In this interview, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, educator, and New York Times bestselling author, will talk about the importance of the parent-child relationship and how a parent’s attachment style affects a child’s brain integration. For healthy brain growth and development, your child needs a positive relationship with you as a parent. We are our child’s first and best teacher.
Expanding on core ‘attachment parenting’ ideas, how we treat our kids socially and emotionally, impacts their brain integration. This is important because if the brain doesn’t integrate properly, it may lead to emotional problems later, especially if a child feels that they are being neglected.
Being attuned to your child’s inner mental life helps your child’s developing brain become integrated and also provides a “safety net” for your child’s brain. Parent-child attachment is different from bonding, we parents must take note of that. We are responsible for our child’s growth and development. Let’s do our part as a parent to make our children feel that they are secure in order for them to have a stable brain integration.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Dr Siegel, I’m so excited to have you on the show. Your books have been an inspiration to me as a parent myself, and I’m really excited to talk to you about some of your work. You talk a lot about right brain integration and why it’s so important?
Dr Siegel: integration for example in the brain means that we want to recognise that there are different things going on the right and different things on the left, and overall integrating them together allows the networks of the brain that use all these different systems to actually function in an optimal way.
Kelly: So how do you know if your child’s right brain is not integrated properly?
Dr Siegel: Well there are ways for example you can ask a child to become aware of her body. What are you feeling right now in your heart? What is your gut telling you? Where are your muscles doing? So simple questions like that allow you to do what I call SIFT the mind which is S is for sensation. If you want to ask a child about that. I is for images, F is for feelings and T is for thoughts. The whole brain contributes to this but if a person is blocked in taking up the signals of the body or even you could do fun games showing non-verbal signals to your child – facial expressions, expressions with your gestures or tone of voice. You can have fun games and allow them to try to use words which are dominant on the left side to name the state that these non-verbal signals are trying to communicate. so it’s always about integrating.
Kelly: Is that a common thing for a child to have a non-integrated brain? or is everyone born with an integrated brain?
Dr Siegel: Well it’s a really interesting question Kelly because in the work I do in a field called interpersonal neurobiology, we see integration as a natural drive of development. So for example if you asked what is adolescent brain development all about in the remodelling period in the second dozen years of life, it’s really to make a more integrated brain which means you’re going to differentiate by pruning areas away and then link them. So certain conditions seem to be associated with impaired integration like trauma for example, abuse or neglect lead to impaired integration of the brain and I think certain experiences in culture emphasize one aspect of the other so I’ll give you an example. I went through medical school. in medical training there was very little, if any, attention paid to the internal subjective experience conveyed by non-verbal signals of our patients or even of ourselves so you can have these what I call my mind-side circuits which are very integrated that make a map of your own mind for insight, and the map of another person’s mind for empathy. you could have them cultivate it in an integrated way or you can go through medical school training where it gets beaten out of you that paying attention to your own internal state is not a good thing to do, it delays you; paying attention the internal state of a patient when you only have 10 minutes to see them, that delays you and I was teaching recently at a medical school, actually Stanford Medical School but it was all about, we were talking about medicine in general not just at Stanford, but the report had come out where 56 percent – it’s from the Mayo Clinic – of all post-graduate medical trainees were either anxious, depressed or suicidal. So those are non-integrated states, so I’m trying to address your question – is integration a natural outcome?
I think the way we deal with contemporary education all the way up through medical school is profoundly non-integrated. We don’t allow the internal subjective feelings of, in this case, physicians to be honoured and they don’t honour them in their patients and sadly, recently I was asked to speak to all of the veterinarians of the United States and one group was 3000 and the other group was 2000. They have the highest suicide rate of any clinician. incredibly devoted, passionate professionals are killing themselves in higher numbers than anybody else, and when I interview them to see what’s going on, they have no mind side training so they are profoundly unintegrated and burnt out and clearly ending their lives.
So that’s at the professional level. When you look at schools – I do a lot of work K through 12 – there’s a lot that’s telling a student you need to have the answer. we’re not interested in your questions. Well, questioning is a way to integrate things ‘I don’t know but I’m curious’. Curiosity is a profoundly integrated state that says ‘I don’t know. Here are the few things I know, I want to know more. I’m really interested.’ but instead they get blasted – ‘you gotta know the answer, know the answer’ so that whole journey from K through 12 teaches the child to only use certain aspects of their mind that are certain, certain, certain instead of being open to curiosity, collaborating with others, connecting with other sources of information so in all these ways certainly, integration is not supported in our modern educational system even all the way up until physician training, whether it’s for an animal physician or a human physician, and we need to change our approach by including the mind in the integrative education which we create.
Kelly: Yes I agree. I think there is so much emphasis on just kids, making sure they know the answer and they know how to read. What are the challenges when it isn’t integrated well in children?
Dr Siegel: Well, the general sign that integration is not happening comes down to two patterns that are easy to remember, so if you picture a river the central flow of the river is flexible and adaptive; it has a feeling of harmony. That’s the flow of integration but when integration is not happening, you get either a bank of chaos or a bank of rigidity. I’m going to see if I can quickly find a picture of this in my new book – my daughter drew this
Dr. Siegel: So you can see that one bank is chaos and one bank is rigidity, so that’s your sign is a parent that if it’s prolonged because everybody has chaos rigidity in their life, but if you get stuck on that bank then something may not be integrated, maybe something simple like your child isn’t able to really focus their eyes clearly, and so all the other kids are taking in books or things going to on a board, they need to go to an eye doctor because they can’t take in that information; or maybe your child has trouble hearing and so they get frustrated because they can’t take in the information flow from other people speaking, or it could be something like you as a parent never learned yourself how to tune in to the internal state of your child and have what’s called mental state language, I’ll give you an example – if your child falls down, one group of parents will say something like ‘get up.’ Another group of parents will say ‘oh, that must have been so scary to fall down, let me help you get up.’
Now the second parent is teaching the child – I can see your inner feelings. It was so scary and I’m helping your physical body get up, but I recognise you have a mind with subjective experience, so some kids don’t get that and they’re not as integrated literally. They enter chaos or rigidity much more often because they haven’t learned through their communication with their parent that they themselves have an inner life and that’s basically the basis, the essential basis of emotional intelligence and social intelligence is seeing the mind having this thing I call mind sight.
Mind sight is learned by how we connect with our children as parents and then teachers continue that mind sight education by teaching children about how to sift their minds – sensations, images, feelings and thoughts. A teacher can do this just very naturally. You just read a story – what did you feel in your body? What images came to your mind? What emotions, what feelings do you have? What kinds of thoughts do you have? These are all internal experiences and when a teacher honours them, a child feels like number 1 – that they are real; number 2 – they exercise, they actually see those mind side circuits, and then once you develop that, you develop emotional and social intelligence which actually makes your life more fulfilling.
Kelly:you talk a lot about how the parent feels is one of the biggest predictors of how they perceive themselves and how that impacts the child significantly. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Dr. Siegel: I’m trained as an attachment researcher where developmentally we study how a child’s mind grows in the setting of a parent-child relationship. So that’s attachment and the particular area of attachment that I work in is something called the adult attachment interview where we actually build on the beautiful research from various centres but it started with Mary Mayne at UC Berkeley and her colleagues would show the best predictor of security of a child is not what happened to that parent when they were a child, but how they’ve made sense of what happened to them, and that’s revealed in the adult attachment research interview that shows what’s called the coherence of the narrative, so even if horrible, horrible things happen, if a person has reflected on those things and come to make sense of how those things have impacted them, their child is very likely to have a secure attachment with them, and the secure attachment with the primary caregiver has been shown to predict all sorts of positive things essentially social and emotional intelligence, resilience and a robust self-awareness and a capacity to have a rewarding relationships, and the best predictor of all those things is how you make sense of your life.
Kelly:I’m wondering like say the parent does work on themselves and realize, can that change the relationship or is it really just so impactful during that first few years of life?
Dr. Siegel: Well Kelly, this is a really important question that you’re raising and it’s very clear attachment changes across the life span. So we have every reason to believe from the beginning of the formulation of the theory by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, it was always thought to be working models that were always changing and growing. Now if the relationships you’re in don’t change and grow then your attachment model is likely going to stay the same, but if your parent does work then you could change your attachment categories as well, and even if you’re an adult and you find you have one category, you can still change it through the process of reflection, writing in a journal, going to therapy and your relationship with someone close to you like a spouse.
So, all these ways, the answer to your question is your attachment category absolutely can change and does change across the lifespan as you change and grow and your relationships change and grow.
Kelly: that’s the neuroplasticity they talk about. Can you explain what neuroplasticity is and how you can rewire your child’s brain or your brain?
Dr. Siegel: Basically to put it in a nutshell, and this I talk about in a textbook called The Developing Mind, if you look at the extreme of insecure attachment which would be a child abuse or child neglect. At that extreme form of a lack of attuned communication connection with the parent, it’s massive impaired relational integration that is in neglect the child is hugely differentiated and there’s no linkage. In abuse, there’s too much leakage and no differentiation of the child needs vs. the parents’ own emotional states of whether sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or verbal abuse. So those extremes are impaired relational integration and amazingly impaired relational integration leads to impaired integration in the brain of the child.
So if you had to summarize the major impact on the brain of developmental trauma, what you see is impaired integration in the form of larger growth of 3 major areas; the hippocampus that links widely separated memory systems to each other, the corpus callosum that links the left and right, and the prefrontal cortex that links widely separated areas to each other, and even a way of studying the brain called the connectome, which is the more subtlely differentiated linked area.
All that being said, when you look at the connectome research this interconnected system of the brain the best predictor of well-being is how interconnected your connectome is, in other words, how integrated your brain is. It is the direct best predictor of health. Now the inference is because we don’t have the brain studies on the in-between like what about secure attachment, the inference is that the opposite of abuse and neglect would be secure attachment and the brain would be integrated so that’s where that idea comes from.
So here’s the notion – whatever a person, even with abuse and neglect has gone through, integration in the brain because what you’re suggesting neuroplasticity is possible to develop across the lifespan, so the various forms of non-secure attachments, what I call them insecure forms of attachment, I think are variations on the extreme of huge impaired integration to more subtly impaired integration, and that the process of growing with experience is to grow more integration in the brain.
Now that has a big opportunity during adolescence but across the lifespan. All the books I write give examples where people even in their 90s work with attachment insecurity to grow towards security, and I don’t have the brain scans on them but the mental capacities they develop like empathy and insight and emotional regulation all depend on the integration in the brain so it is very likely…the inference is there are new mental capacities which they have never demonstrated are emerging because they develop changes in brain structures that they didn’t develop in their childhood, and there is even a person in his 90s.
Kelly: Wow! So, no matter what age you can always change our brain, rewire your brain.
Dr. Siegel: Yeah, we want to make sure as best we can we prevent abuse and neglect. We want to make sure as best we can we do early work because it is a lot easier earlier than later so even though we’re saying this, it’s just to reassure people you can always grow but it doesn’t mean ‘let’s just mistreat children because who cares? They can grow out of it’. No, I want to make sure that we balance these 2 things. We want to keep hope alive and be very realistic. Yes, you can likely grow your brain in an integrated way throughout your lifespan, and yes, let’s be responsible as adults so that we treat kids with the dignity and the integrated ways we honour their differentiated needs and link to them with compassionate communication, so we allow them to grow in integrated ways.
So this is always…as an educator, you always want to hold both of those important issues in mind – caring for children while also giving hope to adults who have had difficult childhoods.
Kelly: as the parent, you can help be a better parent by learning to be more integrated and aware. I think I would make an effect on just how you parent?
Dr. Siegel: Exactly! Exactly what you’re saying Kelly because presence … this is what we’re talking about integration… presence is the natural portal from which integration arises and being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening, and not getting swept up in judgments is the way to do that. We have this practice called the wheel of awareness practice where you put awareness in the hub, you put what you are aware of on the rim, and then what you do is you integrate consciousness to cultivate presence. What does that mean? You differentiate the hub from the rim by sending a spoke of attention systematically around the rim with the first 5 senses in the first segment in the interior of the body, and the second segment the mental activities, and the third and then going to the core segment of our relational life and even exploring the hub itself, and when you do this you’re literally differentiating and linking consciousness to create presence and parental presence is the best predictor of you having a coherent narrative and having your child have a secure attachment to you which is the best predictor of their wellbeing and resilience
Kelly:21:19I appreciate you sharing all the information about your new book. Where can people go for more information about your work and research?
Dr. Siegel: Well if you come to our website, which is drdansiegel.com. There you’ll find all sorts of parental resources there. You’ll find a way to get connect to the book. You’ll find all sorts of fun videos and there are… just look at our video resources area. There’s all sorts of things I have done at schools and available for parents that you can take part in.
Kelly: Thank you so much
Dr. Siegel: Thank you, Kelly. It’s a pleasure.
About Dr. Dan Seigel
Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA  with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative.
Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center  at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and recipient of several honorary fellowships. Dr. Siegel is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational organization, which offers online learning and in-person seminars that focus on how the development of mindsight in individuals, families and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relationships and basic biological processes. His psychotherapy practice includes children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. He serves as the Medical Director of the LifeSpan Learning Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Blue School in New York City, which has built its curriculum around Dr. Siegel’s Mindsight approach. Siegel is also on the Board of Trustees at the Garrison Institute.
Dr. Siegel has published extensively for the professional audience. He is the author of numerous articles, chapters, and the internationally acclaimed text, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (2nd. Ed., Guilford, 2012). This book introduces the field of interpersonal neurobiology, and has been utilized by a number of clinical and research organizations worldwide. Dr. Siegel serves as the Founding Editor for the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which contains over sixty textbooks. The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (Norton, 2007) explores the nature of mindful awareness as a process that harnesses the social circuitry of the brain as it promotes mental, physical, and relational health. The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician's Guide to Mindsight and Neural Integration (Norton, 2010), explores the application of focusing techniques for the clinician’s own development, as well as their clients' development of mindsight and neural integration. Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton, 2012), explores how to apply the interpersonal neurobiology approach to developing a healthy mind, an integrated brain, and empathic relationships. New York Times bestseller Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (Norton, 2016) offers a deep exploration of our mental lives as they emerge from the body and our relations to each other and the world around us. His upcoming book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence (Tarcher/Perigee, August 2018) will provide practical instruction for mastering the Wheel of Awareness, a life-changing tool for cultivating more focus, presence, and peace in one's day-to-day life. Dr. Siegel's publications for professionals and the public have been translated into over 40 forty languages.