Enhancing Your Therapy Practice by Understanding Attachment

A pair of baby's feet rest on a woman's hand. Touted by many as the most powerful predictor of life successes, attachment is the foundation upon which all human relationships are built. It’s a wonder something this integral to human existence is also so often overlooked and misunderstood by therapists who are considered relationship experts. When examining social work and counseling graduate degree programs, I am not surprised to find that the typical program has an obligatory course titled “Development Throughout the Life Span” and in atypical graduate schools there might be one additional course titled “Child Development.”

Unless the school is known for its focus on attachment theory, very little is taught to potential therapists across the country about attachment processes, attachment issues, attachment interventions, attachment treatment, or attachment healing. Unfortunately, we relationship experts often turn out to be humble students of the myriad of people in our offices struggling to heal the slings and arrows of attachment wounding. Being as a student can be a sensitive and wise way to approach another’s life lessons. However, in issues of attachment there is wisdom in becoming a scholar and knowledgeable practitioner in the theory and science of love.

The heated nature-versus-nurture debate has gone on so long that the politics and social morays regarding child-rearing have caused the less tenacious among us to retreat into understanding human relationship through theoretical lenses that seem more tangible—communication, systems, behavioral, and cognitive theories. Early theorist, Arnold Gesell, postulated the eugenics view—you are a product of your genetics and little more—while in the same year John B. Watson (1928) postulated that you were born, as John Locke tagged two centuries earlier, a blank slate and then behaviorally shaped by your environment. Finally, there was the mid-century psychoanalytic view: you are both a product of nature and nurture.

The fundamentals of attachment have slowly unfolded in the last 50 years, in bits and pieces, through a variety of unaffiliated and loosely associated psychoanalytic research libraries and laboratories. From John Bowlby’s original ethnological assertions in the 1950s, to Ainsworth’s Strange Situation experiments in the 1960s, and finally in Allan Shore’s attachment tomes historically chronicling clinical and neuroscientific research findings up to the present, attachment theory has become the latest and most significant new frontier in understanding thriving human relationships.

If, like me, you had a meager education in the history and function of attachment processes and the enormous implications for effective relationship therapy, it may be an overwhelming notion to begin now to figure it out and apply it in your current working therapeutic approach.

My attachment research journey started 10 years ago, out of pure necessity, when I adopted two attachment-challenged children. I was completely clueless as to what was going on. Little did I know that in doing so my entire life and my entire way of seeing the world would change. Because of that change, my therapeutic approach has been called into question, debated, attacked, redefined, and rebuilt upon a new foundation—attachment theory. While the journey has not been linear, with the change in personal viewpoint has come an increased satisfaction in the outcome of therapy interventions with individuals, parent-child dyads, couple relationships, and families in my professional work. Also, I have come to possess a deep and compelling desire to share what I have discovered with those of you working in the field and with those of you seeking therapeutic support for your own personal relationship evolution.

The following is a suggested course of self-study and self-discovery to set you on the path to becoming an attachment-competent therapist. The four pieces are intertwined and equally essential to becoming the change you want to see in your clients. It all starts with you, the therapist.

First, I recommend becoming an intentional student by committing to learn the roots of attachment by studying a few essential works, starting with John Bowlby’s seminal work, A Secure Base, and Robert Karen’s Becoming Attached. Read Dan Siegel’s Parenting from the Inside Out to see how neuroscience and parenting intersect to form a healthy parent/child attachment relationship. To get a panoramic picture of the history of and current status of research in neuroscience and affect regulation, read the collected works of Allan Shore, which may take you the better part of a couple of years—ultimately worth every second of the effort.

Second, find an attachment therapist to work with on your own personal story. Without this, you will be blind-sided by your own attachment challenges and get more in the way than you thought you could.

Third, get supervised training from one of many renowned attachment practitioners, Daniel Hughes, Sue Johnson, Bruce Perry, and Selma Fraiberg, to name a few. There isn’t one right way to understand or treat attachment challenges. There are, however, a few wrong ways.

And, finally, get supervision as you begin to practice what you have learned beyond the initial training phase. Ongoing supervision and professional exposure are essential to staying abreast of this ever-evolving, dynamic exploration into the health and wellness of human beings.

I have come to view the neuroscience of attachment the same way I imagine astronomers view the stars above—as a vast, unexplored frontier of possibility. When you feel the magnitude of taking that step into the attachment frontier, take heart—each step forward portends a time when the miracles of human mental health will seem less mystical and more obtainable to you, the intrepid seeker.

© Copyright 2009 by Ce Eshelman, LMFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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