Attachment-Based Family Therapy: An Insightful Overview

Dr. Guy Diamond is a professor at both the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University and focuses his teachings on the helping professional fields.

He, along with his co-authors, Drs. Gary Diamond and Suzanne Levy, have written the first book on Attachment-Based Family Therapy for Depressed Adolescents.

So, why should you care?

Let’s first start by explaining what Attachment-Based Family Therapy (or, ABFT) is.

Well, since this therapy is foundationally based on attachment theory, it is first important to have a clear understanding on what attachment theory proposes. The premise of attachment theory is that parents/caretakers relationships with, and attentiveness to, their children can result in two general forms of attachment that will be displayed in all relationships throughout the child’s life, if not repaired. These two general attachment styles are secure and insecure attachment, (with subdivisions existing within the insecure attachment styles based on what lead to their specific style of insecure attachment).

According to Dr. Guy Diamond, ABFT is more specifically “… based on the belief that strong relationships within families can buffer against the risk of adolescent depression or suicide and help in the recovery process. ABFT is a psychotherapeutic model, with a foundation in attachment theory. Attachment theory posits that when parents are responsive and protective, children develop a healthy sense of self, trust in others, and better capacity for independence and affect regulation. Ruptures in attachment security can increase the risk for psychopathology. However, as a life-span developmental model, attachment theory posits that attachment ruptures are reparable, and thus children can regain the external and internal resources to promote healthy development.”

The focus of ABFT is to work on relationships that are a product of the child’s insecure attachment styles. The family is encouraged to work together as a unit to repair these insecurely based relationships, and use each other’s support as motivation to help create newer, healthier, more secure attachment styles.

But there is something distinctly unique to this approach to family therapy. Because, although working together as one undivided unit is the initial goal, the next step in the process will be for the therapist to divide the unit (in the sense of sessions) and work independently with the child, and then with just the parents. The work done between the child and therapist is geared toward working together to help the child uncover what he/she believes lead to their insecure attachment style. In the parent-therapist only sessions, the therapist will be working with the child’s caretakers to help improve parenting practices and to reflect on their own past experiences and attachment styles that may have impacted their parenting approach.

Once all parties agree that they are at a good place and ready and open to making changes and to listen to one another, group sessions will reconvene. These family sessions will now work on fixing past issues and creating new techniques and establishing new, healthier, attachments to one another.

One of the greatest benefits about this approach to family therapy is that once the family has really worked on repairing their own attachment issues, and feels that they are in a much better, more collaborative place, the sessions can then put more of a focus on the child’s outside relationships. This helps instill these new learned attachment practices in other important relationships in the child’s life, and will be a great promoter for more secure attachments in general. Because, it is important to remember, that although our attachment styles are a product of the initial relationship we had with our caretakers, that is not the only realm of our lives affected by them. How we attach to people (not just our family members, but all people) is believed to be directed from our overall attachment style; meaning, it won’t be much different for how you are with your siblings vs. your parents vs. your friends, etc. Though you may have some level of greater comfort with some relationships than others, the general tendencies and premise of your attachment style will still shine true.

To summarize… basically, ABFT is a therapeutic approach that works in steps; and you must climb each step in front of you, before landing on the last step. The first step is to get to the root of the attachment issue. The following step it is to work on each individual within the family system. The third step is to appropriately confront the problem “head on”, and then work as a united force to repair ruptures that exist. The fourth and final systematic step is to now work on the child’s relationships outside of the family system to create an overall healthier attachment style to be practiced in all realms of his/her life throughout the lifespan.

So, back to our original question, why should you care about ABFT?

Because, we all come from somewhere! In one way or another, whether we are part of a  close-knit family, or completely independent from them, what we experienced at a young age can still impact the new relationships we create throughout our lives. And whether or not we are currently looking for family therapy, or even consider ourselves as part of a family, we can still use the knowledge about attachments and attachment theories to better understand ourselves and our attachment patterns; and maybe even learn new ways of reflecting on and repairing attachment ruptures we may still be carrying with us.

– Virginia Johnson


Are you struggling with communicating as a family, feeling like a family unit or would like some guidance with family struggles, or are you just interested in talking to someone about things going on in your life because you simply feel that you do not as you should? Sometimes having a partner in your journey can help. Give us a call  to set up a free phone consultation at Life Skills Resource Group Orlando at 407-355-7378, and one of our  would be more than happy to help you, a family member, or a friend work on changing your life.