An Alternative to Adler: Parenting Answers from Dr. Gordon Neufeld

IMG_1468Note: I revised the wording in several places at the request of Shoshana Hayman.

Several years ago I reviewed Hold On to Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a clinical psychologist specializing in attachment at all ages. Dr. Neufeld is in Israel thanks to Shoshana Hayman, Faculty Member of the Neufeld Institute and founder of the Life Center. She organized a question and answer session with Dr. Neufeld yesterday in Tel Aviv.

Below is a summary of some of the questions and answers, which reflect my understanding of Dr. Neufeld’s words. I suggest reading the book review and referring to his books and website for more information.

  1. How can people who work with parents or teachers transmit the importance of attachment and connection?
    Dr. Neufeld: The best thing we can do is to help them open their eyes to the child. Once the parent or teacher can see the child from a different perspective, the relationship, and the behavior, improve. If they ask why it worked, we can explain more about the theory.
  2. How can parents implement the ideas in your book? It seems too challenging for many parents.
    Dr. Neufeld:
    There is a difference between the book and the paradigm.  The book is written for a very specific audience, who like to read books about parenting theory. [MiI: It’s fascinating, but long, and dense at times.] The paradigm, which is used during counseling, is appplicable to all.  For example, when I work with a 14-year-old new mother, who is addicted to drugs and doesn’t know who her father is, I don’t give her a copy of the book. Instead I do something that helps all new mothers—help her be aware of her baby’s whereabouts and sensitive to his cues.  Teaching parenting skills won’t help when there is no attachment. Parenting skills follow attachment, because the mother will want to learn how to meet her child’s needs. Attachment, not skills, make a mother out of a girl.
  3. Will your approach work in cases of physical abuse?
    Dr. Neufeld:
    Yes.  If parents have good intentions, can feel remorse about what happened and want to change, my approach can help a parent see the situation and the child in a different light and learn to respond appropriately. But if there is cruelty for its own sake, or the parent is blinded to his own behaviour, we would need to add to that a more direct form of intervention to heal the parent first. But if there is cruelty for its own sake, a more direct form of intervention is required.
  4. What about cases of sexual abuse within the family, say a father or older brother is abusing the child?
    Dr. Neufeld: Removing the child from the home, as a first step, as is commonly done in the US, is counterproductive.  There are two parts to the abuse, one is the physical side, and one is the emotional side, the damaged attachment. Severing the connection with the abuser means that the child has lost the only attachment he has, even though it’s toxic.  That leaves the child hopeless because grieving and healing can only be done within the context of a healthy and operating attachment.  I recommend, at the first suspicion of sexual abuse, to find a way for the child to build a healthy attachment with someone else close to the family like an aunt or a grandmother. This attachment should gradually replace the toxic attachment, until the child feels safe enough to share what has happened. [To illustrate, Dr. Neufeld leaned on one foot and then the other, to illustrate how the child transfers his connection.]  Once a healthy attachment is in place then there can be legal inervention as neccessary, and removal of the toxic parent if required.
  5. What about anorexia?
    Dr. Neufeld:
    Anorexia is closely related to attachment. As we know, food is a symbol for love and affection. Rebuilding the attachment with the parents can be an important part of the therapy, but anorexia is a dangerous illness and hospitalization must take priority over psychological therapy.
  6. Why are so few people following this approach, and what can we do to encourage more people to adopt it?
    Dr. Neufeld:
    The approach I use is intuitive.  There are many therapists around the world that are intuitive and use similar approaches.  The problem is that what is intuitive doesn’t have words and can’t be passed on.  I’ve created the words to make conscious of what is intuitive, to create a collective consciousness for all using this approach, so we can join together to change the way children and understood and treated.

    In the workshops and courses that I’ve given, I’ve found many people already use this approach, but they didn’t realize it. They say I’ve given them a language and terminology to teach it to others.
  7. What is the main difference between your approach and the existing approaches?
    Dr. Neufeld: The existing approaches are behavioral.  They focus on form, not development.  Skinner, Adler (popular in Israel), Locke, Watson and other behaviorists all recognized the importance of self-worth and attachment. The problem with their approach is that they advocate withholding these things until the child behaves appropriately. The children have to earn their attachment thorough good behavior. But children need to be flooded with affection and attachment from the beginning. If you withhold it you might get the desired behavior but you also arrest the development of the child’s full potential.

Dr. Neufeld also spoke about therapy. Therapies that focus on fixing what is wrong with the parent harm attachment, because the parent pays attention to him or herself and has stopped paying attention to the relationship. When parents start to look at their children and connect with them, they will work on themselves at the same time. In some cases, the parents do need individual therapy before they can rebuild a strong relationship with their children.

Dr. Neufeld concluded by saying that some people believe that God created us so we could raise children. But he sees that as a joke. Rather, God gave us children so that we, the parents, can grow up.

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2nd question:
Clarification:
There is a difference between the book and the paradigm.  The book is written for a very specific audience, who like to read books………..
The paradigm, which is used during counseling is appplicable to all.  for example, when I work with a 14 year old……..
3rd question:
Yes.  If parents have good intentions, can feel remorse about what happened and will for change, my approach can help a parent see the situation and the child in a different light, and learn to respond appropriately. But if there is cruelty for its own sake, or the parent is blinded to his own behaviour, we would need to add to that a more direct form of intervention to heal the parent first.
4th question:
Removing the child from the home, as a first step, as is commonly done in the US, is counterproductive.  There are 2 parts to the abuse, one is the physical side, and one is the emotional side, the damaged attachment.  when severing the connection with the abuser, that means that the child has lost the only attachment he has, even though it’s toxic.  That leaves the child hopeless because grieving and healing can only be done within the context of a healthy and operating attachment.  I recommend, at the first suspicion of sexual abuse, to find a way for the child to build a healthy attachment with someone else close to the family like an aunt or a grandmother. This attachment should gradually replace the toxic attachment, until the child feels safe enough to share what has happened. [To illustrate, Dr. Neufeld leaned on one foot and then the other, to illustrate how the child transfers his connection.]  Once a healthy attachment is in place then there can be legal inervention as neccessary, and removal of the toxic parent if required.
6th question:
The approach I use is intuitive.  There are many therapists around the world that are intuitive and use similar approaches.  The problem is that what is intuitive doesn’t have words and can’t be passed on.  I’ve created the words to make conscious of what is intuitive, to creat a collective consciousness for all using this approach, so we can join together to change the way children and understood and treated.
Another question to add:  what is the main difference between your approach and the existing approaches?
The existing approaches are behavioral.  They focus on form, not development.  Skinner, Adler (popular in Israel), Locke, Watson and other behaviorists all recognized the importance of self-worth and attachment. The problem with their approach is that they advocate withholding these things until the child behaves appropriately. The child have to earn their attachment thorough good behavior. The problem is children need to be flooded with affection and attachment from the beginning. If you withhold it you might get the desired behavior but you also arrest the development of the child’s full potential.

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When you see signs of a drug addiction in your son or daughter, it is imperative that you call a drug hotline for parents and seek help on what you need to do.

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Comments

  1. The comments about sexual abuse cases were a bit scary, in terms of not removing a child from a home where there’s suspected child abuse. I understand about removing a child’s main attachment, but is it worth continued abuse to maintain this toxic attachment, even if it’s the only one?

  2. I cannot recommend a parenting class more than this:
    http://www.merkazshefer.org/

  3. Right, Abbi, his advice is not the kind of thing we are used to hearing in regard to sexual abuse. It does make you think, though. May we never be in a position to have to make decisions like these!

  4. Just for the record, Ariela, they base their approach on Dreikurs (sp), who is Adlerian.
    I think that most parenting classes work well unless they are extreme. First, parents learn that they are not alone. The course leaders listen and give feedback. Also, almost anytime you pay close attention to what you are doing and make an effort, your skills will improve.

  5. Fascinating interview. This made me look back and read the comments about your eating disorders post. I like the emphasis of parents needing to learn to connect with their children. It seems that when a child develops a disorder like anorexia, there is a missing link between parent and child – the child has not learned or been taught a way to connect.

    The flip side of teaching your children to express their emotions at home is that you might end up with parents (like my husband and myself) who are not used to expressing themselves out loud with children like ours who can be very loud about their emotions at home. It takes a lifetime of getting used to.

  6. Yeah, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time with a number of victims of sexual abuse, I call BS. At a minimum, get the abuser out of the house as fast as possible – preferably behind bars. In cases of serious abuse*, every time that child sees the abuser’s face, the abuse is continuing.

    Attachment is wonderful, but the child’s physical safety comes first. Check Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

    *there are cases, for example, where a young teen only looks at or touches a younger sibling or cousin inappropriately once and doesn’t do physical damage. These are obviously less serious and those can usually be dealt with without removing the perp from the victim’s life permanently.

  7. His book was very dense and not for everyone, however I can say it changed my parenting and the difference shows in my kids.

  8. I think Dreiffus and Adler is a good thing

  9. Elisheva says:

    I saw Gordon Neufeld speak at a local middle school and would go every time he’s in town if I have the chance. I highly recommend buying his book – it IS dense and I’m on my 3rd read of it.

  10. I don’t know how it’s ok to ever allow a sexual abuser continued contact with a child. Also, it’s a really odd assumption that the child only has a main attachment with the abuser. It could very well be the child is more attached to another parent. Also, why is he assuming that the loss of the attachment is more damaging to a child’s mental health than continued abuse? He’s basically saying maintaining attachment is more important than protecting the child from further abuse. Makes no sense to me and seems like dangerously misplaced priorities.

    Lisa Belkin reported recently about the death of a blogger’s son from a drug overdose. She was a major proponent of attachment parenting. I’m all for being tuned in and attentive to children’s emotional needs. But parents have to draw firm lines between right and wrong at the end of the day. I see his attitude towards sexual abuse as seriously lacking this line.

    • Abbi and others: I am hoping that Shoshana or Dr. Neufeld will address concerns about the abuse. I am no expert, but I have two comments.
      It seems to me that in most cases there is a suspicion and not proof at first. While the situation is being clarified perhaps this is the time to focus on the emotional side.
      Second, in response to Abbi, it seems to me that if there is a strong primary attachment, say with the mother, she would already be aware of the problem and taking steps to stop it. The child would tell her about it, or she would strongly suspect it. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that in cases of ongoing sexual abuse within the family there are likely to be other relationship issues.

    • “Lisa Belkin reported recently about the death of a blogger’s son from a drug overdose. She was a major proponent of attachment parenting.”
      First of all, Neufeld’s approach centers around attachment but it is not equal to “attachment parenting.”
      I know about this story, and I’ve read that blogger’s writing. For the record, her drug-addicted son didn’t die from an overdose, but was attacked during a drug deal.
      I can’t see how this horrible incident is an indictment of attachment parenting. Here’s why:
      a) You don’t know how long the blogger has been writing about attachment parenting. Perhaps she switched to it when she saw that a different approach failed with this child or another.
      b) You can write about and advocate something even if you don’t practice it perfectly. Many writers (including me) write about parenting precisely because we struggle.
      c) A mother is not the only influence on a child. In this case, the victim’s mother is divorced from the child’s father and it’s possible that his issues are the result of a poor relationship with his father or the divorce.
      d) There are all kinds of reasons that some children are more susceptible to drug addiction including genetic pre-disposition, learning or social issues, and much more. Good parenting, even if we could agree on a definition, isn’t a magic bullet. And if you could somehow design a study to show whether behavioral approaches are better than approaches related to attachment, one drug addict would not be enough to discount either approach.
      At any rate I don’t think it’s fair to judge a mother who is mourning the loss of her son, even anonymously.
      If you are implying that Neufeld thinks that sexual abuse is acceptable on some level, or that his approach doesn’t involve drawing “firm lines between right and wrong,” you are mistaken.

      • I just revised the wording in several places at the request of Shoshana Hayman. It’s mostly stylistic, but there is another sentence of clarification in the section on sexual abuse. I also alerted her to the concerns in the comments.

  11. Shoshana Hayman says:

    I’m following all of your comments with interest. It’s not easy to talk about a specific topic without a much larger context within which to fit this topic, and so this is where the misunderstandings come up. I’ll try to flesh this out a bit more, but please keep in mind that there are many dynamics that are interrelated here that would require explanation if given the time and space. When dealing with sexual abuse, there are two types of abuse occuring. There is the actual physical abuse, and there is also the emotional abuse the child experiences from having to keep the physical abuse a secret. In order for real healing to take place so that the child can develop normally, the child needs to be able to grieve, and this he can do only in the context of a safe attachment. However, the burden of keeping the secret actually prevents him from attaching deeply to others. (This is an aspect of the attachment dynamic that requires much further explanation). Taking him out of his home might make him safe physically, but unless we provide another working attachment for him/her, he/she cannot release the burden of his secret and heal emotionally. This has a serious effect on the child’s human development. This is why Dr. Neufeld said it is desirable to make sure the child has another working attachment before he is separated from his home. The separation itself adds more trauma, and is another trigger for the brain to set up additional defenses, adding even more problems developmentally. Dr. Neufeld has shed light on our understanding of the child from the inside and not just what we see on the outside, and in our experience we see this born out.
    I hope this adds some clarification. I’m happy to answer any questions.
    Shoshana Hayman, Neufeld Institute Faculty

  12. I feel like we’re not even having the same conversation. In the family therapy world, there’s a saying: Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.

    If you leave a child in a home with someone who has sexually abused them three times (or more) in the past, you might as well tell the person to go ahead and abuse them some more.

    I don’t care if the child has no other attachments in the universe and is afraid of their own pillow. Enduring even one more act of abuse is worse than being left “disconnected”

    If you’re talking about taking the perp out of the house versus taking the child out of the house, then yes, by all means. The criminal should be removed, not the child – even if a parent is an enabler, once the perp is removed, often the enabler can be helped to become a real parent – and we know that foster care is often a complete disaster.

    I’ve seen a mother go from a “turn a blind eye” enabler to someone who at least gives her children some kind of support once she divorced the father and took out a restraining order against him. She may never be able to parent her children fully, but she’s probably better than a stranger would be.

    That said, if there isn’t another parent or responsible adult that the child is attached to who isn’t abusing them, then remove them, preferably leaving siblings together to preserve whatever bonds are there, but abuse is like mercury poisoning. Better to live in a tent than to stay in a mansion with an open source of mercury.

  13. Each case of sexual abuse constitutes its own unique tragedy. While I appreciate you taking the time to further explain Dr. Neufeld’s theory, it still sounds to me highly problematic for children immediately suffering from sexual abuse. Children certainly need support in processing their abusive experiences- I’m not sure why it’s assumed that abused children are unable to establish trusting connections with therapists or foster parents after being removed from the abusive situation. As it stands now, I don’t think it’s the lack of attachment bonds that prevent children from healing. More likely, it’s the lack of publicly funded support staff to help children survive and thrive after the abuse.

    I think this theory presents a one-dimensional way of looking at how children deal with stressful situations. It also places way too much responsibility for the child’s very well-being in her own hands- only when she has “properly” bonded to another support figure will she be removed from the abusive situation.

  14. I believe one of Dr. Neufeld’s comments to be wrong. He says: “The problem with their approach is that they advocate withholding these things until the child behaves appropriately. The children have to earn their attachment thorough [sic] good behavior.”

    I have spent many hours listening to experienced, qualified teachers from the Adlerian/Shefer school of thought and the idea of withholding love or attachment is not at all part of their approach. That would be vengeful or punishing behavior which Dreikurs did not believe worked (as he explained at great length in his books). It is also not consistent with what I have heard (from the same teachers) taught as a Torah approach to parenting which includes seeing ourselves as partners with Hashem in raising our children and so working to behave (specifically, but of course not only, to our children) in a Godly way (patient, giving, teaching…)

    Instead, the challenge is to show true love of the child as expressed by my faith in his/her ability to do good, to cooperate and to contribute, to grow…if I object to a particular behavior I want to show that in a dispassionate, effective way, guided by the reasonable side of my nature, and not by anger, impatience, a need to “show who’s boss”.

    Of course I can’t summarize a whole perspective on parenting in one comment, nor am I addressing the whole issue of abuse which seems to be an important thread above, but I hope I clarified that my understanding of Adler involves always loving the child and acting in his/her best interest and not withholding affection or using it as some kind of an incentive or prize.

  15. Regarding answer #3, this is a seriously pathetically simplistic view of the world. Abusive parents frequently abuse because of things external to the parent-child relationship – impulse control issues, depression, mania, substance abuse. These parents are genuinely remorseful and yet cannot change their behavior just because they are better attached to their children. Almost all need therapy and many need medication to stop their abusive behavior. Some of that therapy might be done with the child(ren) as part of the dynamic, but usually the underlying issues with abuse go a little beyond “I’m not in sync with my child so I’ll hit them to get them to behave”

  16. very interesting discussion. I don’t know if one can declare there to be one parenting style according to the Torah. My husband often recounts the distant, style attributed to Litvish coolness where a father takes leave of his son with no more than a handshake and disciplines with a slap. The guideline is to have the left push away while the right draws close, implying that the connection remains strong even when there is a need for some distance. But that can be interpreted in many ways.

  17. observer says:

    >>Second, in response to Abbi, it seems to me that if there is a strong primary attachment, say with the mother, she would already be aware of the problem and taking steps to stop it. The child would tell her about it, or she would strongly suspect it.<<

    This is simply not the case, unfortunately. And, unfortunately, Dr. Nuefeld is correct, that there are many cases where the child's primary, strong attachment is to the abuser. In either case, the strong primary attachment is not working to protect the child.

  18. Shoshana Hayman says:

    After reading all of these reflections, I see that it is impossible to give this delicate issue the proper attention it needs in a forum of this kind. I would sum up by saying two things: that each case is unique and all the factors have to be considered; that every child, no matter what, will do better when he has a healthy, working attachment in his life, someone who knows how to collect him and make him feel safe and taken care of in this world.
    Warmest regards to all,
    Shoshana Hayman

  19. I do not know if Dr. Neufeld was quoted correctly or not, but to describe Adler as a behaviorist in the same paragraph as Skinner is utterly wrong. Skinner’s agenda was to promote a narrow biological, scientific psychology. He was famous or notorious for the promotion of the stimulus-response paradigm which purposely ignored what he called the “intervening variable” – being all that we normally consider thought, feeling, reflection, emotion in short personality. He did not want to include the ‘intervening variable’ as a legitimate part of psychological enquiry because in his view it was not measurable. Adler, on the other hand, based his view of human nature on a variety of assumptions which were philosophical in nature, and which he believed operated at a conscious as well as unconscious level. In Adler’s psychology, it is not about behavior as a mere mechanical observation that may be quantified by statistical or other means, but about understanding what people are creatively trying to accomplish through their behavior. The therapist, or parent, intelligently and compassionately speaks to the other, be they adult or child, to guide them toward a socially useful way of behaving that will confirm their sense of belonging in the community and help them flourish. Same for Dreikurs. It is difficult to think of any psychology that is less behaviorist in the Skinnerian sense than Adler.
    As for the recommendation to leave a child in an abusive situation and work on the abuser’s sense of remorse at the same time – that is utter lunacy, irresponsible and unrealistic and if he actually did make such a suggestion in a professional capacity could be subject to discipline or legal action.

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