Philippa Elmhirst


Philippa Elmhirst graduated from Geneva University in child psychology, where she claims to have studied with Jean Piaget. She worked in various schools, and as a student of Martha Welch, she opened a “Mothering Centre” in York, UK, where Holding Therapy was used to treat autism.

She wrote
Holding On, a small, self-published book from which the below quotes are taken. This book contains several “case histories” collected by Alison Wray, then a post-graduate student in psycho-linguistics. The children in these case histories were quite young (ages 6, 3, 7, 20 months, and two children not quite 4 years old). All but one were boys. These case histories were apparently taken from families attending Elmhirst’s Mothering Centre.

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Holding On: A Therapy for Families, published by Philippa Elmhurst, 1987,
with support of the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust; Duffield Printers,
Leeds, LS4 2HA; ISBA 0 9512364 0


In Her Own Words

  • Holding Therapy...[i]f used regularly it can repair and improve the close relationship between all members of the family...[e]ven when there are no apparent behavioral problems...


  • In 1980 I became an “apprentice” to Dr. [Martha] Welch in the use of the therapy with autistic children...I practiced for two years before opening the Mothering Centre in York in 1982....There is another Mothering Centre in Teddington, London, and the possibility of a Centre opening in Elgin, Scotland.

  • In Utrecht, Holland, therapists are using [Holding Therapy] with autistic children and others with speech problems...

  • In West Germany, Dr. Jirina Prekop has over 200 families with autistic children in therapy with 20% of those completely cured, and a further 20% well on the way to recovery...all in the space of three years. Efforts are also being made to introduce the use of [Holding Therapy] in Switzerland, Finland and Sweden.

  • Fathers more often feel uncomfortable about this therapy than mothers....Many fathers do not like the confrontation with strong feelings involved in this therapy; if the noise of the child’s rage really upsets you tell your wife about it – but after the session. Do not interrupt the session because both your wife and your child will resent you for it, even if at the time your child seems to be asking to be rescued....Some fathers report feeling upset watching a holding session because they believe that the child is being physically hurt....I assure you that in a session which is going as it should any physical pain on the child’s part is due to his own struggle which he needs to do in order to test the mother’s determination....The next step is for you and your wife to hold each other for your angry and upset feeling to be allowed full expression.

  • [Holding Therapy] requires a business-like, determined attitude which enables first the mother and then the father to hold the child close, face to face, regardless of age or sex, regardless of how much they fight and shout and insult, regardless of the reasons they give for why you should let them go....Children will often insist that they need to go to the bathroom during a hold. Parents can make sure that a child has been before the session, which case even if a child wets himself and his mother to see if that will make her let go, it is indeed no more than a test which the mother must pass if she is to reach her child’s deepest feeling and needs. If a mother thinks that the request for the loo is genuine she must accompany the child, carrying him all the way there and all the way back if possible, only to continue the ‘hold.’

  • Hold your child...so that eye-contact is hard to avoid.

  • Limp, stiff or merely submitting children who comply with the holding parent but do not respond lovingly to the holding can be encourage or provoked into expressing the anger which is making them withdrawn by tickling, giggling, non-stop kissing, licking, etc. Insisting on prolonged eye-contact will also bring to the surface any hidden anger...

  • Children under the age of 5 or 6...may rage and fight for an hour or more...


  • One of the best times for a parent to hold a child is when the parent is angry with the child.


  • It is my experience that the parents who learn to use this therapy (that is, who become their own child’s therapist) feel enormous benefit from it themselves.


  • Most behavioral problems in children respond extremely well to holding therapy...They include extremely clinging behavior, extreme aggressiveness, jealousy between children, temper tantrums, long periods of screaming, destructive or “wild” behavior, night terrors and other sleep disturbances, extremely withdrawn or stereotyped behavior (as in autism), whining, defiance and disobedience, soiling, bedwetting, head banging, stealing, fire-raising, or simply what the parents describe as “a bad relationship” between themselves and their children...all kinds of antisocial behaviour...


  • It may be possible to wrap the child in a sheet or an old towel during the first stage of the session, as this can always be taken off when the rage has died down...