Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dinner with Gordon Neufeld

You may well know about me that I am a big fan of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Developmental Psychologist based in Vancouver, BC.  I've posted about him before.  Neufeld is the author of Hold on to Your Kids, a book that pretty fundamentally changed/shaped my view towards parenting and clinched our decision to h/school (note: his book does not advocate h/school specifically, but the principals he espouses are what convinced us that h/schooling would be the best option for our family).  Before Seth and Lizzie came home, I attended Gordon Neufeld workshops and courses over the course of two winters, attended various speaking engagements where Dr. Neufeld was the keynote, and sat in on interactive presentations led by members of the Neufeld Institute faculty.

I recently attended a dinner where Dr. Neufeld sat amongst about 25 of us and talked with us about  various questions that we submitted prior to the evening - a Masters Class of sorts.  It was a fantastic evening, and although I couldn't have imagined before that night being more impressed with him than I already was, I am an even bigger fan/admirer/advocate now.  He is brilliant.  Absolutely brilliant.  He is quite counter-culture, but when I'm able to implement a developmental approach such as his (in contrast to a behavioural approach), my parenting is faaar better than without it and it instinctively feels like the right/natural way to parent.

Prior to the evening, I had submitted a few questions for him to consider responding to during the course of the evening.  They were very specific questions (about the kids) and so I knew the odds were that he wouldn't be able to address my questions in a group format.  Sure enough, when I had an opportunity to chat with him prior to the dinner/discussion starting, he told me that he likely would not be able to address my questions in the group setting.

As anticipated, he did not get to my questions before finally ending the evening's conversation.

I thought that was it.  And that was a-ok with me - like I said, the evening had been fantastic.  It was late, and I started getting ready to head out the door.  But suddenly Dr. Neufeld looked over at me from across half of the room, and asked if I could wait a few minutes longer, because he'd like to sit down with me in the back corner and spend at least a few minutes talking about my questions.  I was blown away: he was undoubtedly exhausted from a busy three days of events where he'd been the keynote speaker; it was almost 10pm; and still he had the interest and took the time to sit one-on-one with me about my questions.

As a result, I had a 10-12 minutes one-on-one consult with Gordon Neufeld about a few of the exact issues I'm encountering on a daily basis.  Some of this thoughts and observations were so brilliant and so brilliantly simple that I actually clapped my hand to my forehead on one occasion in an expression of 'oh, of course.'

I'll provide just one small example.  Children who have been transplanted (adopted, fostered) often struggle with issues such as defensive detachment (which is a means of self-protection, and resistance toward attachment, resulting from the traumas/losses/pain the child has experienced).  Trust issues are  involved, etc etc.  So far, pretty obvious.  I've certainly been dealing with some of these things.  Dr. Neufeld suggested many things about this (and actually thought that things are going extremely well under the circumstances), but one thing struck me in particular.  He knew that we were h/schooling (and therefore the kids are with me pretty much all of the time) and mentioned that we'd probably been lying down with Seth and Lizzie until they fell asleep, which I agreed we had been doing every night since they've been home; he then noted that sometimes what might work better at this point in their being at home (in order to soften resistance to attachment) would be to stay for a few minutes in their bedrooms and then tell them that we would be back to check on them in five minutes...and repeat this pattern until they fell asleep.  Very simple change, and relatively counter-intuitive for me - why not stay with my child-that-I'm-working-on-attachment-with until s/he falls asleep?

Here's how I understand the rationale (though Neufeld was far more succinct and obviously had the right words for explanataion).

Neufeld commented that when we lie down with Seth until he falls asleep, Seth still knows somewhere in his mind that we will eventually be leaving his bed.  (And this is absolutely true of Seth: not only does he know while he's still awake that we'll be leaving him once he's asleep, he also always stirs and whimpers for a moment when we leave, even when he appears to be in a deep sleep - - he knows we're going.)   By lying with him until he sleeps and with his knowing that we are going to leave at some point, we are essentially setting him up to anticipate a long absence from us...because nighttime is a very looong time of separation and because a youngish child cannot hold onto attachment for that long a period of time...especially one in Seth's circumstances.

Instead, by telling Seth that we will leave and then come back in five minutes to check on him, we are giving him the opportunity to anticipate reattachment.  In other words, he will start to understand that he will see us again and that we will do what we say we will do.  In that way, he can learn to count on our reappearing in his life, and thus that he can also be ok when we're not there for a few minutes...and by extrapolation, when we're not there all night long.  It's planting seeds in his brain that we are trustworthy and that it's ok to be attached to us even though we're not together every moment.

So this is what we've been trying with both younger kids.  And darn it, it's made a difference already, especially for Seth.  The first night, he strongly resisted when I got up from his bed and told him that I would be back in five minutes.  I kissed and hugged him again, and repeated that I would be back in five minutes, that I was already looking forward to seeing him again, and that I would be thinking of him (by saying this, I was trying to 'bridge' my absence until I'd see him again - let him know that I was anticipating seeing him, too).  I left the room to the sound of his sad sigh, and made sure that I was back in exactly five minutes.  He was fine, though glad to see me.  I continued the pattern about four times, until he was asleep at my next check.  Interestingly, it took him only about 20 minutes to fall asleep, in comparison to the usual 30-40 minutes.  Maybe because he wasn't 'on guard' waiting for us to leave when he fell asleep???  I don't know.

Two nights later, he already knew what to expect, and I experienced a different result from him.  The second time that I went in for my check Seth's eyes were already closed.  He half opened them when I came in and then closed them again.  He mumbled: "you coming back five minutes Mommy?"  I quietly said "absolutely - I'll be back in five minutes to see you."  His eyes stayed shut through that little interchange, and that's the remarkable part.  When lying down with Seth in all of the days and months leading up to this, he would wake up or become very alert again and sometimes stressed when we'd eventually think he was asleep and make a move to leave the room.  He knew we were leaving and was therefore anticipating our departure and our separation from him...that's the key.   But on this occasion, he was so relaxed about knowing that I was coming back that he didn't even bother keeping his eyes open as we said a few words to each other.  That never happens.  I was quite moved by his state of closed-eye relaxation.  He is learning to anticipate attachment, rather than learning to anticipate the separation that nighttime brings.

It might well seem like a small or insignificant thing to someone reading this, but I'll be honest in saying that it marked a difference around here.  He actually relaxed in the knowledge that I'd be back; he anticipated that he could trust me/us, and he knew he'd see us again.  Lizzie has been similar in her reaction.

Planting these kinds of seeds is what I'm hoping will gradually change the neuropathways in our kids' brains.  They have been through so much that there's no doubt that there are changes required to shift things around a little.

I was so grateful for the time that Dr. Neufeld took with me.  There were half a dozen or more things that he suggested to me that just made perfect sense once he said them but that I would never have thought of myself.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing evening for me.

PS.  I don't often have occasion to dress up at all in a skirt.  The only time before the Neufeld dinner that Seth and Lizzie have seen me in a skirt was when I went to a funeral last fall.  That's when the kids learned about things such as skirts and pantyhose!  When I came downstairs, all ready to leave for the Neufeld dinner (in skirt, pantyhose, and earrings), Seth did a triple-take at me (it was funny!) and then ran up to me and gave me the 'once over' with his eyes.  He noted the earrings, noted the skirt, and then said, "Mommy, you wear pantyhose. Why?"  I clearly need to make the effort to dress up a little more often!
Yours truly with Gordon Neufeld.


  1. LOL I have recently started wearing dresses and dressing a little nicer. The first time I wore tights my oldest son kept looking at my legs then insisted on seeing how high they went, then asked why I would ever wear such tight things! LOL

    Sounds like great advice and I am so happy that we already use that technique, it is nice to hear a professional advocate it :) It worked like a charm and both my boys are great sleepers now.

  2. I had not heard of Dr.Neufeld, he sounds very interesting. I am definitely going to be reading his book. As we have been waiting this 5 years to adopt, I have been reading a lot of different books, topics and we discuss together our parenting philosophies. We have never been the "mould you child into a person" type of people but I couldn't put a name to what we have been thinking. Developmental approach sounds like what we would like to do, so thanks for sharing this resource! Had a giggle at Seth's comment. I'm a jeans and t-shirt girl and don't dress up often myself. You look really lovely!

  3. Love Gordon Neufeld. I have not seen him in person, but have seen one of his "followers" Vanessa LaPoint, who is also fantastic.

    She talked a lot about anticipating reattachment and had lots of great suggestions around this. One of my favourites was filling your child's pockets with "kisses" when you leave so that when the miss you, they can pull one out (and have a "kisses from mom!" thought rather than "where is my mom?" thought). :)

  4. Awesome"!!!!! you look beautiful friend..and ot is so cool to hear that a kind of "hero" is as genuinely caring (taking time to answer you) as he seems. I first hears him speak at a hs comventiom years ago on his first book...HOTYK...and he said that we h'schoolers are the hope of our society here in Canada...quite encouraging to a new h'schooler facing opposition:)
    You are an excellent parent, and God is good. I am
    Waning on that second part of the sentence...He ismfaithful, and as I struggle along He provides strength. It is so god to read what GN said re bedtime, and for usnaptime..that IS what we have been doing..glad we r doing ONE thing right.:)