain Parenting: An Interview with Dr. Dan Siegel

Dr. Dan SiegelDaniel J. Siegel, MD is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, educator, and critically acclaimed author. Most recently, he is the co-author (with Tina Payne Bryson, PhD) of The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child.

After attending the University of Southern California for his undergraduate studies, Dr. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1983 and completed postgraduate medical studies at UCLA, where he still works as a clinical professor of psychiatry and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. One of the focal points of his research and teachings is interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), a field that focuses on finding similarities between otherwise separate disciplines.

Dr. Siegel is also the executive director of the Mindsight Institute, an organization that offers workshops and online courses teaching the concept of mindsight, the ability to recognize and comprehend internal processes of the brain. On top of his professional achievements, he is a proud and happy father and husband.

As an author and editor of many books on parenting, child development, neuroscience, and personal transformation, Dr. Siegel expertly distills scientific research into clear and accessible learning resources. Dr. Siegel was generous enough to spare time from his busy schedule to speak with us about The Yes Brain, his work, and his life.

What does it mean to have a “Yes Brain” or a “No Brain”?

A Yes Brain is the state of being receptive and open. Yes Brain and No Brain come from a workshop where I would say “no” harshly several times, pause, and then say “yes” calmly several times. A No Brain is a state of threat, and people in the workshops would feel that they want to fight me or run away. In contrast, after the pause when I say “yes”, they experienced something totally different—A feeling of openness, calmness, and clarity. This is a state of receptivity. And this Yes Brain state is where we have our ideal way of interacting with other people. For example, parenting. People sometimes think Tina Bryson and I mean Yes Brain means say “yes” to everything. That’s not what we mean, and we try to make that very clear in the beginning of the book.  

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Can you explain the four fundamentals of the Yes Brain and how they positively impact a child’s development?

Absolutely. What Tina Payne Bryson, my co-author, and I want to do in the books is provide science-based facts that can be practical, accessible, and memorable. In this case, we’ve used a “cheesy” acronym, the cheese brie, B-R-I-E, that are the four fundamentals of the Yes Brain. ‘B’ stands for balance, ‘R’ stands for resilience, ‘I’ stands for insight, and ‘E’ stands for empathy. If you look at how these positively impact a child’s development, you can see where balance, the ability to access a wide range of emotional states, can be called the “green zone.” When you get out of balance, you go either to a chaotic state we call the “red zone” or a rigid state we call the “blue zone.”

We’re using balance here as the accessible meaning of the scientific term integration. When you’re integrated, you’re moving in a harmonious flow, and when you’re not, you are moving towards chaos or rigidity. ‘R’ is resilience, and this means you’re widening that green zone. You’re giving them the skill of saying, “I’m not in balance. How do I get back?” Insight is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in the inner world, and empathy is the ability to know the inner life of someone else. These are what we call ‘mindsight’ skills that allow you to develop the essentials of social and emotional intelligence.

You mention that a key part of childhood is experiencing various types and intensities of emotion. What can parents do to support children without interfering with their opportunity to learn from said emotions?

These days, with children elementary school age and beyond, the time spent using screens is making the focus of a child’s attention primarily on the outside world. This compelling stimulus keeps kids from having the time they need to reflect inwardly, either on their own state or the state of other people. The downside is when you get an emotion, you may not have had the opportunity to learn how to just be with that emotion. And so, the emotion floods you like surf on a pounding shore. What we want to do is teach kids to surf the wave, not avoid the water or be trounced by the waves. When you teach a kid to surf their emotions, these emotions are given permission to enter awareness, and then you can use them for your benefit. And this is the whole idea of how you support children without interfering with their opportunity to learn—you want to give them the opportunity to reflect on the nature of their minds.

Why is free play becoming less common with children today, and why is it so important?

I think people have not emphasized enough in our scientific studies that play is to the mind like oxygen is to the body. We think of play from an intellectual point of view, we say, “It’s not serious. What a waste of time.” Well, thinking in brain terms, the way the brain tries different combinations, explores them with curiosity, and enters a state of spontaneity without judgment, [is] what play is all about. I think what’s happening is if you get into a frame of mind that’s utilizing certain brain circuits, you believe your own story that play is not important because it may be diminished in your life, or you’re just using a certain way of thinking about things.

What are mindsight skills, and how can they help children navigate difficult situations?

The word “mindsight” is a term I made up for seeing the mind. What that means at a minimum is an acknowledgment that we all have something called subjective experience. Subjective experience is what’s in consciousness [and] includes the thoughts, memories, and emotions you might have. What we do by naming mindsight is take one facet of mind, subjective experience, and say you can perceive that or not.

So, if a child makes a request for ice cream before dinner, and you say, “That’s so dumb! Go to your room,” you’re responding to their behavior, not to a very understandable feeling: “I love ice cream, I’m about to eat dinner, we’re about to eat, I’d like to eat ice cream first.” In contrast to the No Brain approach, a Yes Brain approach would say, “I sense your mind beneath your behavior. I sense your excitement about ice cream. And I share that. That would be awesome to eat ice cream before dinner. We’re not going to, because the sugar and the fat in ice cream satisfies our dopamine-based reward circuit, and we won’t have any drive to eat more food. We need our nutrition first, and we can do ice cream for dessert.” What you’re doing there is teaching your child that they are a good person, but their behavior is not necessarily something you’re going to agree to.

There’s a dance between summarizing many individuals into categories and patterns and applying that to the individual, but also always honoring the individual experience that may not conform to the statistical summaries. I think being a therapist has reinforced what I always felt was true since I was a young kid, which was that no matter what science [says], you have to honor individual things.

How do Yes and No Brains develop as children mature into adults?

There’s a simple neuroscience principle I like to summarize this way: Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No!, this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state. In contrast, if you do these four elements of the Yes Brain, you’re driving attention in these positive Yes Brain ways which will strengthen what we call an internal compass. And that’s what you want to do as you launch your child out into the world, is have provided parenting experiences which build a skill of sensing the mind.

How important is it for parents to work on their own Yes Brains?

That’s exactly the point! We have sections of the book for parents to work on their own Yes Brain because, if you’re busy being harsh to yourself, you’re more likely to be harsh to your child. And that No approach isn’t particularly good for you, so we provide relief from your own tormentor, so you can create a Yes Brain approach for yourself.

How can psychotherapy help develop a Yes Brain in both parents and children?

It’s so interesting when therapists do this. I’ve given workshops for therapists on The Yes Brain. When therapists learn this approach, they begin with themselves, so they become more mindfully aware and enter this receptive state. [Then], they can really begin to appreciate how their clients may have had repeated experience of No Brain emphasis in their own childhoods. You can translate, as I’ve done in these workshops, every Yes Brain parenting skill into a Yes Brain therapy skill.

Can you take us through the process of using complex scientific research on the brain and human behavior to create relatable and understandable content for parents and families?

First thing, I’m a dad. I have two kids now in their mid-20s, and that privilege of being their dad and co-parenting with my wife [has] led me to reflect on the experience of parenting. Since I’m also a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I work with very young people, and I can see them all the way into adulthood. And then, I’m a scientist, trained to study parent-child relationships and how they shape the development of the mind. On top of that, I work in a field called interpersonal neurobiology, where for the last 25 years we’ve been asking the question, “If you combined all of the sciences together into one framework, what would that framework look like?”

For me, it’s helpful because I have a continuing revision process of The Developing Mind. I’m always asking the interns that work with me to prove these ideas wrong. The Whole-Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, and our next book, these all basically say to a parent, “Here’s the science of integration, here’s how you can find it useful in your life.” And we’ve been so grateful that we hear from people all over the place about how these simple strategies, which come from very complex science, actually work. We try to explain enough of the science so it really makes sense, but not too much, because the art of writing a book like this is to know what not to put in. 

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How do the ideas and strategies you explore in The Yes Brain relate and connect to the previous books you’ve co-written with Dr. Bryson, The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline?

We get feedback from parents about certain initial ideas that were helpful. Like Yes Brain, as an example. We found there was a topic that was skirted on in both No Drama Discipline, which reminds parents that discipline means to teach, not to punish, and The Whole Brain Child, the grounding book that says, “Look, here are the different domains of integration you can work on.” For this book, what we wanted to do was take this idea that parents told us they needed to know more about, which is, “How do you redefine what success is?” And when you look at how much depression, anxiety, and even suicide rates there are in children and adolescents, you realize something is going really wrong. This Yes Brain approach is something we all need to provide that balance, resilience, insight, and empathy to guide us through [difficult] times.

Do you think your experiences in private practice have influenced your writing, or vice versa? How so?

The incredible privilege of getting to know people in therapy as a therapist completely made it possible for me to be a writer. I never wrote much until I became a psychotherapy trainee, and I realized that it was helpful to have an individual patient and see how reviewing all the scientific studies gave me a different way of approaching [them] in therapy. There’s a dance between summarizing many individuals into categories and patterns and applying that to the individual, but also always honoring the individual experience that may not conform to the statistical summaries. I think being a therapist has reinforced what I always felt was true since I was a young kid, which was that no matter what science [says], you have to honor individual things.

Writing made me figure out how to articulate certain principles. As you’re typing words out, editing them, and releasing them into the world, it’s quite an experience of, “Do I really believe in what I just said? And is there science backing it up? And is it said in a practical way?” But here’s the secret: I find that the relationship I get with readers, when you get positive feedback about how a book really changed their life, that’s what gave me the drive to go forward.

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  • 3 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Gwen

    Gwen

    January 29th, 2018 at 1:03 PM

    Really like the idea of a yes brain instead of a no brain. Great article

  • Meyer

    Meyer

    January 30th, 2018 at 1:34 PM

    Fantastic article. I will definitely be working towards a Yes Brain state of mind.
    This theme has come up for me over the years and this theory makes a lot of sense when I consider books like “Year of Yes” and and “Yes Please”, both of which focus on being open

  • Dr. Mara

    Dr. Mara

    March 5th, 2018 at 3:14 PM

    Love this — great interview!

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