Holding On

Families search for a miracle therapy that won't hurt their troubled children

Family therapist Elaine Litsey trained with Cline and used his rage-reduction techniques for seven years at the Southwest Attachment Center in Houston. She and another therapist sat on a couch, held a child across their laps, patted the child's chest and jiggled his arms to irritate and annoy the child into a rage. Litsey says she stopped practicing rage-reduction holding therapy in 1997 when she moved to an office by herself. "It's difficult to do alone," she says. "It's very exhausting for everybody."

Today, she does predominantly family talk therapy and encourages parents to hold children at home, baby-talk, bottle-feed and play patty-cake with kids. Attachment therapists teach regressive parenting because children bond to parents in the first two years of life. Therapists tell parents to nurture and baby kids to redo the developmental stages that were missed.

If a child gets upset and starts screaming and yelling during a therapy session, Litsey restrains the child and encourages him to "get the mad out."

Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
David Terrill
Experts differ on what constitutes holding therapy.
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.
David Terrill
Some of the kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder can't be left alone with family pets.

She has patients make life-size dolls with Styrofoam heads and newspaper-stuffed scarecrow bodies that look like the person who abused, abandoned or attacked them. The child gets to yell and scream at the doll, then slice out its heart and brain with a butter knife. Afterward, the child stuffs the doll's remains in a trash bag and tosses it into the Dumpster. Litsey tells the child that his anger is all contained in the bag, and he's thrown it away.

Nancy Hart Hernandez, a licensed clinical social worker, says the safest way to do holding therapy is by swaddling children shoulders-down in a stretchy, loose-weave blanket. She's even wrapped a six-foot-two, 17-year-old boy. "It's like having them cornered," Hernandez says. "They need to be contained." She says the child feels helpless, like an infant, and can't use normal defense mechanisms (or arms) to push her away. "Being confronted and not having anywhere to go to hide from it, the feelings come up and break through," Hernandez says.

But first, kids often violently protest, kick, scream, bite and head-butt her. "They say, 'I'm suffocating, I can't breathe, I'm gonna die' -- everything they can think of to dodge. And then they break through," Hernandez says.

Gabrielle New emphasizes that when she performs holding therapy, she is never actually holding or constraining the child. She sits on the sofa, places a pillow on her lap and keeps her arms on the back of the couch. The child puts an arm around her back and looks into her eyes while she talks in a smooth, soft, relaxation-tape voice.

Beth Powell, a licensed psychotherapist, runs The Attachment Center of Texas based in Austin, and has a satellite office in Columbus, 40 minutes west of Katy. Her version of holding therapy looks like a visit to a loving grandmother: She hugs the child, holds him chest-to-chest and rocks back and forth, whispering that she loves him.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, a six-year-old girl named Lamiracle Schreck walks into Powell's office. Her dark brown eyes are directed downward, and she has a permanent my-dog-got-ran-over-five-minutes-ago expression. Smile at her and she doesn't smile back. A child of an alcoholic drug user who abandoned her (but occasionally visits), the girl constantly lies and steals. "Her behavior improves ten-fold when she's being held," Powell says.

Powell pats her lap and the girl crawls on, wraps her arms around Powell and nuzzles her face into Powell's neck. "She could probably be held forever. She's starved for it," Powell says. "This one would be happy if you were covered in Velcro and she could just stick to you."

Powell gently rocks, while patting Lamiracle's back, telling her, "I love to touch you. I love to hold you."

"A lot of therapists don't think you're supposed to touch children," Powell says. "They're already isolated. Touch is healing. If I can put me inside of her, if my heart can touch her heart, then it'll help her heal faster."

Two-year-old Krystal Ann Tibbets threw herself out of her crib and scratched her private parts until they bled. After Krystal was diagnosed with both RAD and attention deficit disorder, therapists at the Cascade Center in Salt Lake City recommended holding therapy.

"They said that no other therapy would work," says her foster father, Don Tibbets Jr. Without holding therapy, Tibbets says he was told, Krystal could end up a strung-out, drug-addicted teen prostitute, or another Ted Bundy.

During nearly a year of state-paid twice-a-week two-hour holding-therapy sessions, Krystal screamed, spit, scratched and bit. What disturbed her foster dad, a registered nurse, is that after she stopped fighting, Krystal's eyes rolled back into her head and she held her breath. Eventually she started breathing again, was exhausted, and Tibbets held her, fed her a bottle and rocked her to sleep.

Around 9 a.m. on July 8, 1995, Krystal was hanging on the bathroom door throwing a temper tantrum. Tibbets placed her on the floor, lay on top of her chest-to-chest, stared into her eyes and placed his fist on her stomach -- as therapists had instructed him. As usual, Krystal stopped breathing.

But this time, she didn't start again.

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