– Making sense of troubled Kids-
A résumé from an online webinar, held by Gordon Neufeld Phd

Difficult children – a look under the iceberg

by | Nov 21, 2019 | Education | 0 comments

A few weeks ago I took part in a webinar – an online seminar – which was broadcast live from Canada.

The speaker was Gordon Neufeld and the title was:

Understanding difficult Children.

Many insights, revelations and important information were brought together in these 90 minutes.

In the next three articles I will summarize the basic findings. In this first article I will explain the basics.
In the next two articles I will go into more detail on the application.

“Understanding difficult Children”.

Regardless of whether we are in the position of teachers or parents, we all have difficulties from time to time in bringing up our children. Some children are more difficult to lead, reach and educate.

But why is that? Why are there children who behave more “difficult” than others?


  • To investigate this, Neufeld used the image of an iceberg.

    On the surface of this iceberg we see “difficult children”. Frequent behavior of such children is:

  •  aggressiveness
  • anxiety, obsessions, compulsion, restlessness, attention disorders, cutting, etc.
  • fixes and fixations  (such as fame, fortune, gambling, pornography, collecting, etc.)
  • bossiness, oppositionality, narcissism and bullying

Most of us who see this inappropriate behavior use consequences and punishments, take away privileges and things the child is bound to – to teach him or her to behave properly.

But we all know that beneath every visible iceberg lies the very foundation that sustains what we see above.

The same applies to this inappropriate behavior.

Neufeld spoke about this iceberg and took a look at various stories that form this foundation, the hidden part of the iceberg.

So let’s go through these stories, starting at the lowest level, at the core of the problem, and then following the effects, all the way to the top.

  • On the lowest floor lies the cause of everything: separation

As we saw in the last article, attachment is the most important need of the human being. This is especially true for children. Therefore, everything that threatens this closeness means stress for a child. We also refer to threatened closeness as separation, by which we mean not only physical separation, but often it is enough to imagine separation when it is threatened, or when we dream about it.

For kids, separation is the worst thing that can happen to them. Their emotions are stirred up very strongly – in the worst case so strongly that the children block themselves in them and can no longer feel at all.

To illustrate this a little, imagine a toddler who doesn’t want to come with us when we call. So we go away, hide somewhere and pretend we left without the child.

This will cause an emotional tsunami in this child’s life. Our toddler will cry and scream:

“I am coming, I am coming, I am coming, Mama, wait!

Certainly each and every one of us can remember a situation where we experienced separation and the feeling of being lost this caused in us.

On this floor we can see two very important realities:

  1. heightened, strong emotions
  2. being stuck in separation

The emotional tsunami reaction as described above for toddlers is due to the fact that separation provokes the ultimate stress reaction for every human being.

Therefore, stress is synonymous with separation. All stress factors like divorce, loss of relatives, moving, childcare, neglect, bedtime, keeping secrets, etc.) have one common denominator: the fact that we are facing separation.

Dealing with separation is very stressful, and this applies to our children – but also to each one of us.

Why is that so?

As we have seen in the last article, attachment is synonymous with survival for all of us. It is the overriding need. This is how our brain was created. For us, who have a limbic system and an emotional brain, everything revolves around closeness, belonging and attachment. Bonding is one of the three most basic needs we humans have. And from there comes the essence of stress: the struggle with separation.

This is also the case with us adults. When I told Benny about this, he said that he experienced it the same way at work: In general, Benny has a close relationship with God. Whatever happens at work, as long as there is this really close connection to God, there will simply not be this emotion of stress for him because he feels loved and safe in God’s hands. But if he has not had times of deep connection with God, stress is so much more quickly a reality for him. In such situations he can simply approach God again and the inner stress will disappear again. Isn’t it interesting how the same principle works in our relationship with God?

This applies not only to the actual separation, but also to the anticipation, i.e. the expectation of it:

“Something could happen to Mommy”


“If I tell Papa my secret, maybe he won’t love me anymore.”

That’s why it’s stressful to anticipate the separation, even if it never happens.

Understanding that dealing with separation causes a lot of stress in the child will help us understand why it is possible for stress to go so far that too many emotions arise and feelings will be switched off for protection.

Our brain is designed so that it cannot deal with too much information at the same time and starts to exclude feelings in such situations.

Before this lecture I was not aware that feelings and emotions are two very different experiences. While looking for an easy to understand explanation, I came across this text:

An emotion is a physiological experience (or state of awareness) that gives you information about the world, and a feeling is your conscious awareness of the emotion itself
Many people are honestly unaware that they’re having an emotion. For them, the emotion and the consciousness of it are not strongly connected, and they don’t even realize that they’re fearful, or angry, or depressed. Their emotional state has to become so persistent that it drags them into a severe mood (or is pointed out by someone else), and then they can realize, “Oh, I guess I’ve been really sad about my mom, or afraid about money, or angry about work.”

For many people, there’s a disconnect between emotion and feeling; there’s no consciousness of the emotion at all. They have the emotion, but they don’t know about it. The emotion is certainly there, and their behavior displays the emotion (to others at least), but they aren’t feeling it properly.

Here’s the thing: We can be deeply moved and stirred by emotions, but we don’t necessarily feel them. Feeling emotions is a luxury that only people who feel safe can really experience.

Think of the last time you gave a lecture to people. Or the last time you had an important meeting and you were pretty nervous about it. Were you hungry? Were you thirsty? Did you feel your pain? Most likely not. In the time when you felt this stress inside, feelings went unnoticed by you. This is not harmful as long as you have a place after a short time where you can feel safe again and perceive your feelings again.

  • This leads us to the next story up – the story of stress.

Children can get stuck in a stress reaction that has caused them to lose their feelings because of the existing situation of separation.

As I mentioned above, remember the last time you were supposed to give a lecture. Or a situation where you had to meet some people and you were quite nervous” – in such situations we often have no feelings.

What happens is that the brain suppresses feelings during stress. Feelings have been shown to affect our ability to function in vulnerable or stressful environments. The brain therefore closes itself off to these sensations. When a child goes to school (school is stressful for most children), it loses its feelings so that it can function better.

Neufeld explained that this stress in itself is not the problem.

What is important is not what happens at school, but what happens after school.

We all have situations in which we are under stress and lose our feelings so that we can function better. The problem is that many children get stuck in this stress reaction. This is because they have no end of the day when all the feelings can come back. They urgently need a place and people around them where they can feel safe. Then their emotions can recover in a reasonable time and the feelings can come back.

This is the key to emotional health and well-being – and it is also the key to maturity.

In the next article we will discuss the details of how we can create a safe environment for our child. How we can help them to recover their feelings in a reasonable amount of time.

Permanent stress therefore leads us to the top floor, which is directly below the surface of the water:

  • The floor of immaturity.


All too often children get stuck in immaturity because of permanent stress and the resulting lack of feelings. Because feelings are the motor of maturity!


Let us assume that the child encounters a sad situation. However, the child does not feel sad.

Another feeling that is often missing is the feeling of fulfillment – or the feeling of senselessness for things that cannot be changed.


Imagine a situation where an armored child (a child who is not in contact with his feelings) just received the message that his beloved cat died because she was run over by a car. This child will not be able to express his feelings. He will not be able to feel or express visible sadness or feelings of futility. Perhaps this child will show aggressive behavior. Or behave super anxiously, or it will behave very self-opinionated towards other children. Because these feelings of sadness and futility are missing.  However, we need these feelings to reach maturity.

Feelings play a large and important role in the development of our maturation process. If you have no feelings, you have lost the connection between cause and effect – because feelings are the glue between cause and effect.

Maturation does not come from learning or thinking, it does not lie in genetics – it comes from the ability to feel.

This is why it is so important to help our children to feel.

There are two important questions to ask:

“What can I do to help my child mature?”

By reducing separation, my child will have less emotions and feel better at the same time. And because the real root of the problem of children with difficult behavior is not behavioral, but emotional, we also need to start under the iceberg, at the core of the problem. By reducing “separation” the child’s stress level will decrease, feelings will come back and our child will mature. As a result, the difficult behavior will decrease.

“How can I give my child a place to recover from stress situations?”

There are moments when we cannot change the stressful reality in a child’s life. School, moving or even divorce are situations where sometimes we cannot do much to eliminate the stress. However, there is much we can do to provide our children with a safe place to sit back, feel, relax and start the growth process.


In the next article we will look at the answer to the first of these questions – “What can I do to help my child develop maturity in relation to separation? In a third article, we will address the other very important question: “How can I create a place for my child to recover from a stressful situation?


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