As much as we sometimes may resist this reality, all of us are deeply impacted, on an emotional and mental level, by the experience we had in our family systems growing up.
How could we not be? Expecting adults to not be impacted by their childhood is like expecting a social media feed to be unaffected by the algorithm on the backend. Early childhood relationships orient and wire our minds to the experience of living and finding safety in the family system. And eventually, in the broader systems in which we exist.
Inevitably, most adults come out of their family system with some scars, even in families where love is present. Parents cannot be perfectly present 100% of the time, and many never learn how to repair moments of conflict with their children to reestablish connection and safety.
Families can benefit from attending therapy to heal the interactions that occurred in the past, to experience a new sense of connectedness, and to create shared meaning on their history and family story.
Attachment-based family therapy is an empirically supported family therapy model designed to help families heal past ruptures. It is based on John Bowlby’s attachment theory and the premise that children and adolescents need connection to their caregivers to feel secure and safe.
When those connections are threatened or ruptured, family conflict often follows. Family conflict and dysregulation has a significant effect on each individual member of the system.
Family cohesion is a protective factor for a myriad of mental health issues. And working toward connection and understanding can help to heal adolescent and adult members alike.
Today, we are dedicating this post to talk about attachment-based family therapy and how families in various stages of life and development can benefit.
What is attachment-based family therapy?
Attachment-based family therapy (ABFT) is an evidence based model of treatment based on attachment theory as a way to understand human behavior, motivation, and emotion.
ABFT, a type of family of origin therapy, assumes that attachment develops when parents are accessible to children. And that early relationships with caregivers form the basis of all relationships later in life.
Children who feel they can access their caregiver when they need them will have greater security in relationships, while children who cannot reach their caregiver, or experience them as insensitive to their needs, may experience less security in relationships.
This “insecurity” can look like pushing people away, lack of trust in others, or anxious clinging out of fear or losing someone.
Attachment theory also posits that humans are primarily driven by an inherent need to connect with others. And that they derive existential meaning from those connections.
ABFT is unique among family therapy models in that it provides an interpersonal approach to treat the ruptures in connection that underlie the family conflict and presenting pain, through its treatment goals. As such, it is a promising model of family therapy for depressed individuals.
5 goals of attachment-based family therapy
Reframe the problem
Often when families begin the treatment process, they are operating under an assumption that one member, often an adolescent, is the “problem.” Family therapists help shift the focus.
Instead of viewing the dysfunction as an issue with the adolescent, we reframe the dynamics in the household to be impacted by each member of the family.
Likewise, we move the focus on each family member participating in tasks to build relationships and heal old wounds, instead of demanding behavior change in any one member.
Family members have the ability to be the medicine for each other. And shifting the perspective to focus on the potential instead of problem behaviors increases the efficacy of treatment.
Acceptance of emotions
Most therapeutic models help clients to understand and tolerate the range of emotional experiences, even the ones that are uncomfortable.
When family members can slow down and feel their own emotions, they are less likely to be in a constant state of reacting and projecting onto one another.
Families can also reprocess old, painful emotions, by revisiting a past meaningful event. They can access the softer, vulnerable, hurt feelings associated with this event, and share them with their family members.
The sharing of emotions liberates members from having to respond defensively to feeling them.
Validation of emotions
While family members are learning to access, share, and accept their emotions, they also learn to validate the experiences of one another. This validation allows members to feel seen, heard, and connected to one another.
Validation does not mean that you “agree” with the actions a family member took in the past that may have been hurtful toward you. Rather, members are able to hear the emotions experienced by the other and validate the emotional experience, not necessarily the behavior.
For example, upon learning that an adolescent was fearful and sad they may be rejected from a friend group if they did not attend a party, the parent who did not allow them to attend the party may validate their fear by saying, “it makes sense that you were angry and scared about the party if it meant losing your friends”, even if the parent does not agree with a dramatic outburst that followed.
And no, validating emotions does not “reinforce” bad behavior. Rather, it allows members to feel more connected to one another and more safe in sharing the vulnerable experience so that they do not need to act out the defensive, protective reactions that come about when they are unseen and unheard.
Resolving past relationship wounds
Reframing the problem, experiencing emotions, and hearing each other all set the stage for repairing past wounds or ruptures. Repairing these moments is the largest central goal of ABFT (similar to the goals of emotionally focused therapy).
The repair of the past wounds occurs over time as family members are able to express past hurts in an emotionally-regulated, non-attacking way, while encouraging the receiving members to express empathy, understanding, and validation. Over time, these interactions act as a corrective attachment experience that replaces the past ruptures with a new dynamic and secure attachment develops.
The secure attachment strengthens the bond between family members and also improves each member’s relationship health outside of the family in their own friendships, romantic relationships, and professional dynamics. Ultimately, when seen and heard by the members of their family system, members feel less alone and more safe.
Find balance between identity in family and individual
Ultimately, adult children are launched from their family of origin to develop an individual identity. And to eventually create an entirely new system with their own partner and children.
While finding security and safety improves individual members relationship health, it also, albeit paradoxically, makes them more independent to go out into the world and have their own new experiences and take risks, knowing they have a safe system to fall back on.
Through a combination of these new and separate experiences, and the foundation of the early family system, individuals create a unique and shared family and individual identity.
Could attachment-based family therapy help me?
Although ABFT was designed as therapy for depressed adolescents, treating depresion and suicidal ideation (along with cognitive behavioral therapy) the potential benefits expand beyond families with current adolescents.
Secure attachment based family therapy ABFT is unique in that it uses family dynamics in session as the target and mechanism of healing, creating a possibility for a new secure attachment between members.
Even if no longer living together as a family unit, adults can heal greatly through corrective interactions with their original family system by resolving attachment ruptures that impact their adult lives.
If you are interested in healing family of origin wounds but your family is not willing to participate in a structural family therapy, schedule some individual sessions with a provider and share your goals. Even without the presence of your family members, healing insecure attachments is possible.