CONTAINMENT – Psychoanalytic Theory Translated into Clinical Practice with Parents

The psychoanalyst Bion described the theory of containment. This concept can help us understand what happens in the mind of a parent whilst holding a distressed baby. There are also important parallels for the therapist working with a distressed patient.

When an infant is distressed, their anxiety is felt to be intolerable and thus it is projected outwards. As the caregiver attempts to soothe the baby ideally, they are able to remain connected to the baby and ‘contain’ the anxiety. This means, that the caregiver can take this anxiety in, and in doing so make it more tolerable for the infant. The infant can then take the feelings back into themselves but in a modified form. For example, the parent says to the baby, “Oh no, you’re so upset, look at you all red and so sad. It’s OK, I’m here, it will be better soon”.

In making the anxiety tolerable, the caregiver demonstrates that they can bear these projected feelings from the infant and not be overwhelmed. The infant has the experience of being supported or contained, their feelings overwhelmed them but did not threaten their relationship to their caregiver.

The adult caregiver can also use their capacity for reason and thought to organise difficult, messy, complicated feelings into words. The infant’s experience can be symbolised in words and reflected in bodily gestures, which can be understood digested. The caregiver may also alter aspects of the infant’s environment to support the baby to manage their distress.

Containment has a central role in helping infants learn how to regulate difficult feeling states. It is a powerful and important relational construct, and useful in therapeutic work with infants and adults alike.