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Attachment-Based Therapy for Parents and Their Children

What is attachment-based therapy, and how does it work for parents and children? Find out here at HealthyPlace.

Attachment-based therapy is an approach modeled on the concept that small children attach themselves to adults to feel safe and form important relationships. According to John Bowlby (1907-1990), who first developed attachment theory, these early attachments are vital to our ability to become independent and well-functioning adults.

Attachment-based therapy is focused on identifying attachment issues that may have occurred in childhood and analyzing their effect on our mental health as adults. So how does attachment-based therapy work, and can it be useful in both parents and their children?

What Is Attachment-Based Therapy?

Attachment-based therapy is grounded in the concept that all human beings have a biological desire to form meaningful relationships. According to attachment theory, secure attachments develop in early childhood when parents are sensitive and responsive to the needs of their children, which in turn has a positive effect on the child’s development. The theory states that those with secure attachments are more likely to have skills in emotional regulation, as well as higher self-confidence and self-esteem.

Those who develop insecure attachments as a result of childhood abandonment, neglect or abuse, are more likely to struggle to form relationships and are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders later in life.

Attachment-based therapy is founded on four main principles:

  1. According to attachment theory, problems with early attachment can shape a person’s emotional and relational development into adulthood
  2. Any attachment patterns learned in early childhood will typically play out in psychotherapy – this is known as transference
  3. Intuitive, non-verbal interactions from the therapist are more important than cognitive or behavioral suggestions. In other words, a therapist practicing attachment-based therapy will not give advice or suggest a behavioral change.
  4. Enactments or early attachment experience can be co-constructed and repaired with help from the therapist. It is the reparative element of attachment-based therapy (rather than merely identifying attachment issues from childhood) that is the key to a successful outcome.  

Attachment-based theory can seem confusing at first, but it’s important to remember that even though your therapist will guide the sessions, you are in the driver’s seat. Qualified therapists are used to working with patients with many different kinds of attachment-based trauma, and you’ll be encouraged to take your time and not delve into difficult memories until you feel ready.

What Is Attachment-Based Family Therapy?

Attachment-based family therapy is a type of family therapy that aims to repair relationships between adults and children to help them develop or rebuild emotionally secure relationships. It is a manualized therapy with a clear structure.

The primary purpose of attachment-based family therapy is to discover what damaged the trust in the relationship and improve the relationship between parent and child. To reach this goal, ABFT follows five tasks:

  1. Relational reframe: This is usually achieved at the start of therapy and is designed to shift the focus away from problems in the relationship and toward potential improvement. Here, family members will be encouraged to identify what damaged the trust in their relationship and look for ways to repair it.
  2. Alliance building with the child: Here, the therapist will work to establish an alliance with the child or adolescent in one-to-one sessions.
  3. Alliance building with the parent: An attachment-based therapist will then establish an alliance with the parent by offering empathy and support while identifying ways they could improve their parenting skills.
  4. Resolving attachment ruptures: The end goal of attachment-based therapy is for both the parent and the child to express their grievances in an emotionally-regulated way and come together to form more securely-attached relationships.

How Long Does Attachment-Based Therapy Take?

Attachment-based therapy is open-ended, so the length of treatment will vary between individuals. Repairing attachment bonds can take time, whether you’re in individual attachment therapy or attachment-based family therapy.

Many people find the experience of attachment-based therapy to be demanding and difficult, especially if they experienced early trauma or neglect. However, it is a recognized and supported therapy model that has shown great effectiveness. Building an alliance with the right therapist can make a difference to your experience and will ensure you get the most out of your sessions.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, August 18). Attachment-Based Therapy for Parents and Their Children, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/attachment-based-therapy-for-parents-and-their-children

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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