Emotional Playgrounds Foster Emotional Well-Being

by Affect Autism

This Week’s Topic

This week I am over the moon excited to have Developmental Psychologist Gordon Neufeld as my guest to discuss emotional well-being (versus ‘mental health’) and rethinking ‘play’ in terms of emotional playgrounds–the heart of a culture of well-being.

I attended the virtual Neufeld conference last May and wanted to discuss these two topics that stood out to me in that they are so relevant to what we aim to do in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model and Floortime.

This Week’s Guest

Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a developmental psychologist from Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of the book Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers (co-authored with Canadian physician, Dr. Gabor Maté). Dr. Neufeld’s theory of attachment includes six stages in the development of the capacity for relationship. He is the founder of the Neufeld Institute based in Vancouver, which provides education and training for parents and professionals based on his theories, where I’ve taken countless courses.

Bonus Insights

Dr. Neufeld’s work

I started taking courses from the Neufeld Institute after my son was born, over 13 years ago. Everything resonated with me in terms of parenting, and after his autism diagnosis, I caught a spot on The National about DIR/Floortime, a new, developmental approach to autism. I knew about the developmental approach from Dr. Neufeld’s work and this made sense to me. Fast forward to today, I’m still taking his courses, and mention his insights in my blog posts all the time. When you see things through a model of attachment, everything falls into place.

Dr. Neufeld agrees. He calls his theory an insight-based approach, which many are not used to because they’re used to strategy-based approaches. It’s all about making sense of a child from the inside out, and from that place, finding ‘the dance’. That’s what we do in Floortime, too. Before we got into the topic of ’emotional well-being’ versus ‘mental health’, Dr. Neufeld wanted to provide some history and context.

The History of ‘Mental Health’

The construct of ‘mental illness’ was a revolutionary construct to humanize the treatment of the insane (i.e., the mentally ill)–those who were unable to function and couldn’t find their bearings. The idea of ‘illness’–that they couldn’t help it–was a metaphor that was used by those who were tying to humanize the treatment, Dr. Neufeld explained. He noted that this was reserved to individuals who have lost their bearings, and who have suffered some loss of identity so they cannot locate themselves in time or space, or at least not consistently.

One of the unexpected effects of this, he continues, is it put these people in the hands of doctors who knew nothing more about it than anybody else did–and they still don’t (psychiatrists are not trained; it’s just a residency with somebody else)–rather than about a concern about humanity and the nature of suffering. Two things happened as a result once the doctors began to treat the syndromes–of which there are now almost 400 in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM):

  • First, everything in that syndrome is called a mental illness where this was only reserved for those who lost their bearings, the insane, and so on, Dr. Neufeld explains. It means that everybody now is in the hands of doctors, who hand it over to the pharmacists to treat the symptoms of it. We can’t go around talking about mental illness, so they flipped it around to ‘mental health’ which was a way of euphemizing it.

This gives rise to the idea that it has to do with a problem of the cerebral cortex, rather than with the limbic system and gives rise to the idea that it is an illness, Dr. Neufeld warns, but it’s not a virus or an illness. It’s just that we should have compassion rather than judgment. The whole infrastructure is wrong, he emphasizes.

Now, according to statistics, 60% of us are mentally ‘ill’, so there’s no more differentiation between different so-called ‘illnesses’, Dr. Neufeld states, and now we try to reduce the stigma around it. Now we hand over our children, who label as mentally ill, so they can get access to the experts to get treatment, who don’t know much about it, and pharmacology is the way they handle it to reduce suffering.

  • Second, at the same time, Dr. Neufeld continues, emotion was thrown under the bus by John Locke who said that women and children are too emotional, and the only reason children should be spanked is if they’re too emotional. Emotion and all inner springs of movement were thrown under the bus, but all neuroscience and developmental psychology are all about the inner springs of movement. Only in the last decades have we realized that emotion is not a left over part of our animal nature. It has a purpose, Dr. Neufeld emphasizes.

Emotion comes along with attachment, a pre-eminent need. The way we’re designed is with a drive for togetherness, which is how nature takes care of us, Dr. Neufeld posits. With togetherness, we take care of each other. Emotion has a purpose, even though we don’t know that purpose, he suggests. It’s deeper in the brain. It exists in other animals that don’t even have a cerebral cortex.

The Problem with Behavioural Theory

Dr. Neufeld says that the problem is that the blank slate theory evolved into behavioural theory that evolved into cognitive theory which now goes again to the idea that it’s in the head. So if you think right, you’ll feel right. In actual fact, he continues, it goes the other way around. Neuroscience shows there’s bigger pathways going from the limbic system and from an evolutionary view, the cerebral cortex came later on so we could interpret and make meaning of experience, Dr. Neufeld explains. If we have a different interpretation of our experience, we’ll be affected differently to a certain extent, yes, but these aren’t the things that get us into deep trouble, he points out.

What gets us into deep trouble, Dr. Neufeld asserts, is when we have emotions that aren’t able to work properly. One of the keys to emotions (i.e., primary emotions of frustration, alarm, and pursuit) is that they are commissioned to fix a separation problem. They’re pre-wired. The brain doesn’t know when to stop. It can’t stop feedback from an emotion with the thinking part–the cerebral cortex, Dr. Neufeld explains. It has to feel its way through. It’s feedback from an emotion.

Dr. Neufeld says that we have to feel an emotion and feel the futility of the fix. Sadness is the most important way a brain realizes that we can’t get through that way (i.e., that that fix isn’t possible), so emotions stop. Most of the trouble we have is due to stuck emotions that have not come to an end, Dr. Neufeld believes. What is missing is sadness, but that’s been pathologized by mental illness as being indicative of depression, he says. 

The whole contruct of a disorder is basically arrogant physicians saying that the brain is a mess and there are almost 400 things that can go on with the brain, whereas the developmentalists say that the brain has its reasons. There is a purpose. There is order. We don’t talk about disorder, we talk about what the brain is trying to do. What message is there? How can we help it? We wonder rather than saying something is wrong, Dr. Neufeld explains. These days there are a select few psychiatrists deciding what the disorders are, and there’s no wisdom behind it, Dr. Neufeld complains. And now anxiety is considered a mental illness, he says.

Dr. Neufeld was giving an address to about 2000 mental health workers and asked how many of them are mentally ill. Two put their hand up. He stated that they didn’t even believe it, so wondered why they are practicing this. It’s in our language now, he resigns. When he is invited to large international conferences on mental health, he can’t say he doesn’t believe in it. He has to go and work within it. He’s been languaged out. Common sense has been languaged out, he says. Children have now been given into the hands of people who don’t know what to do with them, he laments.

The ‘Why’ Behind Behaviour

Those who have taken any of Dr. Neufeld’s courses will recognize that there’s so many layers and context to almost every phrase Dr. Neufeld is using in this podcast, but a couple of things jumped out at me: Looking for the ‘why’ behind the behaviour is the first. Dr. Neufeld jumps in and points out that first of all, to ask ‘why’, you have to believe there is a ‘why’. ‘Mental illness’ is still the idea that it’s cognition and there’s no inner springs to behaviour. The inner springs are that which moves us, he explains. Emotion literally means ‘to move’. So when you ask ‘why’, he explains, it is assuming that the inner movements are where it comes from.

For example, if a child erupts in attacking energy in some way (e.g., hitting their head), when you come with the idea there are inner springs to movement, you look for the primary movements, Dr. Neufeld explains. What are the primary movements? When frustration turns foul, it turns into impulses to attack. We’ve known this since the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis in 1939, he states. Now, Dr. Neufeld continues, if you add consequences to that by sending a child away from you, you are playing with the most provocative thing of all: facing separation.

Does this increase or decrease the frustration? It’s like saying, “Would you like to have some more frustration with your frustration?” All you have to do is to go where all of neuroscience has already gone to: there’s inner springs to behaviour, Dr. Neufeld explains. If there’s no inner springs, you would reinforce behaviour by rewarding it, and discourage behaviour by some adversive consequence. But if there are inner springs to behaviour, then everything depends on the insight you have as to where that comes from, Dr. Neufeld explains.

Is the child alarmed? Are they in high pursuit? Are they frustrated? Is the child shy–to be reserved only for their people? Is it an instinct to pursue proximity? Has that flipped (i.e., defensive detachment)? Are they now resisting all proximity (which is very characteristic in autistic children)? Is it an alpha instinct to always have to control things? When something isn’t working, you would have high frustration, high alarm, and high alpha instincts, and a preponderance of the instinct to detach–to resist contact and closeness where you’re pursuing it, which is pretty synonymous with classic autism, Dr. Neufeld theorizes.


Dr. Neufeld believes that the main problem in hypersensitivity is that there’s more input into the brain than can be interpreted and given meaning. Dr. Neufeld says that the estimate is that only 3 to 5% of information is let in to our brains because they have never evolved to be able to deal with more than that. The sensory gating system controls the input and is letting in more than that in hypersensitivity, he continues. The more that’s let in, the less meaning can be made of it. The solution is to slow things down, Dr. Neufeld suggests.

Dr. Neufeld suggests that the more you can bring it into the realm of play, the better because play draws in information according to interest. The whole filter system of the brain is different in autism, he continues, and they can have a better chance of being able to do those things that don’t count for real. The brain rests from the major dynamics of attachment, which are always the most urgent, and you get play in the system where the brain has more plasticity and can find workarounds, Dr. Neufeld explains.

Dr. Neufeld says that the reason why little things would be highly overwhelming is because they are! Way too much is getting into the brain for the brain to have to make meaning of it. Everyone does best when things are slowed down, when the stimulation is lowered, and when there’s space in the music, for instance. We all do better this way because there’s less of a load on the brain, he says. When input increases, our brain comes with blinders and filters, and it’s these things that are not working the same way in a hypersensitive brain, causing information overload, Dr. Neufeld says.

Play and Rest

Play and rest are two major concepts that Dr. Neufeld talks about in his courses. The child needs to have rest from pursuing attachment, he says, and if they’re feeling that their primary caregivers are not giving that invitation to be in their presence, and if they don’t feel safe and don’t feel loved, they’re in pursuit of that attachment, and you need to have the rest from that attachment to grow, he claims. Everything does, Dr. Neufeld says. The child grows during sleep physically, the brain repairs, and puts memory into place, etc. Everything happens in the rest mode, he affirms. Everything else in the brain is trying to work for the moment. Any growth whatsoever happens in the rest mode.

The most important work is the work of attachment–pursuit and proximity–to be able to have a home base. Play is a state of activated rest where the other agendas are temporarily suspended because it doesn’t count for real. The brain is in a state of repair, recovery, memory, and growth, etc. even though you’re awake when you play. To enter play you need a secure connection/home base and plenty of opportunity for ‘true play’. Screen time, sports, or playing a music instrument are not examples of ‘true play’ because they are outcome-based. ‘True play’ is play for play’s sake when it doesn’t count for real. It’s for anyone. When anything goes wrong, you retreat to the basics.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist

The more things are not functioning optimally, Dr. Neufeld continues, the more important it is for the brain to find the rest mode. Someone needs to step up to meet those basic attachment needs of ‘holding’ on to the child (not literally, but holding that invitation to exist in your presence), finding an anchor point, and the play, he says. No strategies. Everything should be reduced to these simple, obvious ideas, he claims.

Dr. Neufeld had an opportunity to address Ukrainian teachers and mothers recently, and in both cases, there was nothing else to talk about except emotional first aid: play and connection. If you’re going to talk about trauma: play and connection. If you’re going to talk about optimal ways kids should learn at school: play and connection. It’s really quite simple, he concludes.

Parents are the Answer

The problem is that we’ve gotten lost in the details, Dr. Neufeld continues. Play as a construct does not exist in the medical world or in the construct of ‘mental health’. And attachment is rarely used as a construct, he says. It’s rarely said that the parent is the answer to the child. They get it all wrong. The parent is always the answer. The expert can work through the parent, but the parent is the answer, he insists. In Floortime, we’ve got that idea right. The parents are not always the source of the problem, but they’re always the answer, he assures us.

And so many of today’s ‘treatments’ go against this, I pointed out. Dr. Neufeld said it wasn’t long ago that in Vancouver the only children who could attend full-time Kindergarten were those who had diagnoses and disabilities because it would be assumed that they needed to get to school to have access to the experts and the programs. Everything is the opposite, he asserts. The construct of ‘mental health’ seems innocent enough, but it’s one of the worst turns we have made in contemporary society because it’s taking children away from the very adults who are meant to be their answer.

Follow the Child’s Cues into Play

In DIR/Floortime we say to play and connect with the child and a lot of parents don’t know how to play. They think it’s about playing with toys or teaching, but the child might just want to climb on a chair, go under the chair, or behind the chair, as Dr. Glovinsky described in this podcast. Dr. Neufeld says that when you can’t make sense of something, you’re always best taking your cues from the child as to where to go. It’s sad if adults don’t play because playfulness is the number one indicator of emotional health and well-being, he says. 

We know this intuitively, Dr. Neufeld shares. Part of the problem is that we don’t properly invite children into play. You have to give a play signal that something has altered: whether you put on a cape, put on a silly voice, wink your eye, or some other kind of signal. Play is always a defined time. You have an entry and a way out, but you have play signals as dogs and cats do, for instance. Children cannot resist a little bit of silliness on the part of an adult that is being able to be seen as silly, or a change of clothing that signals we’re now in pretend. 

The instinct to play is so important, Dr. Neufeld continues. It’s right next to the instinct to breathe, it’s so important, he insists. If the conditions are conducive, if you hold the space, if there’s some certainty and security, and if the ritual is there–generally speaking, if you take care of these things and suspend trying to change the child and do the work–and if you’re holding the space, your child will give you a cue.

Where’s the energy going and how can I make it playful?

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist

A lot of autistic kids like to spin things, Dr. Neufeld says. He would get out his fan and the things that twirl, listening to the noises and he never had a child who watched him play didn’t want to also play. He’d put himself between the child and the fan to get the child to have to come through. There’s always a way, he insists. You start in play. It’s engaging, but you walk the maze. That’s when the brain becomes plastic. You can never strategize it because it’s not the way it works, Dr. Neufeld says. As Dave Nelson said last podcast, “You have to anticipate and guess, but you just don’t know what things are going to be like.

Getting Stuck

I described a situation to Dr. Neufeld when our kids can be inappropriate, but are still being playful. Some might go to discipline. I gave the example of my son yelling, playfully, “Mama, you suck!” or, “Mama, you’re stupid!“, experimenting with phrases he’s heard somewhere else. I can tell he’s being playful and probably doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Most parents might yell back, “Don’t say that!” which might be important to say, but I asked Dr. Neufeld what his thoughts were.

Dr. Neufeld said that if it’s perseverating or is stuck, there might be attacking energy and the safest place to attack is me, Mom, his safe person, which is something Dr. Neufeld would see as positive. Dr. Neufeld would calmly giggle and say in a jolly voice, “Oh boy, you’re feeling like you want to call me names right now!“, putting on my ‘play hat’ and then have fun insulting each other. Play with anything that there’s not room for in real life because it would hurt feelings or would break the rules. You have to make room for it in play, he explains. If it really is a more upsetting sentiment towards me, Dr. Neufeld suggests I can say something like, “I think maybe you’re upset with me now. That needs to come out…let’s think of a way.

It’s always facilitative, Dr. Neufeld continues. There’s so much frustration wherein the brain isn’t able to do it’s job of keeping the information out, so you have flooded frustration. Therefore, if there’s any safety whatsoever, there’s going to be attacking energy, he explains. The issue, then, is making plenty of room for that attacking energy to come out in play. That’s where emotions need to find room to play because (a) it saves relationships when it comes out in play and (b) it’s only in play that you can feel an emotion to its degree of intensity. We think they our kids are feeling their emotions, but often they don’t–nor do we.

‘Emotional’ playgrounds

The whole purpose of the ’emotional playground’ to get something expressed, otherwise you’re pushing it back in and it will come out in some other way, Dr. Neufeld insists. When you bring it into the play mode, you get your child to feel the impulse. You can’t manage or fix anything that you can’t feel, Dr. Neufeld explains. It’s EMOTIONAL play. You need to know that what’s moving your child is emotion and instinct (not a purposeful ‘will’). Emotions need to be felt to be able to foster maturation and growth, he states. Play becomes our way through. Everyone’s thinking about physical playgrounds, which are important, but we’re talking about emotional playgrounds, Dr. Neufeld says. 

Emotion takes care of us, and play takes care of emotions.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist

The brain is busy creating white noise to be able to decipher signal from ground, Dr. Neufeld explains. Automatically if you suspect hypersensitivity, put white noise in your life to help your brain decipher signal from noise, but in a playful place because play allows for the plasticity of the brain to figure out why, he says. It’s the emotional play that’s important. It’s the alarm that needs to be taken to play. Alarming games like peek-a-boo or monster in the context of safety are perfect. The emotional playgrounds are where the brain will find its workaround, Dr. Neufeld says.

Whether it’s music, dance, theatre, drawing, sculpture, or other areas of the arts in culture, these are the traditional playgrounds of emotion, he offers. Play is for everyone, not just children. Woodworking is an emotional playground that Dr. Neufeld, himself, enjoys. It’s the emotional playground that helps you manage your emotional well-being. Music is perfect, Dr. Neufeld says, because there’s a beginning and an end. The most important music is music that can grab some sadness. Sadness is where the brain is plastic because there’s a sense of letting go when the brain is sad, he explains.

The lullaby is structured in a minor third and is slow and intimate. It’s set so you want to rock. It’s like you’ve discovered the key to sadness, he explains. If you think about a two-year-old wanting to hold on to the day, an intuitive mother would sing a lullaby to evoke a sense of sadness to let go instead of thinking of all the agendas. Through an emotional playground, Dr. Neufeld continues, you’re accessing a bit of sadness, making it safe to feel for just a little bit of time so the brain can do its job. One of the most important instruments of dealing with hypersensitivity whatsoever would be the lullaby, he suggests.

Walk the Maze

I asked Dr. Neufeld what to do if your child yells back to stop singing. He said that if the brain is feeling too sad, or it’s too overwhelming, you have to tone it down. The whole thing is indirect, he explains. If the child is going to feel manipulated by the song, you have to walk the maze and find your way to it. You’re on the right track, but ease it up. Maybe a bit of sadness in a story will get you there instead of by singing. The brain has to feel a bit of sadness for the plasticity to get out of the neurological ruts that are forming–the perseveration–to deal with an overwhelmed brain.

You begin to look for the emotional playgrounds that will deliver what you need to deliver, but you’re going to try to help the brain, help the emotions, and help the feelings do what they do, Dr. Neufeld explains. The answers have always been there. The best way to find a way to be the answer to a child who is highly challenging is simply to feel sad about what is not working along the way, because your brain lets go of it, and avoids perseverating, then comes up with another idea. If we continue to say, “Stop hitting!” then Dr. Neufeld asks, who has the problem?

The ‘Experts’ are NOT Experts

When you turn to experts, Dr. Neufeld asks, would they ever prescribe a lullaby? When you realize that there’s something RIGHT with us, and how the human brain works, and that we’ve been here for tens of thousands of years, and that the hypersensitive have also been here for tens of thousands of years, you realize that our challenge is to put our child into the hands of nature. Play is nature incognito, Dr. Neufeld says, to create a womb of attachment. If there’s movement within it, we continue to hold on, he explains. These have always been our challenges. 

When we look outside ourselves, Dr. Neufeld insists, we lose our way, because the ‘experts’ don’t know. We’re better feeling our own way through, and feeling our own way through is to feel sad about the things that are not working, he explains. It’s hard to unstick your child when you’re stuck yourself. When we think emotionally, Dr. Neufeld says, you get out of your head and into your heart. Instead of something being wrong, there’s something right, he says. We know we must feel. We know there must be a melancholy thread in there somewhere. 

Neuroscience has all the evidence we need to back this up and restates the obvious, Dr. Neufeld discloses. If we come to a situation saying, “I need to be the answer to this child. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but I need to step up to the plate. I need to feel along the way what needs to happen because I need to compensate for a brain that is being overwhelmed. How do I begin to do it?“, Dr. Neufeld really believes that we would find our way through far more than leaning on the so-called ‘mental health experts’.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s try to touch the sadness around things we cannot change to help our brains move forward with adaptation.

For example: In a moment of dysregulation for you or your child, don’t try to solve anything. Realize something is not going right and frustration needs to come out. Use a sad tone, with the child or to yourself, like Dr. Neufeld suggested, and playfully tell yourself or the child that their frustration needs to come out, and figure out how you can get it out–gently and maybe indirectly, if need be.

I can’t thank Dr. Neufeld enough for taking the time to discuss these topics with us today. How enlightening! I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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