Wholeness Healing Today

Child Parent Psychotherapy

As humans we are continuously seeking connections. Some connections are strong, some weaken over time and some connections get lost completely. For humans, connections start as early as the unborn child’s connection to their mother in the womb. The unborn child depends on the mother for life. The umbilical cord is the vehicle for these needs to be met while the womb provides protection from the outside environment. The umbilical cord and the mother’s womb remain significant representations of the ongoing vital needs of the infant and young child beyond that child’s birth. The human need of connection and attachment for each child to a mother or other caregivers is the basis in which Child Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) emerged. This therapy focuses on the psychological, social and emotional well-being of infants and young children in relation to their parent or caregiver.

CPP is designed to strengthen and support the relationship between the child and parent to help the child’s cognitive, behavioral, and emotional development. Children have their own set of stressors and normal anxieties of childhood that include the fear of annihilation, loss of a parent, loss of a parent’s love, damage to the body, or of doing something bad. A young child’s behavior can be motivated by these normal anxieties while emotional expressions are often displacement of feelings from earlier losses and traumas. Each child’s memory starts in the womb. Experiences are remembered before children can speak of them.

When an infant or young child’s internal or external safety is compromised, so too is their mental and emotional health. The relationship with the caregiver becomes particularly vital in the face of trauma. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) “An event can be traumatic when we face or witness an immediate threat to ourselves or to a loved one, often followed by serious injury or harm. We feel terror, helplessness, or horror at what we are experiencing and at our inability to stop it or protect ourselves or others from it.”

We all have a human need for  security and connection through our early attachment figures such as a mother, father, or other caregiver in order to feel loved and to develop. A caregiver is the child’s regulator and over time, the child increases his/her own capacity to self-regulate. A caregiver often interprets and responds to a child’s cues, contains expression of strong feelings and helps the child calm, and serves as a secure base for the child to become more autonomous. The focus for CPP is to restore the child’s sense of safety, attachment, and appropriate affect regulation through the relationship with their caregiver when trauma has occurred. By normalizing traumatic related responses and jointly constructing a trauma narrative, the child is more likely to return to a normal development trajectory. CPP sessions occur jointly with a parent or caregiver and focuses on the emotional quality of the relationship while also giving attention to both the child and the caregiver’s individual contributions, as well as the attunement of the relationship.

When protection has been compromised, often by an identifiable trauma, the parents’ response will play a significant role in the impact on the child and that child’s perception of the experience. An infant or young child often relies on sensory perception rather than language and they don’t understand cause and effect. When the attachment figure of the child is the source of the fear, failure of attachment reaches a critical level. A child will likely feel a loss of security. Furthermore, the parent and child may begin to serve as traumatic reminders for one another. Thus the dyad becomes stressed and develops additional challenges. According to Lieberman and Van Horn (2008), “Stress becomes trauma when the intensity of the frightening events becomes unmanageable to the point of threatening physical and psychological integrity.”

The goals for CPP are to encourage the child’s return to normal development, address adaptive coping within the relationship between parent-child, help with engagement in present activities and future goals, maintain regular levels of affective arousal for both the parent and child, and place traumatic experiences in perspective. The sooner stress and fear can be reduced in intensity and duration, the more favorable the outcomes for the infant or young child’s long-term emotional, behavioral, social or cognitive development.

Works Cited
Lieberman, A.F. & VanHorn, P. (2008). Psychotherapy with infants and young children. New York: Guilford .

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), “What is child traumatic stress?” January 2, 2018. Retrieved from: http://nctsn.org

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work.  She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.


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