Holding Environment (Donald Winnicott)
Through his work with children and their mothers, the English paediatricion and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott developed the influential concept of the "holding environment”. Winnicott claimed that "the foundations of health are laid down by the ordinary mother in her ordinary loving care of her own baby", central to which was the mother's attentive holding of her child.
Winnicott considered that the "mother's technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child's first idea of the mother", as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein one securely lives. Extrapolating the concept of holding from mother to family and the outside world, Winnicott saw as key to healthy development "the continuation of reliable holding in terms of the ever-widening circle of family and school and social life".
Winnicott was influential in viewing the work of the psychotherapist as offering a substitute holding environment based on the mother/infant bond. Winnicott wrote: “A correct and well-timed interpretation in an analytic treatment gives a sense of being held physically that is more real...than if a real holding or nursing had taken place. Understanding goes deeper”.
Winnicott first used the term ‘holding environment’ (1953, 1971) to describe the optimal environment for ‘good enough’ parenting. He suggested that emotional problems developed when a person had been deprived such holding environments in childhood and that a level of holding was critical to the therapeutic environment. A key function of the mother’s early holding is to insulate her baby from the impact of stress, carefully choosing the moments to allow for frustrations to be allowed slowly into the child’s experience.
The good-enough mother...starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant's growing ability to deal with her failure.