|Holding therapy is a practice described and
recommended in the book Holding Time, by Martha Welch. It
consists of forced holding by a therapist or parent until the
child stops resisting or until a fixed time period has elapsed;
sometimes the child is not released until there is eye contact.
Although this technique was initially intended for autistic
adults, it has also been used for autistic children, teenagers and
younger children with "attachment disorders", and
infants with "residual birth trauma".
Proponents of this practice defend it as being "for the
child's own good," the very same justification that many use
for spanking and other punishments. Because it is labeled
"therapy", it can be difficult to regulate this practice
by professionals or to help parents to recognize its dangers.
I consider this practice to be completely at odds with
attachment parenting, which is above all a relationship based on
mutual trust. It can be immensely difficult for a child to regain
full, genuine trust after being forcibly held – regardless of
the parent's "good intentions" or the resulting surface
behavior. As Alice Miller wrote:
I regard [holding therapy] as a kind of violation. People
with the best intentions just don't feel what they are doing
when they violate the rights of another person - the child.
The aim is to release forbidden,
repressed feelings, but the violence of this technique makes it
absolutely impossible to benefit from such a release.1
Force, the therapy implies, is used for the child's own
good, and the child will be rewarded and loved for his tolerance
in letting it happen. He will come to believe that force
contributes to his well-being and is ultimately beneficial. A
more perfect deception and distortion of someone's perceptions
is barely imaginable.2
It is human nature to resent and resist the use of force.
The use of forced holding by a parent will inevitably engender
strong feelings of fear, confusion, helplessness, anger, and
betrayal as the child's natural attempts to break free are
disregarded by those they have come to love and trust. When held
by force, the child finally understands that freedom comes only by
giving in to outside control - a dangerous lesson to give to a
young child. Their will can be broken, but that is not what I
would call psychological health. Imposing any action by force on a
child, who is in no position to make an informed choice, is
unconscionable. Even if there were an emotional
"breakthrough", it would be at a great hidden cost, as
there is no way to avoid the child's feelings of anger,
frustration, resentment, and betrayal. These intense feelings
cannot be measured in the present, nor can their future
ramifications be known. Like spanking and all other forms of
punishment, the child may appear to comply, while his deeper
feelings become submerged until they can be more freely expressed.
Further, where force is used, the authenticity of any
"success" is forever in doubt. When a child cannot say
"no", what does his "yes" really mean? The
coerced child has learned to feign attachment behavior. Such
dissimulation is at the core of the sociopathic personality.
The use of force on a child is always a risk factor, and is
never justified unless the child's life or health is immediately
endangered, and there is no better alternative. There are
alternatives, many of them, to nearly all parental acts of forced
submission. For the unhappy or out-of-control child, the best
alternative is prevention through meeting the child's legitimate
needs (undivided attention, food, sleep, attention to hidden
allergies, relief of family stress factors, etc.) Where force is
simply unavoidable (the proverbial child running into a street),
it should be kept to the barest minimum possible, and followed by
gentle explanations and apologies. Forced holding where there is
no immediate danger should be challenged on humanitarian grounds
that to me are self-evident. And far from having health benefits,
as proponents claim, it may also pose a serious psychological
"... one of the most important advances in our
understanding of health and disease in the past few decades...
has been identifying the prototype of pathogenic (disease
creating) situations - being trapped in adverse or threatening
circumstances and being unable to either fight or flee. When we
can only passively submit, our health tends to deteriorate.3
On the other hand, being in a position to take the
initiative is health enhancing."
Excerpted from The
Scientification of Love by Michel Odent, 1999.
There is yet another compelling reason to challenge this
procedure: how can we justify forced holding in a society where
children are cautioned - for good reason - to "say no"
to unwanted touch? Whether by a parent, therapist or stranger,
physically overpowering a helpless child is wrong.
Justifying it by calling it "love" or
"therapy" is a violation of the child's trust and
understanding of life as he has come to know it. Like all other
forms of forced compliance, forced holding associates love and
submission. Delusional defenses are likely as the child tries to
comprehend and make sense of something he knows in his heart to be
a distortion of what love should look like.
Gentle, empathic approaches are far less stressful for all
concerned than forced holding, more effective for the long term,
and more respectful of the child, who deserves above all our love
and compassion. How sad that something as lovely as having a child
in our arms - when the desire is mutual - has been perverted into
such a heartless practice.