Understanding and Treating Attachment Problems in Children: What Went Wrong and How Problems Can Be Fixed

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

This somewhat complex article reviews the basic tenets of traditional attachment theory and describes both its strengths and weaknesses. Revisions to attachment theory are suggested and detailed explanation is provided of both the causes and treatment of various types of attachment problems. It is both a technical road map and a practical guide to the journey.  Although complex, It has been written to be understandable to professionals and parents alike. (31 pages)   Link to full article here.

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A Residential Care Attachment Model

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.

Attachment disorder is much like many other issues in our society wherein we coin a new term for a very old problem and then scare ourselves about how bad it is.  Don’t misunderstand—an attachment disorder is a serious problem, but it is not what it has been presented to be by sensational stories and made-for-TV books.  Children with attachment disorders are just that—children.  They are difficult, yes; they can be hurtful, yes again; but they are not lost causes, much less developing Ted Bundys.  Our program works with these difficult children every day, and we see clear progress in nearly all of them.

There are tens of thousands of children in our systems of “care”, which means we have far too many children who have not been cared for where it counts—in their families.  These children often have defenses and tough shell that few can penetrate.  Without a knowledgeable and understanding care provider, this can lead to problems in reaching out and bonding.

These children have attachment themes rather than an attachment disorder.  Without someone reaching them while they are still more connected to family than to peer group (usually under the age of twelve), these children may well become the delinquents and criminals of tomorrow.  The halls of our prisons today are filled with the youngsters of our systems of care in the past.  For these children it is either pay now—with resources for social workers, therapists, and trained foster parents—or pay later—with free room and board in our institutions.  These children may well be the criminals of tomorrow, but they should not be confused with children with a true attachment disorder.

Children with a severe attachment disorder have never had a successful attachment to anyone.  Children with a mild to moderate disorder have had only partial and never truly rewarding attachments in their short lives.  These children start life in the first twelve to eighteen months with failure in the most basic of instincts in human beings—bonding immediately, first of all to survive and then to find a successful place in the interdependent world of other human beings.  When things go badly to begin with, the instinct to bond (promoting physical survival) is overridden by avoiding the pain and neglect of attaching (emotional survival).  The seeds of attachment are often sown long before the results are observed.  Without a disruption in the cycle of an attachment disorder, it may grow into a lifelong and unsuccessful search for a place in the social network of our society.

I believe we are still in a phase where as a society we are not sure how to help these children.  In our confusion and to some extent desperation, we have developed what appear to be desperate therapies, and some parents, professionals, and programs believe these intrusive approaches are all that can work.  I suggest that we take our desperation and first work to clearly understand the problem and its causes and then commit the necessary resolve and patience to test our solutions.  I would like to share with you one such patient testing ground, which is a small residential treatment program called Jasper Mountain Center.

How Jasper Mountain Started

 The center was founded by three babyboomers who were raised by their own families with varying levels of health as well as dysfunction.  Armed with college degrees, professional experience and seemingly unlimited energy, the three of us set out to make a difference in the world, following the advice of Mother Theresa—one person at a time.  The goal was to create a seamless integration of our home life and our professional work.  This goal was quite effectively reached, and we are not clear to this day whether this has been as good for us as it has been for the program’s children.  The practical steps are easy enough to recount:  endless meetings to determine the criteria to find the healthiest place in the United States to live, moving to the promised land in southern Oregon, and purchasing a rural ranch.  After six months of acclimating and very long days fixing up the old ranch, we informed the state child protection agency that we were ready for their biggest challenges.  The reaction from the state’s workers was one of equal parts elation and suspicion.  Elation that people interested in accepting very disturbed children into their home would also be experienced professionals with counseling backgrounds.  And suspicion as to why people who had a choice would want very disturbed children in their home!  Many years later there are those who still have suspicions.

Jasper Mountain Center was founded in 1982 on an eighty-acre ranch southeast of Eugene, Oregon.  The scenery was beautiful enough, with two major rivers, heavily wooded forest, waterfalls, an artesian spring, miles of hiking trails, and sheer cliffs rising to a thousand-foot mountain, all of which were on the property.  The ranch even had history as part of the second homestead in this region of Oregon and the end of the Oregon Trail for Cornelius and Jasper Hills.  To this beauty and history we worked to bring hope to some very confused and abused children.  From the beginning the children came to Jasper Mountain telling their stories of abuse and pain.  The program quickly turned its focus to healing the scars of sexual abuse, which were present in almost all the children.  We soon saw that some children healed very differently from others and that some didn’t seem to heal at all.  Of all the children, there were those who didn’t look at you, would push away any affection, and were quick to use and abuse you as they had been themselves.  In the early 1980s we began identifying children who had bonding problems, and invariably they were the most difficult of our difficult children.

How the Program Works

Jasper Mountain is based on principles of health in body, mind and spirit.  The program ensures clear air, clean water, plenty of exercise, and treatment components in a context of family where the parents are professionals.  This family focus has turned out to be the most important ingredient in the therapeutic stew.  Not that being in a family makes much difference to attachment-disordered children, but in the final analysis it is the ability of the family and its staying power that will make the difference in the bonding process.  In the early years the three of us did everything without outside help.  At this point the program has the state’s highest classification for supervision and treatment which requires one staff for every three children.

The program uses four basic categories of intervention:  environmental, behavioral, psychotherapeutic, and self-esteem.

  • Environmental intervention creates a therapeutic Disneyland, but rather than the happiest place on earth, we strive for the healthiest place on earth.  There is close scrutiny to every environmental aspect of the program, from the architecture of the buildings to diet, and from the amount of natural light to the control of violent themes that reach the children from the outside world (e.g., having no commercial TV).
  • Behavioral interventions include the mundane but important behavior management systems wherein the children earn levels that determine privileges.  At Jasper Mountain the children have a behavioral system for the residence and another for the on-site school.  Although the level system is the most traditional part of the program, the children get up each morning and go straight for the chart to find out what level they are on for the day.  Modifying behavior is an important step, but is only a beginning step in treatment.  Behavioral ways to require a give-and-take framework are essential with children with an attachment disorder.
  • Psychotherapeutic interventions include all the individual, group and family therapy interventions, as well as art and play therapy.  They also include occasional chemical interventions and sessions with the program’s psychiatrist.  Each child has an individual therapist in addition to our psychiatrist to promote skills at developing relationships with various adults.
  • Self-esteem intervention is where some of the unique aspects of the program can be found.  These include a variety of routes to the self-worth of the child, including biofeedback, concentration and meditation training, therapeutic recreation, an equestrian program, hiking and rock climbing, jogging, gardening, visual and performing arts, computer competency, positive video feedback to enhance the self-image of the children, and many others.

But even with magical interventions like the above (and there is something that every child will find magical on this list), there is no guarantee that an attachment-disordered child will use any of these to heal his or her disposition toward others.  With this backdrop of our basic residential treatment program comes the specific approaches used for these challenging children.

 What Makes the Difference?

At Jasper Mountain we are often asked why children with attachment disorders who can strike fear into the hearts of parents, caseworkers, and therapists are not feared in our program.  And here is step one in making a difference with these children—they must not be feared or their controlling nature takes over.  Relationships with these children are often initially no less than warfare.  In this struggle for dominance, if the child wins, everyone loses, and if the adult wins, everyone wins.  I see it as just that simple.  Of course, how to win the struggle with these masters of control is not simple at all.  That we do not fear these children in our program may come from the fact that no matter how good they are, so far none has been able to win the control war at Jasper Mountain.  In most cases the children, who are usually very bright, realize within weeks that they may be able to control an individual staff person for a while but not the whole program.

Another factor critical to our success with these children is to work as a team and control all variables in the child’s life producing a unified approach.  In our program there is only a building change from the residence to the school; the approach and staff act in unison.  We take time to work with caseworkers and family so that the methods the child has used to irritate, control and keep others distant do not work on campus or off.

Treatment with these children not only must strip them of their remarkably intricate insulation and defenses but also must provide a real and attractive alternative.  How can getting close ever look attractive to a child with an attachment disorder?  The answer is as simple as the first principle of negotiation—you get some of what you want only when I get some of what I want.  Despite attempting to look otherwise, these children want lots of things.  They are generally extremely motivated by material belongings, although they believe that if you knew this, it would make them vulnerable, and thus they pretend to be apathetic to almost everything.  Don’t believe it.  At the same time, they will take without giving if you let them.  You must teach them reciprocity and hold them accountable.  There must be a constant pressure to connect.  With normal children (has anyone seen one of these lately?) coercion is not a positive or useful approach.  But with these children they get dessert only after a polite request; they go to the movie only after doing a chore for you; they play fifteen minutes of Nintendo only after sharing two important events at school today.  The approach is clear:  You don’t get something for nothing (except love).

The effectiveness of treating these children comes down to every interaction between adults and the child.  This means that every contact between a program staff member and the child is a very small part of the puzzle but critical to the overall picture.  Manipulative children do not change if their tricks work on anyone.  If the therapist and parents work together but the school is out of the loop, and the child will never change, due to intermittent variable reinforcement, the same principle that brings confident gamblers to Las Vegas to lose their money time after time.  The child tells himself that he will prevail in the end.

As stated before, these children are usually quite smart, and when they understand that they must work to get what they want, here is their sequence:  First they start by not doing it, to see if you get flustered; then they do it halfway and grudgingly (punishing you); then, if they must do it right, they will do it with a bad attitude; and eventually they just do it.  These progressive steps occur only when they have to do their part to get what they want.  When this pattern is repeated over and over for years the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance steps in, whereby if your behavior changes, eventually your attitude must change and if your attitude changes, then our behavior must eventually change as well.

You must demand that children with attachment disorders do just what you want of them (which are progressive steps toward relationship).  They need not do it with an open heart or with honesty; they just need to do it.  What you begin to systematically show them is that they will not be abused when they are vulnerable and that the world where you get what you want by being close to others is far superior to using others and being emotionally and personally alone in the world.

The last factor that makes a difference is a four-letter word, time.  Time is a four-letter word in our culture because we don’t want to take the time to do most anything right.  We are irritated by the traffic light that delays us three minutes; we want the flu medicine that gives us fast, fast relief; and incredibly we are impatient when we have to wait two and a half seconds to store our documents on our old model computer.  Is it any wonder that we flinch at the prospect of taking years to treat an attachment disorder?  This may have something to do with the do-it-quick “holding” therapies that promise some bonding after an intensive weekend, or at least after the twelve-week special.  Some may believe that the patterns of withdrawal and distance in a true attachment disorder can be extinguished relatively quickly and a new pattern of interdependency and vulnerability learned soon after, but I do not believe there is any shortcut to the years of concentrated effort described above.  For the Star Trek generation, where any galactic problem is solved within the hour, years of effort are inconceivable, but they are truly necessary.

To be fair to all us parents who have a child with an attachment disorder in our home (I have one by adoption), we would have a better chance at putting in years of effort if only we saw some progress, even tiny successes, or at least the reassurance that we were heading in a direction other than futility and exasperation.  This is precisely what our program tries to give parents—a road map.  We all know that human beings that take at least twelve years to raise before the onset of their teen years.  Our current thinking is that the relearning process may take five to seven years.  I believe parents can learn to persist if they are shown a way that works, as long as they don’t get a false message that there is a quick fix.

The Jasper Mountain method works.  Whether it is the place, the people, approach, the time invested, or all of the above simultaneously.  The important thing is that the program wears the child’s defense down before the child wears the staff down.  We do not describe the children as “cured” when they leave Jasper Mountain.  Attaching is not only an instinct; it is also a skill.  We should not leave children in a rather scary and indifferent world without their defenses unless they are given new tools to succeed in the game of life.  It takes a very long time to learn how to bond even after the children decide they want to.  This is usually a process of unlearning and then relearning.  It is important that we not lead these children down this long road to healing if we are not prepared to go the distance.  In residential care this means that you never completely close a case.  Our program’s graduates keep in touch, come by, borrow money, and bring by their fiancé to meet the family.  We have invited our children into our extended family, and nearly all accept.

In adoptions we must understand that there may be no other chance for these children.  Due to the time it takes to free a child for adoption, to place the child in the right home, and to invest the five to seven years with him or her, there may not be time for a “Plan B” and starting the process over with another family.  This may sound like a great deal of responsibility for the adoptive family, but if real bonding doesn’t happen in the first adoptive family, it may never happen.

Perhaps the ultimate abuse is to take a child who is dependent on others for her very life, thwart her survival instinct by not placing her where she can form an attachment, fail to help her connect with others during her early years, and expect her to live the rest of her life emotionally and spiritually alone and separated from friends, a spouse, her own children, and even God.  It comes very close to a definition of hell, doesn’t it?  I hope you agree with all of us at Jasper Mountain that years of hard work are not too high a price to save the quality of life for a child with an attachment disorder.

The Therapeutic Value of Using Physical Interventions to Address Violent Behavior in Children

By Dave Ziegler, Ph.D. 

[Published initially in The Child Welfare League of America’s Children’s Voice, vol. 13(4) 2004] 

A quick review of the published information on physical interventions over the last three years would seem to indicate that a fundamental and universal shift has occurred, away from the use of therapeutic restraint, as well as the use of seclusion, to address violent behavior in children.  However, this is somewhat deceptive.  Treatment environments have been faced with increasingly violent and assaultive children in a continuing trend that was identified a decade ago (Bath, 1992; Crespi, 1990).  This challenge must be considered along with the fact that young children most often present violent behavior in treatment settings (Miller, Walker & Friedman, 1989).  Unlike the impression given by recent media, the reality is that most treatment centers for young children use physical interventions to address violent behavior in a safe and effective manner.  It is true that physical interventions have been the subject of substantial training to insure they are done according to national crisis management guidelines, but it is not true that the mental health community has abandoned physical interventions for violence.   

It is important to clarify the interchangeable terms therapeutic holding and physical restraint.  This physical intervention is when a trained adult stops a child from hurting self or others by using approved crisis intervention holds to protect the child until the child is no longer a danger.  There are a variety of approved holds but all of them restrain the child from being violent and causing damage to self or others.  A distinction must be made between the type of holding discussed in this article and “holding therapy,” which is a physically intrusive method to produce a crisis in a child and force the child to experience physical or psychological pain.  Holding therapy and other similar intrusive techniques are not sanctioned by any legitimate professional organization and in the opinion of the authors are not therapeutic and are not valid psychological treatment. 

There is increasing pressure on these programs to become restraint and seclusion free, but is this direction in the best interests of the children?  The answer will emerge only after a dialogue of the valid points on both sides of this issue, but to date only one point of view has been advanced.  The purpose of this article is to provide another perspective on this issue, one that has not been previously put forward. 

A variety of interventions have been used over the years to address violent behavior among children and adolescents (Troutman, Myers, Borchardt, Kowalski & Burbrick, 1998).  In settings such as psychiatric hospitals and treatment programs, two of the most frequently used interventions are therapeutic holds (also called therapeutic restraint) and giving the individual a chance to regain self-control in a seclusion or quiet room.  Interventions less often used to address violent behavior are mechanical restraints and using medications for chemical restraint (Measham, 1995).  Over the last ten years the latter two interventions, mechanical and chemical restraint, have been criticized as excessive and too restrictive.  Mechanical and chemical restraints have declined in some programs and have been eliminated in others, particularly in non-hospital settings. 

More recently, in the last three years, restraint and seclusion have been the subject of considerable controversy.  A host of arguments have been presented against the use of restraint and seclusion to address violent behavior in children (Wong, 1990).  Most notable was an investigative series in a Connecticut newspaper, the Hartford Courant (Altimari, Weiss, Blint, Pointras, & Megan, 1998).  This expose of injuries and deaths reportedly caused by the use of restraint and seclusion is often credited with starting the current wave of criticism for the use of restraint and seclusion.  This controversy has run the gambit from media coverage to policy change and new federal legislation. 

The array of criticism directed at the use of restraint and seclusion has one glaring absence, a review of the therapeutic benefits of physical holds to address violence among children.  Although seclusion is often used interchangeably for therapeutic restraint, the two are very different interventions bringing up very different issues.  The focus of this article will not be seclusion, but rather a review of the therapeutic components of physical restraint. 

Before addressing the potential therapeutic components of physical restraint, it is important to briefly consider the most frequent criticisms of using this intervention.  A recent nationally published article is a good example of the criticism being directed at the use of physical restraint (Kirkwood, 2003).  The article calls restraint violent, dangerous, and even potentially deadly to children.  The point is made that this intervention can actually cause further trauma due to concerns such as counter-aggression by adults and repeating abuse the child has experienced in the past.  Restraint is called a violent means to maintain control and “rule over” children.  Rather than use physical restraint, the article recommends negotiating with the child, understanding the reasons behind the behavior and giving the child choices.  Some critics have gone so far as to say a physical restraint should be avoided at all costs and any use of physical restraint is a treatment failure. 

In the face of such harsh criticism, is there any defense for physical interventions such as restraining violent children?  The authors believe there is, but the starting point of discussing the therapeutic components of physical restraint must begin with an acknowledgement that even good interventions when done poorly, or at the wrong time, lose some or all of their therapeutic value.  Rather than an indictment of all physical interventions, the criticisms outlined in the article mentioned above can serve to improve the quality of physical restraint and, for that matter, all other behavior management.   

All behavior management can become ineffective, demeaning and even psychologically damaging if done poorly.  It is safe to say that using a violence intervention to “rule over” children is poor behavior management.  Like other types of behavior management, if physical restraint is done in a violent and dangerous way, it may be possible to replicate the past abuse of the child, at least in the child’s mind.  However, physical restraint is not step one of any intervention with a child.  Physical restraint should not be a shortcut to taking the time to understand the child and the reasons behind the child’s behavior.  Restraint is also not the opposite end of the continuum from appropriate negotiations and setting out clear and meaningful choices.  Physical restraint is properly used only when the adult is trying to understand the child and other limit setting techniques have failed to safely address the violent behavior of the child.  Interventions are also not therapeutic when they are based on a power struggle or when the adult is out of control.  Any behavior management approach loses its therapeutic value if used to merely control the child without supporting and understanding the child’s thoughts, feelings and goals for the behavior.  This is true for all behavior management interventions such as: time outs, logical consequences, giving choices, negotiating as well as physical restraint.  It is not necessarily the technique that makes an intervention therapeutic, it is more often the when, how, why and by whom the technique is employed that makes the difference. 

If physical restraint is a legitimate part of any behavior management plan, it must have the potential of therapeutic value when used appropriately.  Among nationally recognized crisis behavior management systems there are clear guidelines as to the appropriate use of physical restraint.  Behavior management systems such as Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) and Professional Assault Response Training (PART) are two well known examples.  Both outline the safe and effective use of physical interventions after crisis de-escalation techniques have been used to address the situation. 

National accreditation organizations such as the Council on Accreditation (COA) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (JCAHO) sanction the appropriate use of physical restraint.  If any legitimate organization were to declare physical restraint a “treatment failure,” an expression currently being used by opponents of physical interventions (National Technical Assistance Center for Mental Health Planning, 2002), one would expect it to come from entities that hold organizations to the highest standards of the industry, and yet all major national accrediting bodies sanction the use of physical interventions.  It is difficult to find any national professional organization, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, that does not agree with the general statement, “Restraint and seclusion, when used properly, can be life-saving and injury sparing interventions” (American Hospital Association and National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems).   

Here are some of the reasons why physical restraint, when done well, can be an important, effective and therapeutic intervention to address the violent behavior of children. 

  • Physical touch can be very therapeutic to children, particularly in a crisis. Long before a child learns English, Spanish or Swahili, the first language a child learns is the language of touch.  Touch is considered a basic need for all children.  When a young child is frightened, the first instinct is to hold on to a trusted adult.  Children who demonstrate serious acting out often do not know how to ask for what they need, yet supportive, firm, and safe physical touch can give a child a message of reassurance.  If touch is poorly used, such as slapping or striking a child, the message of such a touch can be very frightening.  When a young child is in a crisis situation, touch can be one of the most reassuring interventions when the touch lets the child know that the adult will insure the situation will be managed safely for everyone.
  • Emotionally defended children can become psychologically more real and available after an emotional release during a physical restraint.  This dynamic is not restricted to children.  It is often when our emotions overwhelm us that we open to learning something new that we have defended ourselves from.  There is a parallel in psychotherapy to this dynamic when a client has a difficult but insightful experience that usually includes being catapulted beyond the individual’s ability to keep out important information.  For some children it is difficult to get to this place without some form of emotional meltdown that often accompanies a physical intervention.
  • Children need to know the adult will insure everyone’s safety.  The adult is responsible to insure the child cannot hurt him or herself or others, if other management methods fail, physical interventions are important.  The adult cannot put the responsibility on a child to regain inner control once it has been lost.  The amount of time it takes for any crisis situation to be under control, during which time chaos reigns, is the amount of inner fear the child has.  Children can regain their footing, but the assistance from a supportive adult can be critical.
  • Young children with emotional disturbances need and often seek closeness with adults and violence is less threatening than other forms of intimacy.  Behavior cannot always be taken at face value with children who experience violent rages.  In fact, these children can often act counter-intuitively.  They can push you away when they want closeness, they can strike at you when they are beginning to care about you, and they can act in ways to receive reassuring touch by becoming aggressive and violent to self or others.  It is important to understand why a child is acting the way they are.  At times, a frightened child seeks and needs the reassurance of physical touch when they can’t allow themselves to ask for physical comfort.  It is often trusted adults that young children become violent with, because they know they are safe and they will get the reassurance they need.  If they do not find the physical reassurance they need and seek, they will often raise the level of acting out until they get it.
  • Physical restraint is the surest and most direct way to prevent injury and significant property damage when the child loses control.  The above referenced article in Children’s Voice (Kirkwood, 2003) begins with a description of a child doing significant damage to a car with a rock.  In this example the adults stood by and did not stop the child and the author called this a better, however more costly, intervention.  This seems to defy common sense.  Would any parent stand by as a child does thousands of dollars in damage to the family car?  Recently, a child in our program picked up a rock, ran around a new car and heavily scratched it to the amount of $2,650 damage.  Afterward the child felt badly for such out of control behavior and said good kids do not do such bad things.  It is important to understand that kids, as well as adults, view themselves in relation to their own behavior.  It only makes sense from a practical and therapeutic perspective to stop children from hurting others and doing damage they will use to feel worse about themselves.  Physical interventions may be the best way to insure this. 
  • Traumatized children must learn that emotionally charged situations and all physical touch does not end in being used or abused.  The human being has several types of memory, including factual (explicit), subjective (implicit), emotional, experiential and body memories (Ziegler, 2002).  Early experiences of touch can establish a lifelong trajectory of meaning attributed to physical touch.  It is common that children with emotional disturbances have difficulty with caring touch.  Body memories need to be addressed while the child is still young or the child can avoid the very closeness they need.  Abused children learn that when someone gets angry someone else gets hurt.  Supportive physical restraint retrains the body not to fear touch from others. 
  • An intervention considered to be good parenting is likely to be good psychological treatment.  Psychologists, family therapists and parent trainers would all call stopping a child from running into a busy street good supervision and effective parenting.  They would also recommend a parent prevent an older and much larger sibling from physically harming a younger sibling.  It is not hard to imagine the same parenting consultants suggesting that when an angry child is heading for the family car with a baseball bat, that the bat be taken away before the damage occurs.  If these parenting interventions would be basic common sense to most everyone, why would some call these same interventions unhelpful and non-therapeutic to children with serious anger problems?
  • Children with emotional disturbances need the assurance that adults are safely and appropriately in control of the environment.  Serious acting out such as violence is often seeking this assurance.  Most emotional problems in children have their source in chaotic, abusive and/or neglectful home environments at some point in the child’s life.  To be in a home where the adults are not in control of themselves or the environment is like going down the road in the back seat of a car with no one driving, it is terrifying to a child who has been there.  These children often push a new environment to the point that the child finds if the adults can safely and appropriately manage the challenges.  Often when the child has such reassurance and can rely on others for basic needs, he or she can once again get back to the task of being a child.
  • Treatment programs are responsible for directly addressing violent behavior and not just skillfully preventing the behavior from presenting itself during treatment only to reappear in the home or community after treatment.  The argument that all physical restraints can and should be avoided at all cost may address the principle of prevention, but misses the point of treatment.  In the extreme, all physical restraints could be avoided, this simply requires an adult to passively stand by and allow a child in a rage to do whatever he or she wants to do.  One may call this “preventing” a restraint, but how did it address the responsibility of a treatment program to treat and extinguish serious violent and antisocial behavior?  The role of prevention and treatment are quite different.  Not intervening when a therapeutic response is called for is not so much prevention as it is abdicating adult responsibility.  If someone needed treatment for a debilitating phobia of spiders, the symptoms could be prevented by having an insect free environment, but this would not be treating the phobia.  Programs charged with treating violent behavior cannot simply insure that the symptoms never come up in the treatment environment because they will surely resurface once the child leaves that setting.  In psychological terms, treatment often requires steps such as re-exposure to stimuli, cognitive reprocessing, skill development, practice and mastery, none of which have an opportunity to happen if preventing symptoms or preventing a particular intervention at all cost is the goal. 

Are therapeutic benefits guaranteed by the appropriate use of physical interventions?  No intervention comes with a guarantee.  However, as one side of this debate offers sensational media stories and points to abuses of physical interventions (and there have been abuses), there exists research and professional literature that has found therapeutic value in physical restraint when used properly.  Restraint has been found to shorten the crisis over other interventions (Miller et al., 1989).  Research studies have found physical restraint effective in reducing severely aggressive behavior, self-injurious behavior and self-stimulatory behaviors (Lamberti & Cummings, 1992; Measham, 1995; Miller et al. 1989; Rolider, Williams, Cummings & Van Houten, 1991).  Physical restraint has been found helpful in treating aggression with dissociative children (Lamberti & Cummings, 1992).  Physical interventions have also been recognized in the role of re-parenting children who have not been taught limit setting due to absent parenting (Fahlberg, 1991).  Physical restraint has been called an effective intervention to protect the child and others from harm and prevent serious destruction of property (Stirling & HcHugh, 1998). 

A frequently cited criticism of restraint is that it takes away the ability of the child to learn and internalize self-control.  However, research studies have found the opposite.  In two studies nearly a decade apart, physical holding produced rapid gain in internal behavioral control (Miller, Walker & Friedman, 1989; Sourander, Aurela & Piha, 1996).  Physical restraint has been called ethically sound (Sugar, 1994) and recognized for significant therapeutic benefits (Bath, 1994). 

The arguments for and against the use of various interventions such as medications, institutionalization, physically intrusive therapies, seclusion, and physical restraint are important discussions.  However, children are not served when only one point of view is expressed.  Many interventions, including physical restraint, can have damaging consequences when improperly used,   however, at times the consequences of not using serious interventions can be even more damaging to a child.  A five-point evaluation of interventions for violent behavior has previously been recommended (Ziegler, 2001):

  1. Was safety insured?
  2. Was self control internalized?
  3. Was the intervention individualized and based on understanding the child?
  4. Was the intervention therapeutically driven? 
  5. Was the intervention effective in producing the desired  result? 

If we are to meet the challenge of increasing numbers of violent children in our system of care, we must carefully consider how we can best meet the short and long term needs of these children, while insuring the safety of other children, their parents, and the community at large.  A reasoned approach to this question would be careful consideration of all the issues and not a singular movement to reduce or eliminate physical interventions, which have been found to be safe, ethical, effective and therapeutic.  

References 

Altimari, D., Weiss, E.M., Blint, D.F., Poitras, C. & Megan, K.  (1998).  Deadly Restraint: Killed by a system intended for care.  Hartford Courant, Hartford Connecticut (8/16/98). 

American Academy of Pediatrics—Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine      (1997).  Pediatric, 99 (3), 497-498. 

American Psychiatric Association, Arlington, VA. 

Bath, H.  (1994).  The physical restraint of children:  Is it therapeutic?  American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 64 (11), 40-48. 

Council on Accreditation for Children and Family Services (2002).  Accreditation Standards 7th Edition.  New York, NY. 

Crespi, T.D. (1990).  Restraint and Seclusion with Institutionalized Adolescents.  Adolescence, 25, (100), 825-828. 

Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc.  (2001).  Nonviolent crisis intervention Training Manual.  Brookfield, Wisconsin. 

Fahlberg, V.I.  (1991) A child’s journey through placement.  Indianapolis:  Perspective Press. 

Joint Commission On Accreditation of Health Care Organizations (1996).  Accreditation Manual for Hospitals:  Volume 1 – Standards.  Oakbrook Terrace, Il. 

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