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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Do You Have Good Things to Say About Your Childhood Experience of Attachment Therapy?

A couple of days ago, I posted some remarks about the fact that I never seem to come across positive statements about Attachment Therapy/Holding Therapy by the people who have experienced it--  except for Beth Thomas. There are lots of testimonials by parents who report great satisfaction, but when the children grow up, they don’t seem to come forward with positive comments. On the other hand, there are quite a few who have volunteered negative testimony on their experiences and outcomes.

I asked for people who have been through AT/HT to let me know if as adults they consider it to have been a good idea. One reader kindly searched for any existing testimonials, and did find  two positive comments here:  But that seems to be all.

One reader argued that perhaps those who have been through AT/HT are doing very well and simply don’t want to talk about the past or have their undesirable behavior shown to strangers. That could be, of course, although confession and public display of one’s emotional problems seems to be a way of life in the U.S. today.

What I’m wondering is whether people who experienced AT/HT were ever told that that was what their treatment was. For one thing, in the past, there were various names for physically-intrusive  mental health interventions for children. One of the first practitioners called it “Z-therapy”, presumably after his own name, Zaslow. His immediate followers, like Foster Cline, called it “rage-reduction therapy” because they believed that physical discomfort could make the child so angry that his accumulated rage would drain away. The term “holding therapy” described the method used, and “attachment therapy” came into the picture as attachment theory came into fashion.

In addition to the use of different names for the treatment, another factor may apply. That is the tendency of AT/HT practitioners not to discuss the treatment with the children. Nancy Thomas, in a paper she contributed to a book edited by Terry M. Levy in 2000, advised adults not to answer children’s questions, even those that have to do with their wish to be reunited with their parents (to whom they are said not to be attached, but that’s another story)--  instead of answering, adults should say “How come you ask so many questions?” or “Why do you need to know that?” Having a monopoly on information enhances the authority and power of adults, just as physical control does, and AT/HT authors (although not conventional psychologists) have agreed that such authority is a foundation of the child’s attachment  to the parent. Parents and practitioners who took this viewpoint may have felt that it was not necessary or even suitable for children to know what their treatment was called, or any other facts about it.

Finally, it may be that people who experienced this type of treatment heard it called simply “holding”, or “holding time”, or more recently Prolonged Parent-Child Embrace. These are terms used by Martha Welch, a practitioner who used methods similar to AT/HT but came to them from a somewhat different theoretical position.

If you or someone you know recalls any of these terms used about a treatment you underwent, and if you feel that the treatment worked well, I’d like to hear about it. If you don’t remember any of these terms, see if you remember any of these factors or experiences in a childhood mental health intervention:

1.      You were adopted and were said to have either Reactive Attachment Disorder or “Attachment Disorder”, or to be at risk for developing one of those if you were not treated.

2.      Your treatment involved being physically restrained against your wishes. You may have been lying with your head and shoulders in someone’s lap and one arm behind the person, or an adult may have lain on top of you.

3.      Your treatment included being tickled or prodded uncomfortably by the therapist.

4.      Your treatment included following commands for physical movements such as kicking your feet or doing push-ups or jumping-jacks.

5.      Your treatment included being told to make sustained eye contact with your therapist.

6.      Your treatment included being told to shout that you wanted to kill your mother, or similar statements.

7.      Following a treatment session, you may have been encouraged to sit in your mother’s lap and be fed sweets by hand.

8.      You may have spent time between sessions not with your parents but in a therapeutic foster home, where you had tedious chores to do and a minimum of play or free time.

These are some basic characteristics of AT/HT, although treatments by different practitioners differed in some ways. If you or anyone you know had experiences like these in childhood, chances are that you were receiving AT/HT treatment. I’d very much appreciate hearing from you if you did have such experiences and if you thought they were an effective mental health treatment.

If you considered the experiences bad, of course it would be of interest to hear from you, too. 


  1. I wonder if the two Utah people were children or adults when they went through Holding Therapy.

    Some parents submit to HT when their children are being treated. Even Nancy Thomas claims to have gone through couples Holding Therapy with her husband.

    I think its a totally different matter if an adult chooses to undergo HT, although it's still quackery.

  2. I wish the one person had said more about why he thought a painful and dangerous treatment was effective... especially about why he thought it was dangerous.

  3. Yes, that would have been interesting. A TV crew's filming at an Attachment Therapy center in Utah years ago demonstrated the dangers, with therapists pushing their elbows into the abdomen of bound children and parents lying on top of small children, which could only make it difficult for them to breathe. Heaven knows what was done to children when the cameras weren't around.

  4. Jeff-- thanks for your comments-- as you suggested, I didn't publish them.

    You see why I set priorities about which problem needs solving first.

    Best regards,

  5. I went through "z-therapy" in the early 70s, with Russ Colburn, Tim Faust, and others, up at Forest Heights, in Evergreen. My family had family therapy with Foster Cline, and my parents had z-therapy with Foster. I guess I was around 12 years old, and it was a horror. I had many sessions, the longest being around 12 hours. The trauma did make me stronger, and taught me how to conform, and how to survive.

  6. Thanks for getting in touch. Can you tell any more? For example, what made your parents decide to do this?

  7. Dear sboag,

    Good grief, you have experiences that we need to learn more about. I expect you've been to hell and back. Colorado has been hiding this dirty secret far too long. And alas, this horrid practice is still going on in the state, with county DHSs sending children to Evergreen. Some activists are trying to stop it but not getting very far. Please contact us.

    Thanks for writing here.