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The Dangers of Holding Therapy

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.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 risk:

" 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.

1 Miller, Alice. Personal communication.

2 Miller, Alice. Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. New York: Penguin USA, new edition 1997.

3 Maier, S. F. and Seligman, M.E.P. "Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence." J. Exp. Psychol. General 1976; 105:3-46.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.