Wednesday, March 9, 2011



Today, 1 in 5 children suffer from moderate to severe anxiety. Gordon Neufeld attended to this problem in his public address in Vancouver, BC on March 4, 2011.

What is Anxiety? Anxiety means “unease: a vague sense of unsafety and is characterized by feelings of apprehension and restlessness. It is basically an activated “alarm system”. Humans develop this system for a reason…nature provides us with this system so we can all function properly. (Note: the fetus has a working alarm system at 6 months in utero.) When a child is “alarmed”, the alarm system is given high priority and all the child’s attention is focused on this “alarm”.

How does this alarm system work? Figure 1: The Alarm System will be used to describe a good working alarm system. The alarm system is “turned on” when the child is “alarmed”. The alarm system is activated leading to Caution. The individual (the child) becomes conscientious, careful, concerned, and cautious. These are attributes of a good working alarm system. If futility is reached (e.g. mom is leaving for work), tears are usually released and this leads to adaptation and the child becomes resilient, resourceful, released, and restful. At this point the alarm system is turned off. The alarm is proven false (the world didn’t end….the child survived) and the alarm is recalibrated.

But if futility is not reached, the child will need courage. Courage isn’t possible without mixed feelings and children are not capable of experiencing mixed feelings until the age of 7 or 8. If a child reaches courage, the child becomes brave (but not foolish), perseveres, goal-oriented, and tempered. A caregiver can help a child cultivate courage by first fanning desires that will answer their fears, and eventually (as the child ages) by helping the child find his/her mixed feelings. For example, a child wants to be in a school play, but is terrified of being on stage. Fan his excitement for participating in the play. Help an older child recognize the mixed feelings of excitement and fear.

The above is a well functioning alarm system. Before discussing the non-functioning alarm system, Neufeld answered the question, what sets off the alarm system? The alarm system is set off when one faces the lack or loss of proximity with what or whom we are attached. You will need to have read or heard of Gordon Neufeld’s book on attachment, Hold On To Your Kids, to understand this. Briefly, we are alarmed by the threat of not being with, not being like, not belonging, not mattering, not being loved, and not being known by the one with whom we are attached.

Gordon Neufeld outlines 6 reasons why anxiety is increasing in our children:
• Unprecedented separation from parents
• Failing to develop deep attachments
• Children are becoming more peer oriented
• Children are becoming more alpha
• Parents are resorting to alarming their children (parents are becoming the source of alarm)
• Separation-based discipline is becoming the norm.

The root of the alarm is the lack or loss of proximity with what or whom we are attached. Unfortunately, Children cannot connect their anxiety with the separation they are facing because our “basic physiology protects us from what makes us feel too bad”. We’re blinded and simply can’t see it. This orphans the alarm and displaces the alarm to what can be seen….reasons are invented, irrational reasons which gives rise to alarming obsessions. This is why the rational fix to anxiety doesn’t work. It doesn’t get rid of the root of the problem.

Anxiety is an alarm without eyes; this gives rise to the dysfunctional alarm system, see Figure 2: The Dysfunctional Alarm System. The alarm system is “turned on” leading to Caution. When the child is blind to the true source of alarm, futility cannot be felt and courage is not reached (because what truly alarms the child cannot be faced). The child is lead toward caution. Without the understanding of the true source of the alarm, irrational obsessions and compulsive behaviours are developed. Anxiety reduction can be obtained by compulsive anxiety-reducing behaviours (e.g. oral activities such as sucking, chewing, nail biting and eating, rhythmic activity and stimulation, contact with transitional objects and physical activity). These behaviours temporarily relieve anxiety and turns off the alarm.

Gordon Neufeld’s suggests anxiety can be addressed by reducing the separation the child is facing. Slow down peer interaction, refrain from separation-based disciplines. Most importantly, bridge any separation that cannot be avoided by focusing on the next connection – until we meet again. Some other strategies are:
• Caregivers need to provide a place of rest and safety. Don’t overwork the alarm system. Don’t scare kids. Accept the alpha role in the child’s life. Accept to work on the relationship; the child needs to know that the caregiver is working on the relationship, so they don’t need to.
• Foster and accepting attitude of anxiety. Don’t battle the symptoms of irrationality. Give children room for their upset. If a child’s compulsion towards anxiety is inappropriate help them find acceptable substitutes for reducing anxiety.
• Bring alarmed children to rest and build resilience by helping to find the tears of futility when appropriate. This will restore and recalibrate the alarm system.
• Cultivate courage first by fanning desires and then by helping to find the mixed feelings when ready.

And what does this all mean for our children with sensory processing disorder? I think our children have very real anxieties caused by their disorder and the root of their anxieties are, maybe, more complicated. Understanding the “alarm system” and applying Neufeld’s suggestions for reducing anxiety can help us navigate our children towards solutions.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Here's our Letter to Oprah!

Dear Oprah,

I am writing about your show titled "The 7-Year-Old Who Tried to Kill his Mother.

I have a 7 year old with Sensory Processing Disorder with developmental coordination disorder, ADHD, and generalized anxiety disorder. I was happy to see the stigma and challenge of pediatric disorders and mental illness being discussed in such a high profile forum.

Zach has a variety of mental health disorders; however, the only diagnosis mentioned was “Sensory Integration Disorder,” also known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Your show inferred that sensory issues were the only challenge this child has. Because SPD was not explained on your show, nor was Zach’s mental health diagnoses, the audience was given the impression that children with a diagnosis of SPD may be inclined to rage attacks that could lead to attempts to kill others. This is not correct.

SPD is a neurological disorder, NOT a mental illness. SPD is a condition that exists when sensory signals are misinterpreted by the brain and inappropriate responses result. Most children with SPD do not have psychiatric disorders; however, children with severe psychiatric problems (like Zach on your program) may receive some treatment for comorbid (co-existing) SPD, but it is not the focus of their overall treatment plan.

Please revisit this subject and help clarify Sensory Processing Disorder before you are off the air.

Thank you for all you have done for parents over the years. Your show will be missed!

Domenica Mastromatteo

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects at least one in twenty children. Children with SPD don't process or experience sensory information the way other typical children do; therfore, they don't behave the way other children do. They struggle to perform tasks that come easier for other children. Consequently they suffer a loss of quality in their social, personal, emotional and academic life.

The Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation is dedicated to continue their research into the knowledge and treatment of SPD, so that, as Lucy Jane Miller writes in her book "Sensations Kids", "the millions of sensational children currently "muddling through" daily life will enjoy the same hope and help that research and recognition already have bestowed on coutless other conditions that once baffled science and disrupted lives."