Limit setting and holding

I have referred before to the apparent tension between attachment theory’s caregiving role and the social control function of modern day probation and social work. It does seem to me that the significance of limit-setting is not fully examined in Bowlby’s work.

This is such a central issue in the probation setting that it would merit separate and more detailed study than is possible here. I would suggest however that it is all too easy to be preoccupied by limit setting in terms of discipline, sanctions or punishments, and that an important component of limit setting for the infant is the experience of being physically held. Both limit setting and holding are ways of discovering the individual’s own integrity and that of others, and the process begins for the infant in the arms of the parent. As Winnicott points out, “There are those who can hold an infant and those who cannot”[1] and this may suggest the quality of holding as a further dimension of caregiving which could be crucial to secure attachment.

Some of the research on attachment theory touches on this issue. Bowlby reports Yarrow’s research into early mother-baby interaction, which identified amongst other important characteristics of maternal behaviour, “the amount of physical contact a mother gave her infant” and “the extent to which a mother’s way of holding her infant was adapted to his characteristics and rhythm”. [2] Ainsworth’s work also pointed to the importance of “frequent and sustained physical contact between the infant and mother, together with the mother’s ability to soothe a distressed baby by holding him”.[3]  I am reminded by this of an experience as a student in a children’s home, when one of the workers drew my attention to the different ways in which the children would hold my hand, from the rigid grip to the gentle variety of touch which some could enjoy.

Whilst there is more to holding the infant than limit setting, and some may feel, more to limit setting than holding, this dimension of limit setting draws attention to limits the probation officer sets that are at least as important as the proscription of behavioural acts. The security of contact arising from the limits established in the court order is one example of the helpful way in which this can work in the probation setting. Important questions are how frequent the client’s appointments need to be to ‘hold’ him/her securely. How quickly are failed appointments followed up? What structure is provided when officers go on leave?

[1] Winnicott 1982 p49

[2] Bowlby 1984 p 345

[3] Bowlby 1984 p346


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