Beyond Attachment: A Collaborative Model of Relationship for Complex Developmental Trauma

One of the more challenging problems of working with complex developmental trauma is how to effectively manage the therapeutic relationship. We are directed to help the client develop secure attachment; yet close relationship activates the insoluable dilemma of the client's history: needing to attach while feeling threatened. Intense dependency, avoidance, and aggression may subsequently become difficult to manage. We will take a fresh look at how to conceptualize several intrinsic motivational systems that impact the therapeutic relationship, and the problems that ensue when activation of one system impedes others in both client and therapist. Participants will be invited to a thought-provoking examination of not only the advantages, but the disadvantages and challenges of using the standard "parent-child" model of attachment for adults in psychotherapy whose caretakers were the source of threat. The over-activation of attachment-seeking in the client naturally inhibits curiosity and also elicits the therapist's caretaking system, potentially leading to a derailment of therapy into a rescue endeavor. We will explore the roles of the motivational systems of exploration, attachment, caretaking, collaboration, competition, and defense in the therapeutic relationship. Participants will learn practical strategies for managing the therapeutic relationship from this perspective.

This session was originally presented as a live conference session in March 2019.

Target Audience


Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this session participants will be able to:

  • Discuss the pros and cons of the standard parent-child model of attachment in the psychotherapy of adults with complex developmental trauma disorders
  • Identify intrinsic motivational systems in both therapist and client that impact the therapeutic relationship
  • Employ at least three interventions to minimize activation of the client's attachment system, and promote a more collaborative relationship that focuses on mutually shared goals and interest/curiosity
Course summary
Available credit: 
  • 1.50 ISSTD Certificate Program
    This program is eligible for 1.50 credits in the ISSTD Certificate Program.
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Presenter: Kathy Steele, MN, CS
Presenter Bio: Kathy Steele, MN, CS has been in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia for over three decades, specializing in the treatment of complex trauma, dissociation, attachment difficulties, and the challenges of complicated therapies. She is an adjunct faculty at Emory University, and a Fellow and past President of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Ms. Steele teaches internationally and consults with individuals, groups, and trauma programs. She has received a number of awards for her work. She has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, and has co-authored three books on dissociative disorders.

Available Credit

  • 1.50 ISSTD Certificate Program
    This program is eligible for 1.50 credits in the ISSTD Certificate Program.


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  • ISSTD defines a student as those enrolled in a program of study leading to a degree or certification in the mental health field and who have an interest in trauma and dissociation. 
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