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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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