Neuroscientist Shares 5-Step Guide To Help Kids Handle Life's Challenges

Next time things go pear-shaped, remember 'the Neurocycle'.
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If there’s one thing we all know about life, it’s that nothing is ever simple. We all make mistakes, things inevitably go wrong, so how is best to react when these issues do crop up? And how can we, as parents, help our kids navigate these tricky waters?

Caroline Leaf is a cognitive neuroscientist, mental health expert, and mum of four. She recommends something called ‘the Neurocycle’ which is essentially five steps for mind-management when things go wrong, that both parents and children can use.

Leaf, who authored the book How to Help Your Child Clean up Their Mental Mess, explains that the Neurocycle is a five-step process that harnesses the brain’s ability to change and can help children develop their mental resilience and manage their mental health.

“A great way to explain this process to your child is by telling them that the Neurocycle is like having a superpower, one that they can use throughout their life when they feel sad, when they’re mad or upset, or even when they are happy and just want to learn something new,” Leaf tells HuffPost UK.

It’s all about transforming negative or disruptive thinking patterns into healthy thoughts and habits.

“We all have ‘messy’ minds as we manage the daily struggles of life,” she says. The Neurocycle is a way to control that “mess” and “optimise resilience with brain-boosting strategies and practices like gratitude, joy and kindness”.

What are the steps?

1. Gather awareness

Gain a comprehensive understanding of how you’re feeling mentally and physically.

“Consider any warning signals that take shape through your behaviour, because this means your body is trying to tell you something important,” says Leaf.

2. Reflect

This bit is all about taking a step back and considering why you’re feeling the way you do.

3. Write, play or draw

Organise your thinking and reflections to gain insight.

“For adults and older kids or teens, write down your reflections. For younger children, it might make more sense to draw or play to bring subconscious feelings to light,” says the neuroscientist.

4. Recheck

Once you’ve created a clearer picture of how you’re feeling, accept the experience and think about how you can view it in a new light, so it no longer controls how you feel.

5. Active reach

This involves a thought or activity that distracts you from the negative emotions and keeps you from getting stuck with your toxic patterns.

How do I do this with my kids?

First, help your child gather awareness of how they are feeling by observing their warning signals more deeply. For example:

  • “I feel worried and frustrated” = emotional warning signal.
  • “I have an upset tummy” = bodily sensation warning signal.
  • “I want to cry and not talk to anyone” = behaviour warning signal.
  • “I hate school” = perspective warning signal.

Now, walk them through the reflecting stage, helping them consider why they feel this way, and then write, play or draw what they feel, which will help them better understand what their warning signals are pointing to.

During this stage you can encourage them to ask themselves questions like: Why do I feel sad and frustrated? Why is my tummy sore? Why do I want to cry and not talk to anyone?

The fourth step, recheck, requires parents to encourage children “to explore their feelings and thoughts and try to find a way to make what happened to them better,” says Leaf.

So, for example, if a child is worried about a bully, you could offer them another way to look at it. Leaf suggests you could say something like: “Maybe the bully is dealing with some issues at home, or maybe someone else is bullying them.

“All of their frightened energy is resulting in them treating you in an unkind way. That doesn’t make it right, but it may help you feel sorry for them and walk away without feeling bad about yourself.”

And lastly, active reach is a bit like taking a treatment or medicine each day to help their thinking and feelings get better.

“Help your child come up with ways they can do this when they are feeling overwhelmed or unwell,” suggests Leaf.

“This step is characterised by actions and things your child can do that are pleasant and happy, which stabilise what they have learned and anchor them in a peaceful place of acceptance.”

The last step is all about teaching children to try and look for solutions instead of getting “stuck in their emotions”, concludes the neuroscientist, which is important for building their mental resilience.