The Science of Emotion
First printed in The Natural Parent Magazine
I’ve just spent five very rich days listening to Dr. Goldon Neufeld talk at the Parenting Place in Auckland on the topics of the science of emotion, aggression, bullying, discipline without punishment, alpha children, anxiety, the challenges of parenting in a digital world and so much more. All big topics!
Dr. Neufeld is one of the leading lights in the paradigm shift from the behaviourist approaches to the attachment and relationship-based approaches in parenting, teaching, psychology, and therapy. His work particularly speaks to the parents and professionals who know in their heart that the quality of love, caring, and responsiveness in the caregiver-child relationship is at the core of the child’s healthy emotional and social development.
I can’t claim to do a good job of representing Gordon Neufeld’s work and have the conflict of wanting to share some of what I’ve gained with you, while at the same time aware of the many limitations of sharing it through my own perceptions and interpretations, and the limitations of giving just a glimpse into theories that he has spent decades developing and distilling. Yet, if some of what I share resonates with your own beliefs and values, know that there’s much to be learned both from his book “Hold on to your Kids”, which he co-wrote with Dr. Gabor Mate, and there’s also a generous sharing of his talks on YouTube.
The ultimate task of emotion is to “grow the child up”. One of the primary principles of Dr Neufeld’s attachment-based developmental model is that healthy emotional balance results from the expression of emotions, not from reason or perception. He cautions against telling children to “calm down”, “cut it out”, “be brave” and other messages that inhibit the child’s expression. Some of the impacts of thwarted expression are displaced expression (including aggression), flattened affect (depression) and failure to adapt to life’s circumstances. He describes how separation is the greatest source of alarm and frustration for children, and that the most pressing problem for the emotional brain to fix is separation from those a child is attached to. He advises avoiding or reducing unnecessary separation to take pressure off the limbic system, and to equally figure out how to stay close when apart, and how to “bridge what could divide”.
As people naturally do, my mind was busy comparing with my own beliefs. Most of his concepts were very familiar, yet his language is very different, so I worked to interpret his messages into my own language and my own frames of reference. To me, bridging what could divide spoke to the importance of a parent maintaining the connection with one’s child throughout the daily challenges of life like parent and child experiencing conflicting wants and needs, having very different perceptions of time, managing the discipline related conflicts, the physical separations, and emotional ruptures. How can a parent show their child that the relationship is more important than the child’s actions, that they are still loved, cared for, and truly held in a good light through it all? He advises telling one’s child; “I’m looking forward to dinner with you this evening” or “breakfast with you in the morning” and of course the heart-melting smiling eyes; “collecting the eyes”. He recommends expressing our regrets after the emotional ruptures, yet not asking the child for forgiveness as this puts the weight of reconnection on the child’s young shoulders.
I was really pleased that so much of what he spoke about affirmed that which I so strongly believe and have seen the evidence of in my own family life, as well as through my work with so many parents. I could relate so much of what he shared to other training and study I'd undertaken, particularly Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting. Many of the models taught in my psychosynthesis training, many echoes from the Heart to Heart Instructor Training with Robin Grille and my study of attachment science in general. It’s an exciting time when so many philosophies from different disciplines are coming together to provide such a strong argument that the strength and warmth of the parent-child connection, free of the disconnection caused by punishments, creates the most fertile environment for the child’s growth and development.
The function of the alarm system is to move a child to caution. Dr. Neufeld talks about how the child’s ability to feel and express their emotions (as the parent values and supports that expression) allows them to preserve and enact their healthy natural instincts. An important function is at play, for instance, when the child’s emotions move them to caution when facing alarm. The child who feels and can express their alarm and fear is much more equipped with taking the necessary actions to keep themselves safe. He describes the example of a three year old who wants to climb anything and everything, who then climbs to the top of a certain rock, he then looks down, hesitates, and tells his grandad that he’s scared, so he retreats and finds another object to climb that’s at the right risk vs safe edge for him.
Understanding juvenile delinquents. He shared many insights about the troubled adolescents that he worked with within prisons (in his role as a psychologist) who were highly defended against their vulnerable feelings. He described how these teenagers and young people were unable to express that they were scared or anxious or sad, that they had sadly “lost their tears”, as Gordon described it. They likely never developed a feelings vocabulary but experienced “more wounding than they could bear”. Brain scans show that the prefrontal cortex of many of these youth is similar in size to that of a four-year-old, reflecting their arrested emotional development. But the remedy doesn’t lie in punishments or reasoning, but in the emotional safety in an attached relationship, only with this support can a child, adolescent, or adult learn to bravely feel and express their more vulnerable feelings. To again quote Dr. Neufeld; "the bully who truly finds their tears will be a bully no more."
When a child feels no fear. Dr. Neufeld describes how parents can “overwork the alarm system” by alarming their children too much. All parents will have moments where they raise their voice to caution their child when facing danger, yet many parents raise their voice way too much, sending (especially the more sensitive child) into alarm overdrive. The child’s instinctive alarm system can go into defense, resulting in a shutdown that looks like defiance. This can also happen through over-exposure to violence (on screens or real life) that’s more than a child can process. The child can lose touch with feeling the caution that keeps them safe. When this happens, the child’s fears and anxieties are driven underground, yet often manifest as irrational fears, or compulsive or overly controlling behaviours, or adrenaline-seeking risky behaviours. The shutdown of the alarm system can result in an inability to read the cues of danger or lack of invitation from others. Yet when the alarm system is working as it should, the child is better equipped to read the dangers in the school or other settings and avoid the people and places that provide increased danger. When parents can’t move their child to caution, they tend to yell more, exasperating the problem, instead of prioritising connection and “collecting the eyes” before engaging in the communication.
The tears of futility. He put a particularly strong focus on the essential role that crying their “tears of futility” play in the child’s development of emotional adaptation. Emotional adaptation slowly develops with age as the prefrontal cortex grows and the right and left hemispheres start to work together. Yet this development can be greatly supported or hindered depending on whether the parent can allow a child to express their whole range of feelings, can help the child learn to name those feelings, and support them to cry when they face the life’s disappointments and limitations, whether it’s not being allowed the chocolate or losing someone they love. As a child’s prefrontal cortex grows and they get better at emotional adaptation, they can start to better manage conflicting emotions and urges between five and seven years (or a bit later for the more intense child). Being able to hold that they want to hit or hurt as an outlet to their frustration, but also holding that this would hurt the other person affords impulse control, holding that they’re shy or nervous yet desiring to venture forth leads to courage, desiring immediate gratification yet trusting that their parent is caring for them in expressing “no” leads to increased patience.
“Play is the first and primary solution to the problem of emotion”. I was really pleased to hear Gordon Neufeld talk with great enthusiasm about the role of play in a child’s development, particularly the role of free play, imaginative play, play for play’s sake. He describes how play provides the leading edge of development where the psychological maturing processes are primed. Play, he describes, is where conditions are most conducive to true learning, where creativity is most likely to occur, where the child’s “tentative self can safely emerge” and where the brain’s problem solving networks are programmed. This is a subject that’s very close to my heart.
One of the workshops I enjoy running is Therapeutic Play, especially when working with groups of early childhood teachers. I often encourage the teachers to let their imaginations guide them into enacting being a child in an early childhood setting, each teacher has chosen to be a certain child with certain gifts and challenges, then we play a game that touches on intrigue, anticipation, reading cues and trying to figure out who is and isn’t safe. This simple activity offers great insight into the complexity of social interactions for children and the role of play in providing a safe outlet to express emotions as they scream, laugh, run, experience disconnection and connection, trepidation and resolution. I’m on the committee for, and a presenter at, a bi-annual nature education conference for early childhood teachers held completely in the outdoors in Whangarei, The Natural Phenomena. Gordon’s messages around the necessity of children having opportunities to play, including how many digital devices are replacing true play, had many echoes of some of the leaders in the field of returning children to nature and play-based learning who have spoken at the conference over the years, people like Richard Louv, author of “The last child in the woods”.
There were many aspects of my childhood that greatly compromised, rather than promoted, emotional and psychological health. Yet a protective factor for me that helped to keep my mind and spirit strong was definitely my time spent in play with my siblings and particularly free play in nature. I was affectionately bonded with the fields and the trees on our 180 acre farm, I remember the excitement of running back to that pond in the nearby field to witness with awe as the tadpole became a frog, the birth of baby animals. Every season has its gifts, picking blackberries along the ditch, bringing daffodils and primroses home to place in little vases, visiting old Mrs Doyle, our neighbour, to fetch water from her well or rhubarb from her garden for my mother to bake rhubarb crumble. I so loved my favourite trees in the forest, the smell of the rocks in the cool river, the softness of the moss, playing in the hay barn, so many happy memories related to play in my childhood.
Children, like plants, grow towards the light. My many positive memories of play and exploration in nature, many shared with my eight siblings, stand out like lotuses in a childhood that was very muddy and dark in most other ways. These memories are a precious reminder of the very powerful healing and protective instincts that a child is born with.