The Healing Power of Family Counseling with Attachment-Based Family Therapy
What do parents and young adult children want most in their family connections? Closer, more meaningful relationships with one another. Family counseling can help them reach that goal and find greater harmony and mutual support in the parent-child relationship.
Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) is an evidence-based family counseling modality that not only improves these relationships but also successfully treats depression and helps prevent suicide in young people. This powerful healing approach uses a clearly structured methodology to revitalize empathy and authentic connection between parent and child—providing a solid foundation that enhances young adult mental health.
When to Seek Help
For young adults who are experiencing anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, self-harm, or other mental health issues, it’s essential to seek professional help. In 2020, one-quarter of young adults reported having suicidal thoughts. Experts believe that the trauma and distress catalyzed by the pandemic has resurfaced other traumas for many individuals, including childhood trauma.
Childhood trauma is significantly correlated with depression, low self-esteem, physical health issues, and substance abuse. Traumatic experiences in childhood may include abuse, neglect, a traumatic event such as a car crash or death in the family, or relational trauma, in which the parent-child bond is disrupted.
Therefore, achieving sustainable healing from mental health challenges involves family counseling that addresses past traumas and attachment wounds, with the support of licensed family counselors and family therapists who specialize in this work. Repairing disruptions in the relationship with parents or other primary caregivers is a key aspect of this healing process.
Know the Facts
Research validates the efficacy of Attachment-Based Family Therapy in reducing depression and anxiety, decreasing feelings of hopelessness, reducing suicidal thoughts, and strengthening parent-child bonds.
What Is Attachment-Based Family Therapy?
Developed by Guy Diamond, Gary Diamond, and Suzanne Levy, Attachment-Based Family Therapy addresses interpersonal relationships within the family system in order to rebuild trust and connection. Formulated specifically to prevent suicide and depression, ABFT is informed by various mental health modalities and philosophies, including John Bowlby’s attachment theory and other forms of family therapy and emotionally focused therapy.
Attachment therapy interventions are designed to heal early childhood attachment ruptures—the disconnections in the secure parent/child bond that disrupt the child’s emotional functioning and sense of safety and acceptance. Consequently, Attachment-Based Family Therapy provides a clear path to repairing that broken or interrupted bon. In addition, family counseling supports young people’s ability to form authentic and meaningful relationships with people outside the family system.
What to Expect
The techniques used by family counselors in attachment-based interventions are structured in five specific tasks that are undertaken sequentially throughout the therapeutic process. Each task has clear goals and strategies that together provide a road map to healing and recovery.
The Five Tasks of Attachment-Based Family Therapy
- Task 1, Relational Reframe, shifts from the child as the problem to the family as the solution. Family strengths and relational ruptures are highlighted, while an agreement is established with each family member to work on developing a more meaningful relationship.
- Task 2 focuses on building the therapeutic alliance with the young adult, identifying breaches of trust, accessing vulnerable emotions, and connecting mental health to underlying emotions and ruptures. Young adults are supported to build emotional regulation skills in order to respond to parents’ disappointment in a regulated and calm manner.
- Task 3 focuses on building the therapeutic alliance with the parent—understanding psychological, social, and generational forces that impact parenting; supporting parents to connect their early childhood ruptures to their emotions at the time; and relating those to their child’s experience. Parents are emotionally coached to listen and validate their child’s experience as they prepare for Task 4.
- In Task 4, Repairing Attachment Ruptures, the therapist facilitates the conversation, supporting the young adult to express disappointments and vulnerable feelings, as well as coaching parents to validate with empathy and understanding. The young adult practices emotional regulation skills, while parents practice emotionally focused parenting skills.
- Task 5, Promoting Autonomy, builds young adult competencies as a buffer against identified stressors contributing to depression and suicidality. Cooperation emerges from the desire to maintain connection. This may include the creation of a mutually agreed-upon family agreement with age-appropriate expectations and consequences.
“Empathy is one of a parent’s most important tools for facilitating a child’s development. It allows them to understand the inner life of their young adult child, to perceive what they’re thinking and feeling and help them become aware of their emotional landscape.
Guy Diamond, PhD
co-founder of Attachment-Based Family Therapy
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Family Counseling at Newport Institute
Newport Institute and our teen treatment program, Newport Academy, are the first residential treatment programs to adopt Attachment-Based Family Therapy as our family therapy model and fully integrate Attachment-Based Family Therapy activities into our clinical programming. Healing this primary relationship allows young adults to move forward in their lives, building independence and autonomy in the larger world, while experiencing their family as a source of support and unconditional love.
Hence, Newport Institute’s customized treatment plans for young adult clients include ongoing family therapy using attachment-based therapy interventions, along with individual therapy, group therapy, experiential modalities, and life skills training in our Learning Lab. Through this multifaceted approach, young adults heal their inner child and progress into the next phase of life with self-knowledge, healthy coping mechanisms, and skills for developing positive and nurturing relationships.