I’ve been taking the new Heart Matters: The Science of Emotion course of Dr. Gordon Neufeld this month and it is so relevant for our kids. And it is also fully compatible with the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model. The gist of it? We have to make room for our children’s emotions.

Emotions are complex.

It’s easy for us to accept that most of our own impulsive behaviour is driven by emotion. But neuroscience has shown us that even most of our intentional behaviour is driven by emotion, not cognition. Our kids, though, do not connect affect to intentional behaviour.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan told us (Affect-Diathesis Hypothesis) that their brains are unable to connect their emotion with different processing capacities. This means that most of our kids’ behaviour is impulsive and not intentional. Just think about that. What are the implications of us accepting that?

Here is where we could branch off in a few different directions–and I will in time. But for today, let’s focus on how we mobilize this process in our kids. Our children need to explore affect for what it is: every single emotion. They need to jump in that vast pool of emotions and swim around in it.

Emotions are key. All early development is based on the emotional memory and experiences we have with our primary caregivers. Dr. Stanley Greenspan talks about emotional feelings in these pre-symbolic experiences. We must nurture these emotional experiences in our children.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan on Understanding the Impact and Role of Pre-symbolic Experiences and Memory for Children with Developmental Challenges

We loathe negative emotions

In our (lack of) culture, emotions tend to be thought of as positive or negative. We tend to like positive emotions and loathe negative ones. When we think of someone who is emotional, we tend to think of the negative emotions and don’t like someone being this way. We try to cut out all negative emotions–in ourselves, and in others.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld says our emotions need to be tempered, not cut out. He points out that in Latin, ‘temper’ meant ‘to add in’. So we need an ‘add in’ rather than a ‘cut out’ approach to problem behaviour. What do we ‘add in’? First let’s attack a few myths about emotion by stating the facts.

Emotion Seeks Expression

With maturity we can choose how to express our feelings. Dr. Neufeld points out that it is ironic that we need emotion to grow up when we think of emotion as immaturity. In fact, we need to have the right feelings to grow up, not the right experiences, schooling, etc., he says.

Emotions Need To Be Felt

To feel our emotions, according to Dr. Neufeld, we need to bring them to our consciousness, which requires language. Our children need labels for their big emotions. He adds that not one pill will make you feel emotions and you cannot manage emotions that you cannot feel.

Emotions are Difficult to Control

Dr. Neufeld, like Dr. Greenspan, says that emotions are our first system of motivation. The second is intentionality, but regardless of our intentions, our emotions stay with us and they are meant to take care of us.

Play is the Answer

True ‘play’ allows a child to express his/her emotions without consequences. Play is where children can explore their emotions and see what fits for them. It helps them work out conflicts they are feeling. But ‘play’ is not stimulation-based (e.g., video games), nor sports (competitive), nor recess (which is socially wounding), nor music lessons (which is work).

Children need a safe place to express their emotions. But oftentimes due to our own discomfort, we do not allow our children to express their negative emotions. There are severe consequences of not expressing our emotions in early development. This is where our defenses are created.

Our child’s brain cannot do its job when emotional expression is thwarted, Dr. Neufeld says. The child will get stuck in being mad, lose curiosity and interest, have a flattened affect, i.e., depression, and/or most dire, lose the instinct to care. Negative emotion will find another way to express itself, which could be aggression against siblings or pets, for instance, or even towards oneself.

In Dr. Greenspan’s book Growth of the Mind, he talks about how conflict resolution cannot happen when adults cannot see the gray areas. That is, many adults have polarized views which come with strong emotions because they “cannot hold in mind several different feelings, label them, and see the connections among them” (p. 236). The key is building the functional emotional developmental capacities as a foundation for such higher capacities.

The Solution? Add It In (rather than Cut It Out)

The brain of a young child is only capable of feeling one emotion at a time until the prefrontal cortex develops between ages 5 & 7 in neurotypical development. This is why our children seem so overwhelmed with emotion. These emotions are big and they feel them. They just don’t know what to do with them until they can explore them all, one at a time, through play.

If all goes well and the child feels safe to explore their emotions, development happens. At the age of 5 to 7 in neurotypical development, the prefrontal cortex begins to allow children to feel more than one emotion at a time. This is where ‘add it in’ applies. We don’t need to manage or ‘cut out’ emotion. We need more. We temper our emotion by adding in the opposite feeling.

Adding It In
Having mixed feelings is how we mature. When we are angry with someone we love, remembering that we also love them helps temper the anger. When we are sad about being away from loved ones, looking forward to seeing each other again helps temper the sadness. Dr. Neufeld calls the prefrontal cortex our mixing bowl for feelings. Humans have a prefrontal cortex six times bigger than the next mammal. Our ability to feel is what makes us human, and our ability to mix our feelings is what makes us mature. The more intense our feelings, the longer this takes.

Similarly, Dr. Greenspan says, “Children who tend to act out their feelings need to be helped to learn to picture their emotions and desires, and those whose thinking easily becomes polarized need to learn to tolerate ambivalence in the linking of feelings of disappointment and loss with satisfaction and achievement.” (Growth of the Mind, page 237) In other words, they need to ‘add in’ the positive to balance the negative feelings.

Let’s Apply All of This

Dr. Neufeld says that what keeps feelings from mixing is either that vulnerable feelings are not felt, or the prefrontal cortex is not yet developed. Our job as parents is to help our children feel their emotions by allowing them, naming them, and fostering play that is not directed by us, non-judgmental and free of consequences. If all goes well, development happens and the mixed feelings come.

Our son has been very interested in emotional reactions for the past few months. He asks to see over and over again parts of Curious George or Thomas where people bonk their head and say “Oww!“, when trains derail or crash and have a look of horror on their face, or when Curious George falls and breaks his leg, or when the apples are all let out of the cart and Jumpy squirrel makes a “Wahhhhh!” sound.

In real life he not only also shows intense interest in others’ emotional responses, but he tries to elicit them whenever he can. Some may see this as problem behaviour, and it can be when he hits another child to see the emotional reaction. But it is not from an aggressive place. It is exploratory and recall that it is instinctive. And with everything he’s been through, he needs space to explore every affect and effect.

Of course we’ll set limits around unacceptable behaviour such as hitting others, but feeling his emotions is a big step forward in the fourth functional emotional developmental capacity (FEDC 4). It is a big step before becoming symbolic in his thinking. When he gets there, he will be able to explore his emotions in his play. For now, we have to show great patience with all of his emotions.

Recall that until he has continuous back-and-forth emotional signalling, he’ll continue to have catastrophic emotional reactions. This is where we need to be patient, loving, and co-regulate to help him through these intense feelings by saying things like “I see you have a lot of frustration!” or speaking for him “I’m mad!” and especially having the sympathetic look on our face and simply being there, calm, and accepting.

We need to let our children know that their feelings do not define them. We need to accept responsibility for our young children’s behaviour rather than expecting them to control their behaviour before they are capable. We need to know that their feelings need to be spontaneous rather than controlled with expectations of rewards or punishment.

Dr. Greenspan often talked about how important it is to be loving with our children and to not be angry or upset which frightens them. This, he says, will cause anxiety and fear which will alter their capacities to develop the way a confident, soothed, nurtured child will. This is difficult for some parents to believe because of how they were raised, but it is backed by developmental science.

Our children with developmental differences are the most sensitive of all and need our guidance. Our kids need to see in our faces that we are trying to understand what they are feeling and that we accept whatever it is they are feeling. Relationship trumps behaviour. When they feel free to feel around us, this will help them self-regulate and we can begin to support their development.

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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