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Attachment Theory and Family Therapies

Attachment theory is one of the more satisfying explanations for human behaviour because it just makes sense. We know from our own experience the pull towards those who love and care for us and the unthinking turn to them in times of both joy and challenge. We also know the ache of missing when they are gone. This relational, interactional, and emotion-based approach has made attachment theory and family therapy natural companions. Attachment-Based Family Therapy, Emotion-Focused Family Therapy, Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, and Emotionally Focused Family Therapy are models which draw on attachment relationships and emotions to intervene in a variety of presenting problems in a relational and empathic way.

The Summit for Attachment and Emotion in Family Therapy

In 2021 a group of family therapists representing these four schools met to ‘foster openness, collaboration, and affirmation between different models of family therapy with shared theoretical roots’. Similarities were viewed as validating a position and differences as ‘opportunities to serve more families in unique ways, learning from one another’s creativity to promote healing within families in the most effective and efficient ways possible.’  The editorial which followed was an opportunity to expand the dialogue and offer support to practitioners working with families from models informed by emotion and attachment science.

Attachment and Family

The authors define attachment theory as ‘a robust and empirically established theory of human development that purports that, when appropriately supported, caregivers have access to biologically based instincts to provide protection, care, and comfort to promote their children’s sense of safety and development across the lifespan.’ As a child signals their need and the care giver accurately and consistently responds, relational and internalized trust develops both for themselves and towards others and the capacity for emotion regulation is supported. Both child and caregiver reap positive benefits. For some caregivers distress from past or current relationships, cultural and historical personal and intergenerational experiences and current life stressors may all contribute to an inability to recognise or attend to the child’s signals. These attachment disruptions are one way to understand and address family conflict, emotional distance, and tension that presents as problems and symptoms in therapy.

So, What’s New?

The summit and subsequent paper make two strong points. The first relates to the need to contextualise attachment within historical and current culture and circumstances so the theory does not contribute to ‘a narrative of blame’ of parents and especially mothers. This requires a recognition that while there are strong empirical and theoretical links between attachment and mental health, the quality of the ‘caregiver-child relationship is shaped by many factors beyond attachment experiences, including individual characteristics (e.g., temperament), cultural and social factors (e.g., poverty, racism, community support), intergenerational experiences (e.g., trauma), and epigenetics. Systemic factors like socio-political oppression, historical trauma which may be major determinants of individual and family functioning lie well beyond the control of any individual carer.

A second key point is the value of a robust theoretical base with attachment theory principles among the most empirically supported in the social sciences. It has grown ‘to allow for related principles and processes to develop the theory and conceptualization of human development further, including family systems theory,’

Attachment in Bower(method)

Bower(method) the theoretical model that guides all practice at Bower Place holds attachment as a key element in the development meta-frame. Practitioners are cued to both assess the individual and family’s attachment  experiences and intervene to restore and repair.


A family reunion of “clinical cousins”: Attachment and emotion in four family-oriented therapy models Editorial Family Process. 2024;00:1–26.

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