Therapy in L.A.


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February 2001
By Joyce Parker, Ph.D.

In the Sunday Report of the February 4, 2001 edition of the Los Angeles Times there was an article on the death of 10 year old Candace Newmaker. This little girl had been severely neglected and abused by her birth parents. She was subsequently adopted by a single mother who over the years of raising Candace became concerned about her angry outbursts and aggressive behavior. This woman learned of an Attachment Center in Evergreen, Colorado that works with children with attachment disorders such as Candace might have had. She went to a conference about Attachment Therapy and was referred to an Attachment therapist, Connell Watkins, in Evergreen, Colorado. Watkins agreed to provide a two week intensive course of therapy for Candace. During the two weeks, Watkins did a rebirthing exercise with Candace. Candace was wrapped in a sheet and two helpers pushed on her sides with pillows. The child repeatedly complained that she could not breath and that she was going to die. But the adults continued this process over several hours. Candace died of suffocation.

The article did not do a very good job of distinguishing between the Attachment Therapy used by followers of the Attachment Center and Attachment Theory. I wrote my dissertation for my Ph.D. on an aspect of Attachment Theory and use the concepts of this important and well-respected theory in my practice of psychotherapy. John Bowlby developed Attachment Theory after WW II. The theory helps explain the propensity of humans and other species to develop lasting affectional bonds with significant others. It also explicates the psychological disturbances that can result from the disruption of those bonds through abuse, neglect, separations or losses. There has been considerable research in the past 40 years that has validated much of the theory. This research has increased our knowledge of these affectional bonds and the consequences of their disruption for the personality of the individual.

There are two main patterns of attachments that can develop between a child and the primary caregiver. When the caregiver is reliable and available to the child, the child develops a sense of security. These children evidence positive affect. They are more willing to explore strange situations using the mother as a secure base of return. They are more quickly and effectively comforted by the mother after a brief separation. Such children are described as securely attached. When the caregiver is unreliable, unable or unwilling to be available to the child, the child experiences much anxiety. These children can display behaviors characterized by intense anger or avoidance of the caregiver. They are less likely to explore a strange situation even when the caregiver is present. These children are described as insecurely attached.

Patterns of attachment tend to persist throughout life but they can be altered or changed. Herein lies the discrepancy between the theory and the practice of Connell Watkins and her form of Attachment Therapy. In order to change an insecure attachment to a more secure attachment according to the theory, the caregiver would need to increase emotional and physical availability and responsiveness to the needs of the child. Psychotherapists who use this theory in practice are deeply aware of the necessity to be responsive to the needs and feelings of the patient. From the description of the rebirthing exercise used with Candace, it is clear that Watkins and the other adults in the room ignored her needs and feelings repeatedly. They were woefully and tragically insensitive to Candace's pleas for help. Their behavior has nothing to do with Attachment Theory and its application in practice. Indeed, it goes against the basic tenets of the theory. I believe this is an important distinction that the author of the article, Barry Siegel, failed to make. Don't misjudge this excellent theory because a fringe movement and a few misguided practitioners are giving it a bad name.

The author of this article, and founder of the website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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