Transference, Projection, Attachment and Loss : Emotional Containment in Residential Child Care

By Dominic McNally

Date Posted: Sunday, 13 December 2009


Dominic spent the first part of his caring career working in a children’s home which was one of the resources of the Eagle House Partnership. Here he also attended the course on psychodynamic therapeutic processes. Dominic says this course continued to inform his work in the children’s home field for Islington Council. Following this he became a support worker for foster carers. He is now a social worker for children and their families and he continues to fly the flag for a psychodynamic approach to social work. 


Transference, Projection, Attachment and Loss : Emotional Containment in Residential Child Care


In this article I firstly give an account of a day I spent with a young person I will call Peter who was a resident in the children’s home I was working in some years ago. It was to prove a significant day for both of us.  At the time I was attending a training course related to my work  which required me to study aspects of the psychodynamic process of containment as well as theories about attachment and loss. The experiences Peter and I shared that day convinced me that the processes and theories involved in my studies could inform and help not only me and my residential child care colleagues but all those who work in a supporting role with children and young people. Certainly it was at this time I first felt that it would not have been possible for me to work effectively with any of the young people in the children’s home without my new knowledge and increased insight. I do not mean this in the sense that I had suddenly found neat, complete answers to the problems the children and I experienced in our relationships but my new understanding of the dynamics of these relationships made what was going on between us much clearer to me. I had observed how the uncontained emotions of children resident at the home were directed towards other people. This ‘acting out’ behaviour made working with the young people difficult and intimidating. It had often led to children being moved on to other placements because their behaviour was said to be ‘uncontrollable’. I was aware from those children who had been placed with us for this very reason that these rejections often led to more intense ‘acting out’ further down the line.


Peter was 15 years old. He had been placed in foster care before his first birthday and subsequently had several and various placements in care. At the time I am writing of Peter had been living at the children’s home where I worked for almost 2 years. During one shift I worked all the other young people had gone out and so I had a lot of time to spend with Peter. We played table tennis in the morning which was a lot of fun for us. After lunch I took Peter to the park where we had a kick around with a football. We had a great time. I enjoyed myself and it was obvious that Peter had enjoyed himself too. We both arrived back at the house in time for dinner and there were two other young people in heated discussion with the other member of staff on duty. After a short while Peter and myself were brought into the discussion, and very soon Peter was verbally abusing me, calling me an idiot amongst other things. After the great day I thought i had just had with him I could not believe what I was hearing. I thought the bond between Peter and myself had strengthened immeasurably during the day, and then for him to totally forget all that in such a short space of time made me feel angry and frustrated.

This occasion was just one of a number during which it seemed to me that Peter and I were getting on great together only for him to seemingly forget all about it and begin to verbally abuse me much more intensely than he did other members of staff.

In despite of this happening I knew that my relationship with him was very significant for him as it was for me. I wanted to succeed at my job !  I felt that I didn’t really deserve to be treated badly by Peter. I couldn’t understand it. However the following week I when I was attending the child care  and child develoipment training course that my employers were providing I learnt of the psychodynamic concept which Sigmund Freud and his followers have  called ‘transference’ (Freud, 1895). They argued that when we have a significant relationship with other people, without us knowing, that is unconsciously,  the same feelings we had about our first or other previously important caring and/or parenting figures are re-aroused and placed or ‘transferred’  upon these others. I understood immediately that this was what was happening in my relationship with Peter. I could see that the bad feelings Peter had for me were ‘transferred’  feelings. Peter was reacting to me as if I was a person in his past, probably his father. Twice a month Peter would spend a weekend staying with his father who, after a good day out with Peter would arrive home,  have a lot to drink and become verbally abusive towards Peter and send him back to the children’s home early. On these occasions Peter would not have been able to express his feelings towards his father. As Peter had been able to build up a good relationship with me, he felt able to show me these feelings. Later on in our relationship it seemed to me  that on becoming able to really trust that I would not reject him as his father did, Peter did not seem to need to abuse me as frequently as he once did, though the symptoms would return when he was anxious before and after his visits to his father.

It was fortunate that in our training we were being given the opportunity to learn and think about transference because we were beginning to feel very negative about Peter’s placement with us. At one point my manager, some of my colleagues and even I began to doubt if we could help Peter. I remember one colleague suggesting that to continue with Peter’s placement with us would be “a waste of time for everyone concerned”. I think learning about transference helped my colleagues and me  in our work with all the young people but in relation to Peter our new insight made us feel less reluctant to take Peter out to the park “because he didn’t  appreciate it and didn’t deserve it”.  We began to understand that the feelings that Peter and other children had given us that made us feel upset or offended to the extent that we did not want to come to work might unconsciously be picked up by the young people and would be obstacles to improving our relationships with them. To explain why this was so I would say as an example that with Peter I became able to understand that Peter’s verbally aggressive behaviours which had made me feel anxious, frustrated and powerless were his projection into me  of his own anxiety, frustration and powerlessness (see Hinshelwood on Klein, 1989). By giving myself time to reflect on this I was able to see that these were his feelings and not mine and so I was able to deal with them in an understanding and I think helpful way rather confronting Peter in a retributive way or indeed by rejecting him as his father had done. I began to understand that Peter’s feelings were unbearable to him. He could not deal with them and so he put them on to me. By managing to tolerate his projected feelings by assuring him that everything would be OK and that I would not go away I became able to contain his anxious and aggressive emotions and return them in a way he could tolerate (see Winnicott, 1965 and Bion, 1961).

In my training I had also been studying the significance of attachment and of loss to all human beings see Bowlby, 1969). These ideas helped reinforce my understanding of the process that was going on between Peter and me.  I believe I had become a significant attachment figure for Peter. Peter had experience throughout his life of adults to whom he had become attached and who had later left him or pushed him away. On the those occasions in the morning after an evening when I had been a target for his anger Peter would often wake up in a bad mood. He would ask me for something he knew he could not have and when I  told him he could not have it Peter would say something like, “I will hit you so bad that you won’t want to come back to work” and it began to dawn on me that this was Peter’s way of coping with the loss of people he had become attached to. He was testing me out to see if I was attached to him. When a child becomes attached to an adult he will displace a lot of his uncontrollable emotions on to the adult . This means that for the young person the adult is carrying around their anxieties and will either absorb and process them or will spit them out. When the feelings are absorbed and processed by the adult the young person’s emotions can be handed back in a more manageable size and form. If this occurs it is highly likely that the relationship between the child and carer develops healthily and as Adrian Ward (1998,p15) puts it, ‘ as the child becomes emotionally resilient, the child will increasingly be able to handle its own emotions without needing to project them’.

When a child experiences the loss of a person who has been containing him emotionally and the whole containment process has to be started again the child experiences added feelings of loss. In his particular circumstance Peter’s defence mechanism was to push the newly offered significant attachment figure away from him fearing that if he became attached again he might have to suffer yet another let down. This is, as Ward explains ‘to protect the self from feeling further pain’ (Ward, 1998, p21). By threatening to hit me so that I would not return to work was on reflection an obvious verbalisation of the rejection that Peter was anxious about and feared would occur.

Eventually Peter became confident enough in himself to move on from the children’s home to a project which allowed him to live in his own accommodation with support from outreach staff. Problems remained for him but I felt, like he did,  that he was able to manage his anxieties in a way that would allow him to survive.



To work with a young person in the way I have described required that I had an insight of psychodynamic processes such as transference, projection and emotional containment as well as an understanding of the significance of attachment and loss but it seemed to me that the most important element of the work was the way Peter and I built up a trusting relationship. This allowed Peter the space to feel safe to express his emotions without feeling embarrassed, criticised or threatened. As I’ve said, often it was difficult for Peter to verbalise or contain his emotions because he had not learnt how to deal with them.  After all he had not as a young child  heard his mother’s voice telling him that everything would be alright and there was nothing to worry about.  I felt in our relationship I was able to give him some recompense for what had been missing for him. Peter and I  did  this not only because I could contain his anxieties but also because my anxieties for us both were contained by my receiving understanding and insightful supervision which allowed me space and time to reflect on what was happening for Peter and for me.

In general I would say that the work of all those engaged with troubled children would be better informed and more insightful if they become aware of the processes I have described in this article. Without them there is a danger that  workers will not be able to separate what the children’s emotions are from their own and would be as lost as the children often feel and so be of no use to them.


Bion , W.R. (1961) Experiences in Groups  London  :  Routledge  2000

Bowlby, J (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss (vol. 1)   New York : Basic Books  1999

Freud, S.  (1895)  ‘The Psychotherapy of Hysteria’ in Studies on Hysteria  Freud,S. &  Breuer, J.  Reprinted 1977 London : Penguin Freud Library Vol. 2  pp . 337-393.

Hinshelwood, R.D. (1989) A Dictionary of Kleinian Thought  London :  Free Association Books  pp 179-208 and pp 396-398

Ward, A. (1998) ‘The inner world and its implications’ in Intuition Is Not Enough   Ward, A. and McMahon, L. (eds)   London   :   Routledge

Winnicott, D.W. (1965) Maturational processes and the Facilitating Environment : Studies in the Theories of Emotional Development.  London  :  Tavistock Publications


© and Dominic McNally :  December, 2009