Attachment Therapy Parenting Methods

A report to Advocates for Children in Therapy
May 2003
by Jean Mercer, PhD, and Linda Rosa, RN


Child development research has shown that toddlers usually develop a strong emotional attachment to familiar caregivers who have been sensitive and responsive to them. Young children who have formed an attachment are comforted and feel secure when near familiar people, especially if they are sick, tired, or frightened. If they undergo an abrupt, long-term separation from familiar caregivers, the children grieve and show distress for many months, but can gradually form new attachments. As children get older, they gradually come to need familiar people less and to be more independent, but even in middle childhood and adolescence their family attachments provide a foundation for their successful involvement with school and work outside the home. Most children, whether or not they have experienced past separations, can use good relationships with adults to help them as they become more independent. Good relationships involve the adult’s capacity to be sensitive and responsive to the child while giving firm guidance as needed; these relationships are most helpful to the child when the adult is predictable, logical, and consistent.

AT parenting, as we may call it, is also termed “
Nancy Thomas Parenting” after one of the major advocates of such methods, or “therapeutic foster parenting.” The belief system behind AT parenting contradicts well-substantiated views of early emotional development. It assumes that attachment relationships in older children result only from the child’s acknowledgment of an adult’s absolute power and authority rather than from sensitive guidance. There is also an unusual assumption that factors like sweet foods and eye contact somehow cause deep emotional changes in older children, but Thomas’s major concern is with the adult’s dominance over the child. Unquestioning obedience, rather than the use of family relationships as a foundation for independence, is Thomas’s criterion for attachment in middle childhood and adolescence.

The following list of techniques — drawn from
Thomas’s writings and videos, from information revealed at the “rebirthing” trial of Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder, and from shared between parents in online support groups — shows how AT “therapeutic foster parenting” practices are directed at intimidation and dominance rather than at a responsive support of the child’s maturation.

AT Parenting Methods:

  • Holding the Child Responsible.
    Love for the child is not unconditional. The child is told he must “work on his life” in order to remain in the family. To underscore this impermanent status, a slight infraction of family rules can cause the child to be removed suddenly from the family for an undisclosed amount of time. The child is told he must become “responsible, respectful and fun to be with” and do his work “fast and snappy and just the way mom wants it.”

  • Isolation of the Child.
    The child may be kept out of school for long “vacations” (education is considered a privilege to be earned, not a right). Children may be kept away from friends, pets, and all family members, except for the mother, for extended periods of time. In part, this is supposed to protect others from the child — a potential killer — and also serve to keep others from becoming unduly alarmed at the harsh treatment the child is experiencing. When a child moves in society, Thomas advises mothers to have the child wear sunglasses to hide his “sad, manipulative eyes” from others.

  • Isolation of the Mother.
    The mother can become exhausted from the long hours devoted to AT parenting and feel isolated from husband, friends and family, out of fear they will not understand AT. In internet discussion groups, mothers reinforce each other in their use of AT parenting methods. Over time, mothers tend to withdraw into this small circle of like-minded mothers whose lives are centered on their AT experiences and beliefs. Because of this last aspect in particular, AT can be said to be cult-like.

  • Mothers Do No Wrong.
    Caseworkers, relatives, friends and neighbors are advised to never give advice or criticize any of the adoptive/foster mother’s parenting methods. They are instead encouraged to tell her frequently what a wonderful mother she is and to give her gifts. If relatives and friends cannot fully support the parents’ use of AT and AT parenting, they are told to stay away.

  • Excessive Exercise.
    If a child ever answers a question with an “I don’t know,” it is erroneously taken as an indicator that the child is not getting adequate levels of oxygen to his brain, and so exercise is prescribed — usually large numbers of pushups, jumping jacks (or trampoline) — to increase blood circulation. Adult survivors report having been assigned hundreds of repetitions to do at a time.

  • Distasteful, Pointless and Excessive Chores.
    Adult survivors describe having to do all the dishes in the kitchen if a spot is found on just one glass. Another had to move a woodpile from one spot to another, then back again; she was also directed to pick up dog feces with her fingers. Also, chores are assigned in humiliating ways — children are told it is training for the menial jobs which they are destined to hold as adults. Shoveling manure is often mentioned as an ideal chore in this respect. AT therapists may send “trackers” to the home to assist the mother in enforcing chores.

  • Inadequate Nutrition & Starvation.
    Children are often maintained on peanut butter sandwiches (and/or cold oatmeal) for weeks/months at a time (aka “PB&J Therapy” and “soup kitchen food”) until they can accept the mother’s love and the food she makes. Recently, a 7-year-old girl in Texas was nearly starved to death by her father and step-mother; the latter testified to being familiar with Nancy Thomas parenting techniques.

  • Restricted Environment.
    The child’s possessions are few. (Legos, mini-trampoline and crayons are said to be enough toys.) The bedroom is kept bare or nearly so, with locks and/or alarms on the door and windows. (Nancy Thomas now denies currently advising locks, but their use still shows up on internet discussion lists.) Several Therapists and therapeutic parents are reported to also have “scream rooms” in their basements — a locked, windowless room with no toilet — where children may spend days or weeks locked away. (One child in New Jersey died in such conditions.)

  • No Night Light.
    Thomas states that all children must sleep without a night light, even if they are afraid of the dark or have trust issues.

  • Unpredictable Parental Behavior.
    Parents are told to act unpredictably and irrationally in order to keep the child “off balance,” so that the child is unable to manipulate situations. Parents report pulling college pranks on children, such as plastic wrap over the toilet bowl. These techniques are also described as “out-crazying the crazy” or “disturbing the disturbed.”

  • AT Paradoxical Interventions.
    (Not to be confused with “paradox” as used by conventional therapists.) The child’s punishment for disobedience may be made to “fit the crime” by forced repetition of the forbidden behavior. This can involve physical discomfort and even danger to life, as when a child who has taken food or drink is forced to consume large amounts.

  • Demonizing.
    Children are belittled and taunted outside of AT therapy, too. Much, if not all, of the children’s behavior is suspected of stemming from evil and cunningly manipulative motives. So good behavior is often dismissed and complaints of ill health are ignored as “attention getting.” Thomas herself claims she doesn’t allow children in her care with “Attachment Disorder” (AD) to pray because she doesn’t know to whom they are really praying. As children learn thereby that there is nothing they can do right, they also learn that mothers must never be criticized. Mothers are frequently referred to as “awesome” — a Biblical descriptor for Jehovah — used in AT to reflect the mothers’ exalted state before her children.

  • Compliance training.
    If a child fails to complete an order, e.g. close an upstairs door, he may be ordered to do it — “fast and snappy” — hundreds of times. To gauge a child’s unquestioning obedience, he may be ordered to flush an unused toilet repeatedly, after having been taught in school or elsewhere to conserve water. (To show how inconsiderate an “Attachment Disordered” child can be, therapists and mothers have testified in court that a child “won’t even flush the toilet.”)

  • “Basic German Shepard” Training
    Children are repeatedly ordered, like a dog, to “come,” “sit,” or “stand.”

  • “Holdings” (Restraint).
    Parents are instructed to do “holdings” at home. The parent is told to vent her frustrations while restraining the child in a lap hold until he stops resisting, which typically takes hours before a child tires from struggling. When exhausted, the parent will bottle-feed the child (no matter the age), finger-feed him, plays baby games, and the like.

  • Re-Parenting.
    The child is treated like a baby for weeks or months, in order to “redo” early developmental stages. In one form of this, a child remains close by the mother’s side, sometimes tethered to her all day; the child must ask for everything he needs in a few scripted sentences; sometimes he may not be allowed to speak at all. Another reason children are not allowed to speak is the belief that all they will say is lies.

  • The Seven Sentences.
    Children may not be permitted to speak (some parents have even duct-taped their mouths — occasionally with fatal consequences), or they may be only allowed to say a few scripted sentences, e.g., the recommended “Seven Sentences”:

  • “May I please go to the bathroom?”
  • “Thank you.”
  • “Good night.”
  • “May I please have a drink?”
  • “May I please be excused from the table?”
  • “Yes, Mom.”
  • “Yes, Dad.”
  • Eye Contact.
    Children who do not maintain “eye contact on the parent’s terms” are considered “Attachment Disordered.” However, children diagnosed with AD who look their parents in the eye will be suspected of lying or attempting to manipulate. (To prevent AD, mothers of infants are cautioned to maintain eye contact during nursing!) Eye contact avoidance as a cultural trait is not considered.

  • Confession.
    A child with unacceptable behavior is believed to conceal secrets that will block his progress until revealed. Any misbehavior indicates that the child hasn’t disclosed everything to his mother. A child may be assigned long hours to work on writing down his life story or more holding therapy until secrets are revealed.

  • Hugs.
    The children cannot ask for hugs. Only parents give hugs. Children must respond to hugs in a prescribed manner, with flat hands on the parent’s back and arms below those of the parent. Some AT therapists (e.g. Federici) recommends withholding affection during treatment.

  • Withholding Information.
    Withholding of information is used as a control mechanism. Children are deliberately not told what’s going to happen to them, even when or if they will see their parents again after a separation.

  • Respite.
    AT “respite” providers (sometimes called “therapeutic parents”) are to create an even tougher atmosphere so the child will feel he has it better with the parents. To avoid the child bonding with the respite provider, the child gets no eye contact, no smiles, no sweet food, no entertainment, and only minimal social interaction; he is assigned hard chores and much time to work on writing the life story. The child is reminded frequently how lucky he is to have his parents. When the mother comes to pick up the child, she may immediately hold and rock the child and finger-feed him some sweet food to further emphasize that all good things come from the mother. “Trackers” are respite providers who come to the family’s home to assist with AT parenting. Many children stay years with AT “therapeutic foster parents” after their “two-week intensive” with an AT therapist.

  • Discipline and compliance is all.
    Therapeutic parents may keep a child for months or years to create an “attachment.” This “attachment” is claimed to be “transferable” to the custodial parents. This is done through a ritual of compliance at the home of the therapeutic parent: The therapeutic parent gives the child orders, followed by the parent parroting the same orders. This is repeated over and over, for as long as ten days. An attachment is said to have transferred if the child obeys the mother unhesitatingly. This “bond transfer” is evidence that AT parenting is more about transferring authority than creating a loving relationship between child and parent.

  • Bodily Functions.
    Parents are told that children with AD can deficate, vomit and ruminate at will, and use control of these bodily functions to rebuff their mother’s love.

  • Scare tactics.
    Parents are told children with AD have no conscience, and left untreated, the children will kill pets and family members. Parents are told that AT and AT parenting is the only way to save their child.

  • Bonding Food.
    Mothers are advised to put “bonding food” — i.e. food with lots of sugar/lactose (e.g. caramel and ice cream) — directly into the mouths of their children. Children of all ages are also bottle-fed after intense and exhaustive “holding” sessions. Children are sometimes given a fanny-pack full of candy so they can have access to bonding food whenever they want. Parents are told not to worry about cavities.

  • “Drunk Child” Diagnosis.
    Nancy Thomas sells The Biology of Behavior a set of audio tapes of her interview with Diane Craft, a “certified health professional” in Colorado who claims that many children suffer from “Systemic Yeast Infection.” (SYI is a fictitious condition that has been on the FDA’s top ten list of the nation’s worst health frauds.) Though Thomas otherwise advises mothers to feed sugary “bonding foods” to AD children, the Craft/Thomas tape warns parents that sugary foods will ferment in the gut of a child with SYI and cause the child to become inebriated, leading to perpetual “wild” and inattentive behavior. The Thomas/Craft tapes recommend restrictive diets and herbal “supplements.”

  • Promotion of “Neurotherapy.”
    More and more AT therapists promote an unvalidated practice called Neurotherapy (aka Neurofeedback) which is touted to improve a wide variety of behaviors by “correcting” brain waves with EEG technology. Each session can cost $70, with 80-100 sessions recommended. For financial reasons, many parents opt to rent or purchase EEG machines for home use.

  • Homework.
    Parents are advised not to assist children with their homework.

  • Tourette’s Syndrome.
    Holding therapy was once unjustifiably used for Tourette’s by Robert Zaslow, an early founder of AT. Now Nancy Thomas claims her parenting techniques for AD can also be used successfully for Tourette’s Syndrome.

Reports from Adult Survivors

Reports from adult survivors indicate that children try to endure the abuse of Attachment Therapy and AT parenting methods until they reach age 18. By that time, however, they are not likely to be in a good position to make abuse charges against their former tormentors. They are likely to be estranged from parents and relatives who continue to hold tight to cult-like beliefs in AT. Young adult survivors, with so much disruption to their education, may not have a high school diploma. They often suffer from untreated medical or emotional problems because any and all complaints were dismissed as merely “attention-getting.” Their health may also be poor because of inadequate nutrition.

Some survivors report that they have had little success in getting help from other therapists who are largely unfamiliar with AT and AT parenting methods, and therefore incredulous about descriptions of the extreme abuse they suffered as children.

“Parenting Expert” Nancy Thomas’s Background

Nancy Thomas, the leading proponent of AT parenting methods, presents herself on her website as a “co-therapist,” but she has no formal training in psychotherapy, no college degree, and is not licensed or registered to do psychotherapy in her state of Colorado. Yet her website states that she “has worked as co-therapist with children in intensive attachment therapy with eight of the leading Attachment Therapists, Psychiatrists and Psychologists in the country. Nancy worked as secondary lay-therapist for over 2000 hours.”

Nancy Thomas was trained by and worked many years with Attachment Therapist Connell Jane Watkins before the latter was imprisoned for 16 years for recklessly causing the death of 10-year-old
Candace Newmaker. Though Watkins was widely discredited after videos of her abusive methods were shown during her trial, Thomas’s recently published autobiography still speaks highly of her mentor “CJ Cooil” (Watkins’ maiden name).

Thomas lectures around the country and abroad, selling her videos and books through her company, Families by Design, and her non-profit organization SAVY (Stop America’s Violent Youth). Before working for the Attachment Center at Evergreen (recently renamed the
Institute for Attachment and Child Development), Thomas worked as a dog groomer.

For a quick overview on AT parenting, visit ACT’s Therapeutic Parenting page.