Dr. Caroline Leaf
How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess

How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess

Every Parent’s Guide to Supporting Their Child’s Mental Health

by Dr. Caroline Leaf, 229 pages

Finished on 15th of September, 2023
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This book feels like marketing for app subscriptions & Brain-ee dolls, yet offers unique parenting advice. What are those insights beyond 'spend more time with your kids'?

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. When children experience symptoms of emotional distress they can be helped by us parents helping them realize their own warning signals and going through the situation in a relaxed and guided way, dubbed the Neurocycle.
  2. Separating the brain from the mind is a reframing for children: Looking at what their own brain is trying to do in a stressful situation helps mitigate it.
  3. The implicit key to all of this is to spend more deliberate time with your child and their needs by talking them over and building a habit around doing that.

🎨 Impressions

A reason for me to read this book was that life with our four daughters is stressful sometimes and I’m not always doing the best possible job taking care of all their individual needs, as apparent from situations in which they act out or rebel against basic daily tasks or get into fights. To me, it’s always been clear that they could all be helped by getting a bit more attention from me and my wife. Attention from their parents is, I think, a universal thing that all children crave. The more, the better. But obviously, there’s a limit. And if you’ve got four kids like me, every kid can only get one fourth of the attention bucket.

Looking for ideas to help me, I’ve read a bunch of other books on the topic before, but they’ve mostly been stating that the key to raising content and emotionally balanced children is spending lots of time with them. I already spent lots of time with them, as does my wife, so it’s hard to put that advice into practice. There’s a limit to the hours of the day and the amount of energy we have. I’ve tried various ideas and techniques to increase my energy and time, and many helped a lot. But the more time I spend with the kids, the more they seem to demand of me. So, what to do? Maybe this book has an idea. Some sort of shortcut to increase the value of the time I spend with each kid, so everyone gets enough from me.

To a degree. Again, in this book, it all boils down to spending more time with your kids and talking about their feelings and needs. This isn’t news and it’s also just not practical. But, there are a few good ideas which I took to heart.

At the core of the book, there’s this verbal defusing device called the “Neurocycle”. The author, by the way, is a mother of four children as well, lending her some credentials apart from her PhD in Communication Pathology and Bachelor’s degree in cognitive neuropsychology. Here’s the Neurocycle’s five steps, condensed:

  1. Gather Awareness: become aware of the warning signals associated with a deteriorating emotional state.
  2. Reflect: why are you feeling the way you are right now?
  3. Write/Play/Draw: organize your thinking and reflections to gain insight.
  4. Recheck: look for patterns in your life, your relationships, your responses, your attitudes, and so on.
  5. Active Reach: take action to reinforce the new, reconceptualized pattern of thinking you want in your life which replaces the old toxic cycle.

Doing this cycle with your kid or even yourself whenever you realize there’s a distressful situation arising, apparently helps. But who’s got the time for that, especially because problematic situations tend to happen right at those moments when we’re pressed for time? I think it’s highly difficult to apply. Still, I’m trying. There are some little bits and pieces of advice, like going over a short breath work session with a kid shortly before it’s exploding with emotion to calm it down. I tried that, initially making things worse. As Dr. Leaf writes, the key is consistency, making it a habit. And a habit needs 63 days to develop, according to her. Well, I’m good at habits, so bring it on. Let’s see, what happens.

It was difficult for me to get into this book. Especially the first third of the book is wonky at times. She talks about how every single nerve cell in the brain holds a memory. And that electromagnetic waves are responsible for bad thoughts. Scientifically, this is both not correct. What putting it this way does, however, is make the brain functions a graspable model for our children. We can visualize that nerve cell which holds a bad memory and is surrounded by a cloud of bad electromagnetic waves, making it appear darker. We can pinpoint to it and thereby turn our own picture of it into something more healthy, slowly.

There’s lots of filler in this book and the Neurocycle appears in all sort of contexts. In some books, this tactic helps to drive the idea into the minds of the readers, here, it didn’t do much for me. I found the writing of the book to be tedious and repetitive. For a long time I was hoping for reality-oriented examples of how to use it, but that happened only after fifty percent of the book and mostly wasn’t a great addition to the points made.

Also, the book left a bad aftertaste because in the end it felt like a marketing device to sell the so-called Brain-ee doll, a soft toy which is supposed to help a child make sense of what their brain is doing and feeling, so it can control more of their own thoughts, as well as the Neurocycle app, which is supposed to guide you through the 63-day long habit-forming exercise by reminding you seven times daily about it.

Of course, there are several examples of children with incredible amounts of trauma in their young lives, whose parents had tried all sorts of therapy and medication, unfortunately to no avail, and in the end there was only one device that could save them: You guessed it, the Neurocycle.

This is all a bit much.

One of the later chapters, though, deals with the current over-diagnosing of children with ADHD, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. She is very critical of pumping amounts of medication into kids who could be helped with ideas such as the Neurocycle, and here I think, she’s probably right. It feels like it’s not right to put so many children on medication without proper diagnosis, and she cites a good amount of scientific studies and reliable data on the subject. I can understand the action of those parents and prescribing doctors, though, because that’s also our initial problem: we know all we needed is more time with our kids to take care of their needs, but we don’t have that, so a handy shortcut that cures the symptoms instantly sounds great at first.

The book then ends with her acknowledgements, obviously picking out her perfect children who helped her so much in so many aspects in the creation of this book. I found that to be over the top.

In the end, I have to say that this book didn’t get me much further with the challenges I’m facing raising my kids. There are some nudges in the right direction, and a few bits and pieces here and there which I’m going to incorporate into my parenting, but it wasn’t a revelation of a book. And I’m certainly not signing up for a subscription to that app so I get reminded every 47 minutes of each day to now do the Neurocycle with all four of my kids.

📔 Highlights


According to the Mental State of the World Project, countries that score higher in individualism and performance orientation tend to have lower mental well-being metrics, while countries that score higher in group and family collectivism tend to have better mental well-being.

This process starts with us as parents: how we manage our mental health is a model for how our children will manage their mental health. Research reflects that the unmanaged stress of an adult becomes the unmanaged stress of the child.

Part 1: The Keys to Understanding How the Mind Functions

For example, say your child is anxious. The “thing” that’s making your child anxious is an actual physical thought made of stimulus responses inside memories in their brain.

As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, we have developed a “modern obsession with protecting young people from ‘feeling unsafe’” that, in many ways, is inhibiting their ability to feel able to meet life’s challenges. This is possibly “one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide” that we observe in our world today.

In the same way that our immune system builds defenses against disease by the presence of disease in the body, humans need the presence of challenges to repair, learn, adapt, and grow.

Brain preparation exercises are activities that help to settle down the neurochemical and electromagnetic waves in the brain and body.

Try not to be too regimented and try to be patient with yourself and your child. Remember, this whole system is designed and structured to help reduce stress, not increase stress.

So, instead of reacting and saying, “You have such a bad attitude!” you can describe what you see. “I see you seem irritated. Is there a reason why?”

Show you care about what your child wants and needs. In the midst of the busyness of life, it’s easy to approach your child with demands and instructions, telling them what they need to do.

Encourage your child to give their perspective and viewpoint without shutting them down. You are listening with the purpose of understanding what they are thinking about.

A possibilities mindset essentially recognizes that there is always more than one way to go about things. We don’t have to get stuck when something doesn’t go a certain way or work out as planned.

We are not trying to teach our children to forget or erase what happened to them; we are teaching them to find ways of managing the messiness of life.

Part 2: How to Use the Neurocycle With Your Child

Here is an idea of something you can do with your child: sit down and create your own “mental first aid kit.” Fill this kit with all the things that will help you and your child manage their mental health in the immediate moment of feeling overwhelmed.

You can describe the process like this: “Put your hand on your tummy. Now, take a very big, deep breath in while I count to three, then push it out as hard as you can while I count to seven.”

You can also ask your child to pick a movement. Some examples are jumping jacks, skipping, dancing, wiggling feet or toes, or something as simple as walking around the living room.

Try to avoid rushing the process or getting annoyed with your child if they are battling to focus or feeling emotional.

In the Gather Awareness step, you want to teach your child to zoom in and specifically focus on the four warning signals discussed in part 1: emotions, behaviors, bodily sensations, and perspectives.

If at any point they want to stop, this is also okay; just pick up where you left off later in the day or tomorrow. If your child gets upset, take a break and do a decompression activity with them to help them calm down.

The most important thing to remember is that it takes 63 days to change a thought and build a habit, not 21 days. Twenty-one has consistently been touted as the “magic” number of days to build habits and change behaviors, yet real change takes much longer, especially if the behavior is entrenched or established.

Part 3: Applying the Neurocycle to Life Experiences

Trauma reorders neural networks, thoughts, and sensory pathways so that a person’s mind, brain, and body will continue to respond as if they were in a really dangerous situation even when they are not.

Whatever we think about most grows, and whatever grows manifests in how we behave toward ourselves and others.

The mind and brain are organized for survival. This means that when we get into a difficult situation, the mind and brain are designed to help. We can change the disordered neural networks with the mind. There is always hope!

“[..] We need to pay attention to that tree [representing a thought] because it needs help, and only you can fix it because this is your thought forest. But I can help you, so let’s walk over to that tree and start looking at the branches—the warning signals—to see what we can do.”

Try to avoid saying things like, “Time heals all wounds,” which can come across as dismissive of the emotions your child feels in that moment.

It’s better to say things like, “Nothing feels good right now, but we will sit through these feelings together. I see your pain, and I will support you and hold your hand in these moments when this is all you feel.”

For example, your child may spend a lot of time on social media. This can be beneficial in some ways, such as connecting with friends and family or learning more about a topic they are interested in. However, this can also have detrimental effects on their identity if it results in a toxic cycle of comparison, making your child feel insecure in their own life because of what they see other people doing. They may start thinking that there is something intrinsically lacking or wrong with them, which may result in behavior changes, including increased aggression, people-pleasing, an eating disorder, acting depressed, or social anxiety.

Whenever you as a parent or caregiver set a boundary, also make sure that you explain why. Just saying something like “Because I said so” tends to link fear to punishment and can teach children that overriding another person’s questions is okay if they think they are wiser than the other person, which isn’t a healthy habit to encourage.

Many times, parents feel overworked and burned out, and this often stems from the fact that they haven’t been setting boundaries with their children.

When we use “you are” statements, our children may reason themselves into thinking that this is the only way they can act and make it a part of how they self-identify.

Instead of saying “You are so difficult” if your child doesn’t want to put their shoes on, you can say something like, “I see you don’t want to put your shoes on. This isn’t because you are naughty, so there must be a reason. Can you help me understand why?”

“You are” statements break a child’s identity down, but “You are behaving like this for a reason” statements build healthy, flexible reasoning that enhances and doesn’t attack your child’s developing sense of identity.

Many studies have found that helicopter parenting can make children feel less competent when dealing with and managing the stresses of life on their own. It has been associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression in children, which can get worse as they progress into adulthood unless managed.

You can also say something like, “I can see you’re bummed that I want to watch my show for a bit, but I need to do certain things that make me happy, just like it is important for you to do things that make you happy. What would you like to do while I am busy?”

You are oversensitive. ⇒ “You are aware of and honor your emotions because they are valid. There is nothing wrong with feeling deeply.”

The more a child practices empathy, the more they learn to regulate their own behavior and adjust it depending on the person they are talking to and the situation they are in.

When you do the Recheck and Active Reach steps with your child, you are teaching them how their experiences and reactions are unique and that they can choose how they want to respond and who they want to be—just like other children and adults choose how they respond and what they want to be.

Mom notices how the situation is escalating and decides to Neurocycle. For her first Neurocycle, she works on herself. She Gathers Awareness of her and her family’s frustration and how tense her body is feeling, [..].

Once she does this, it becomes easy to move into the Active Reach; she climbs into the back seat, puts her arms lovingly around her daughter, and apologizes for getting irritated with her. She explains why she did—[..].

As they are walking up the pathway to the front door, her dad whispers, “I’m so proud of you for having the courage to face your cousins,” and Chantal breaks into a big smile.

Try to really listen to your child’s sadness, anger, or frustration if they are fighting with a friend. Listen to their experience and ask them if they want to fix the situation or if they think it’s better to move on.

Try to ask your child if they want advice before just giving it. Sometimes your child just wants a safe place to vent and unpack their emotions.

Be kind to yourself—raising children isn’t easy! If you can look back and realize I didn’t do that so well. I didn’t have to get angry right at that moment. I could’ve been more responsive, or I could’ve said or done that differently, talk about this with your child. This shows your child what insight and introspection look like, [..].

Mom learned to shift to safety net parenting instead of helicopter parenting, which she had slipped into purely as a way to protect her child. Dad realized that comparing siblings had not achieved his intention of motivating his son and had actually made John feel worse about himself.

Is diagnosing, labeling, and medicating actually helping the children? A recent study observed that ADHD meds don’t lead to higher grades or more learning, which is something I witnessed with John and with many of the children and adults I have worked with over the years.

As researcher and mental health advocate Dr. Peter Gøtzsche points out, “If a lion attacks us, we get terribly frightened and produce stress hormones, but this doesn’t prove that it was the stress hormones that made us scared. It was the lion. No genetic predisposition or ‘chemical imbalance’ is needed for this [stress response].” Thus, if we just look at the stress response and its effects on a child’s mind and body, we will miss the “lion,” which could end up causing them a lot of harm in the short and long term.

Many children also get the wrong diagnosis because diagnoses are unreliable, or they’re given medication they don’t need. We are all subjected to omnipresent direct-to-consumer advertising of medications and the commercialization of psychiatric disorders.

Explain that there is a reason and a solution for everything that’s happening in their life right now, and that you will find this out together to make things better.

Remember, by avoiding labeling children, we are giving them their best chance to become the people they were born to be.

Try to be as descriptive as possible without giving your child any one label—even with positive statements! Instead of labeling your child as “brave” or “helpful,” for instance, try to say something like, “You are acting so brave,” or “She was very brave when she did that.”

Always remember to tell your child, “You are not that label. The label is just a description for how you are behaving now because of ____, but it isn’t how you will always be.”

[..] the well-being of your child is dependent on your well-being.

Notably, though, sleep has a much more bidirectional relationship to well-being than was previously assumed. While a lack of quality sleep can contribute to mental and physical health struggles, the reverse is also true. Children exposed to traumas such as abuse or bullying or daily life stressors on a constant basis may sleep less or have poorer quality sleep.

I believe that removing “sleep expectations” can also help to remove any toxic stress and anxiety surrounding sleep, which in turn can lead to massive improvements in the actual quality of your child’s sleep—and yours.

Indeed, constantly worrying about your child’s sleep patterns and identifying and labeling your child as a poor sleeper may be worse than their not sleeping because of all the anxiety associated with the situation.

As a result, toxic blocks or suppressed thoughts and traumas may be hidden from the conscious mind and only come out when we are asleep. This is why responding to the patterns in our dreams as warning signals and messengers, or becoming what I call a “thought dream detective,” is an important skill to teach our children.

Just the process of going through these steps will give you insight into your child’s mood and is an excellent way to teach them to practice daily self-regulation.

“I am so proud of how brave you are for telling me about your dream or nightmare. Let’s think of a nice dream for tonight. What would you like to dream about?”

We should always try to contextualize our children’s experiences in real time based on their unique context, staying as free as possible from our own biases.


As I have pointed out throughout this book, we will never be able to change what has happened to our children, but we can change how what happens to them looks inside their mind, brain, and body and how their experiences play out in their future. This is mind-management in action.

How do you feel after reading this?

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