Attachment and The Inner Child

I haven’t posted in a long time because I’ve been writing a new textbook for therapists. Due in March, 2017, it will be called Psychotherapy: A Practical Guide, published by Springer. What’s unique about this book is that it isn’t attached to any one school of therapy, but benefits from all of them. In the book I build a big tent under which all current therapies can come together to speak a single language and exchange wisdom. That tent is called the Affect Avoidance Model, explained here in the “About” section of this website. ***Photo Credit: mrhayata on Flickr, (Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0)

What does that have to do with attachment to your therapist?  A lot, it turns out. What I discovered in the course of writing the book, is that transference, that is, feelings about your therapist, are better understood and addressed as the active presence of an inner child. Once we realize that strong feelings about a therapist are the feelings of a child, it all makes more sense. Furthermore, we naturally have compassion for children. Traditionally, when patients and therapists encounter something that feels immature, we react negatively. That is natural because all through our childhood and all too often in adulthood we feel shameful about our younger side. We value being “grown up” so highly that we internalize values that denigrate young feelings and thoughts. Loving our young self is a much better approach.

So the natural instinct of patients when they find themselves having young reactions is to feel shame and try to stamp out those feelings. Therapists, too, are taught that transference is a distortion that results from confusing feelings about childhood figures with our therapist. Distortion is far too negative a word. It, too, leads to a judgmental and negative attitude towards one of the most valuable things that can happen in therapy.

The value of our inner children finally daring to make an appearance is that only then can those tender feelings be healed and integrated with adult life. Don’t forget that a healthy adult normally should have a big component of childlike feelings and reactions. For example our best leisure time joy often comes from letting our childlike selves out to play. Our inner children also supply a lot of the energy that drives us to achieve. I could go on, but let’s get back to the story of attachment to your therapist.

When our childlike feelings are causing problems, that means that our inner child is stuck someplace long ago where development had to either stop right there or lead to some ugly distortion of our being. Instead of embodying a destructive solution to childhood problems, we do better simply to put the whole growing-up process “on hold.” That means leaving an inner child behind, waiting to find the solution to some unsolvable early life problem like getting the love you need.

The inner child waits for someone to bring the answer. That is as it should be. Children can’t solve their biggest problems by themselves. They have to depend on their grown-ups to have enough power and understanding of the world to come up with a solution. So our inner children wait. Then, many years later, along comes a therapist, a big person who knows how to solve really difficult problems. The only trouble is that the therapist wants to solve the problem by helping the child accept. That’s not what the child had in mind at all. She was thinking that the therapist would simply give the love that had been missing. We aren’t talking about adult love. Here we are talking about the kind of love that children need, love that is ever present, reads your mind, and never gets tired or distracted. And therapists seem to be offering just that.

So we have an impasse. The therapist looks capable of giving the missing love, and promises to help make things better. But then, when it is time to come though on the promise, the therapist says no.  The therapist gives some lame excuse or hides behind artificial boundaries or “technique.” Then it seems like the therapist is no better than the ungiving parent or caregiver who withheld the love that was needed in the first place. The disappointment and anger are huge.

Now patient and therapist are locked in a very difficult bind. Together they have re-created exactly the childhood situation that couldn’t be solved long ago. The child’s needs are powerful and seem entirely within reach, but the therapist seems to resist and to be unwilling to provide the solution. Therapy overcomes this impasse by helping the patient find fulfillment of those needs that can be met in adult life and to come to accept the loss of those that can never be fulfilled. Compassionate understanding and empathy are the ingredients that make acceptance possible, but the process is not at all easy. It means going through the full intensity of feelings of anger, disappointment and pain, but within the containment of the therapy relationship.

To find compassion for “unrealistic” wishes, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of a child. In healthy families children encounter situations where what they need is not possible. How do these parents and children navigate a painful situation? How do children grow out of their need for a childlike kind of love? Well, they certainly don’t grow out of it when they are shamed or criticized. They come to acceptance through a lot of crying, complaining, and some raging. They do this when there is someone big who really understands, is not critical, and is able to help the child contain the feelings so that no harm comes of it. This might have to happen over and over.

This is why therapists and patients need to get over their shame and negative judgment of having needs that go beyond what can be fulfilled. And the best way to do this is to understand the reality that we are in the presence of the raw feelings of a child who stopped processing the need long ago and began waiting for someone to help him or her traverse a minefield of emotions without getting hurt. When both patient and therapist adopt an attitude of understanding and compassion, then the inner child can begin to process a huge disappointment and can begin to move towards eventual acceptance.

I hope by framing the situation in this way, you will feel kinder and better about your strong feelings and find hope that you can work through them. Also, many patients have expressed frustration with therapists, responses to strong attachment. Some of this can be the child’s frustration at the big person who won’t give the needed love. But sometimes it is due to therapist error. In the posts in this thread there are accounts of therapists wanting to help, who have promised more than they could deliver and then have withdrawn or reacted badly. Then there are therapists who don’t know how to see an inner child and treat him or her the way a child should be treated. We hope they too learn to appreciate the presence of an inner child.

See the previous posts in this series here Also, find the e-book Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation, a compilation of posts and responses to this thread, available at Amazon and in the Bookstore page of this website.



  • Thank you Dr.Smith.
    This is what I exactly need right now. The feelings are so strong and over helming. This part of therapy its so hard. Understanding what is actually going on with me gives me so how peace.

  • understand article that truly explains the parts of us that are present in therapy. I already traversed this journey having therapy that ended a few months ago. Only now have I started to feel really free and not glommed onto my therapist for dear life. These attachment feelings are very intense, and unless you experience them yourself, it will be difficult to understand the intensity, shame, and fear. I have gained more confidence in my ability to be present, and not dissociate. I have learned how to count on myself to manage my feelings and triggers. Yes, I still miss my therapist of 8 years, but not all of the time, and no longer so obsessively. Feeling free is new to me, but I like it! I still look forward to touching base with my therapist in the spring. It helps to know he is still there, and that I can check in with him. I believe as an educated patient with 8 years of therapy behind me that is totally unrealisted to expect clients to turn off therapy feelings like a flashlight. It just doesn’t happen that way, at least not in long term therapy. Therapists need to learn how to do termination with compassion, empathy, skill, through providing a healing experience, not an abrupt, unrealistic ending that tends to traumatize clients and leave them alone in this trauma to fend for themselves, probably enduring familiar, painful, dare I say excruciating feelings from long ago.

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