What is Holding Time?

by Martha Welch & Nancy D'Antonio

Holding Time is a practical technique for mothers to achieve closer relationships with their children. It maximizes intellectual and emotional development. Holding improves self-esteem, problem solving and communication skills. It increases a child's ability to engage in interdependent relationships. Children learn to verbalize inner distress without difficulty. You, as parents, might be surprised to discover what your children have been bottling up inside.

Evidence is mounting that demonstrates the deleterious effects of stress on brain development. For an infant, stress is most commonly caused by separation from his mother and its subsequent dysregulation. In an ideal world, mothers would keep their infants close to them at all times, thus meeting their needs and regulating their behavior consistently and constantly. This would keep them in a state of calm arousal, the optimal condition for learning and for coping with strong emotions.

However, in today's fast-paced environment, babies and young children experience excessive amounts of separation. If a child's needs are not met in a timely manner, they feel hurt, sad, angry and helpless. They feel bad about themselves and lose their sense of security and trust. In extreme cases, this will lead to mean, aggressive or even sadistic behavior. Holding Time brings mother and child into a biological synchrony that re-establishes the mother's ability to regulate her child.

The process consists of three specific stages: Confrontation, Rejection, and Resolution. The mother sits in a comfortable seat. The child straddles her lap with legs wrapped around her waist. In the case of a larger/older child, she can lie down using her body weight to maintain physical connection. These positions allow direct eye contact between parent and child, while at the same time controlling the child's attempts to avoid the issues being addressed. The physical aspects of holding are important, as it affects both the mother's and the child's chemical stress level leading to a calmer physiological balance.

During Confrontation, the child may protest immediately, or there may be some happy interchange. Eventually, the child struggles to escape. During this stage, the mother verbally and emotionally expresses her feelings, concerns, frustrations, hope, and anger, as well as affection and love to the child.

The rejection stage reaches its peak when the child begins to vent his anger. The mother must use the strength of her feelings to intensify the contact and prevent the child from withdrawing. She should use simple statements with clear messages. "Stop hitting me. When you push me away I feel hurt. I love you and want to feel close." "I need you to participate in the family and help with the housework." "I need you to be as loving to me as I am to you." It is important to match the depth of her child's feelings with her own feelings. She must demand respectful, reciprocal treatment, while at the same time acknowledge her child's feelings and help him distinguish between expressing anger and being mean. Mothers need to teach pre-verbal and young children to identify their feelings and to express them in socially acceptable ways. Even two-year olds will learn to save up their frustrations for Holding Time if they know for sure it will happen.

The mother's willingness to share her pain in the face of her child's rejection will eventually elicit the sympathy and caring that is the beginning of reciprocity. Screaming from a distance makes a child defensive. But when a child sees and feels his mother crying in his arms, he will recognize her full range of feelings and respond with empathy. Anger dissolves into tender intimacy with intense eye contact, exploratory touching, kissing, and loving conversation highly gratifying to both mother and child.

During the Resolution phase, mothers and children experience the joys of reciprocal love. They hug, kiss, listen and talk without barriers. This deepens their mutual bond and trust. Their self-esteem grows from having held each other through deep emotional turmoil. Mutual empathy and compassion develops. A child who knows his mother will always love him and never leave him, even in his deepest expressions of rage, will be most likely to turn to her as a teenager and young adult when faced with the temptation and peer pressure to experiment with drugs, sex and delinquent behavior. In contrast, a child who has experienced too many early separations and unmet needs has been forced to become prematurely self-reliant and will remain isolated, angry, or withdrawn and/or dependent on peers for approval.

A child who develops balance resulting from empathy and reciprocity has all his resources and talents available for mastery, successful function, and constructive, mutually rewarding relationships at school, and later at work and in his family of procreation, as well as family of origin.

© 2001, all rights reserved. Written by Martha Welch and Nancy D'Antonio. May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of the authors.