When psychiatrist Dan Siegel speaks to groups, he likes to do a simple exercise. First, he repeats the word “no” in a harsh tone seven times. Then he repeats the word “yes” in a more gentle tone 10 times.
“I used to do it seven times, and then some people said, ‘It was so painful when you said “no.” Do “yes” more,’ ” he says.
The point of Siegel’s exercise is to show the difference between what he calls the No Brain state — where you want to fight, flee, freeze or faint — and the Yes Brain state — where you’re receptive rather than reactive. Getting your kids to “yes” is the goal of The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child (Bantam Books, 2018), which Siegel co-wrote with Tina Bryson, Ph.D.
Why No’s a No-No
Siegel says when someone’s in a No Brain state, it’s hard to listen, communicate, make good decisions, handle adversity or connect with other people.
“That’s not so good for kids, because it’s depleting,” he says. “It makes them feel like they’re not enough. That can explain a lot of the anxiety and depression we’re seeing in adolescents these days.”
Unfortunately, he says, parents, teachers and coaches too often encourage No Brain states, holding kids to impossible standards and valuing “gold stars” — grade point averages, athletic records and other external achievements — over skills that really matter.
“All the studies show that that stuff — like which college you go to — actually has very little, if anything, to do with how happy you’ll be, the success you’ll have financially or how you’ll contribute to society,” he says.
The BRIE Sandwich
So, what skills matter? The Yes Brain focuses on four: balance, resilience, insight and empathy — or BRIE.
Balance means keeping emotions within what Siegel calls the green zone. Resilience means being able to bounce back when you enter the red zone (losing control) or the blue zone (shutting down). Insight means being able to look at situations from the outside — as if you were a spectator in the bleachers. Empathy means being able to see the world through the eyes of other people.
Getting your kids to “yes” might seem complicated, but Siegel says you can make progress with every interaction. Consider a child who has a tantrum after losing a soccer game. Instead of saying, “Calm down right this instant,” which is a classic No Brain response, you could soothe your child, teach him techniques for calming himself down and look for ways he can experience failure in less high-stakes settings (like playing board games at home).
The key is to be proactive, not reactive.
“Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind,’ ” Siegel says. “What Tina and I have wanted to do with our writings is prepare a parent’s mind for events that give you the chance to really grow your child’s brain in a healthy, Yes Brain way.”