Attachment (part four of facilitating therapeutic sessions)

……..the therapist’s role is analogous to that of a mother who provides her child with a secure base from which to explore the world.

-JOHN BOWLBY (1998, p.140)


In continuing our series of how to best facilitate therapeutic sessions I would like to address the most important element of attachment which was highlighted and developed by John Bowlby after he said that we are biologically designed for secure attachment, it is in our design to be more fully human. A few students have been asking me how best to work with different children in their sessions that have insecure attachment styles and are challenging for the session leader.

Learning how to use attachment signs in sessions to repair mistakes or mis-attunements and support ongoing wellbeing comes through training and personal healing as therapists yourselves. However, having cues as session leaders can only help! The idea is to work towards presence which we spoke about on the last blog. Restoring and embodying secure attachment skills and functioning.

The three internalised styles of insecure attachment are:

  • Avoidant – where the client moves away from hostile parents and believes they are better off alone; the baby feels so uncomfortable with others who are not nourishing.
  • Ambivalent – where the child gets inconsistent love and has had caregivers who are unpredictable. The baby feels a lack of sense of self and tries to get it from another
  • Disorganized – is both of the above and with a lack of sense of safety and security from deep in their physiology

What can we do as therapeutic session leaders to restore and embody secure attachment skills?

With a child who has Avoidant attachment e.g. you would let them know you understand that things are better on their own but explore what it like is to allow others to share with you. Shall we do this together? Here the key is to work with the ‘importance of including other’

  • With a child who has ambivalent attachment you would help them come back to a sense of self (the key). Help them refer to themselves. “Close your eyes and go into to yourself, what do you think?”
  • With disorganised you need to focus on safety and regulating the central nervous system to feel a sense of physiological safety inside. Who/what provides that sense of safety for them and where in the body is this. The key is creating body-felt sense of safety and relaxation.

When we experience secure attachment we are able to live in deeper compassion and intimacy. We don’t suffer PTSD, we recover from stress easier and experience brain integration. We are more playful as we are protected by and protective of our loved ones!

My tips in your language to help you:

  1. Connect, connect, connect
  2. Make the child / client the centre of the universe
  3. Embody safety
  4. Separate, connect. Separate, connect
  5. Remember you don’t need a special talent to love and hold in safety

There is a beautiful exercise/ dance experience you can share together called ‘a safe base’:

So, you play appropriate music to your situation and the client moves away from you slowly, looking back to see you holding them with your eyes, your total presence . They may dance and move to explore through the space and you are giving them a feeling of being the centre of the universe, loving them for who they are without reservation.

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