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IPNB, Attachment Theory, and Child-Centered Play Therapy

What is Interpersonal Neurobiology?

At its core, interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) holds that we are ultimately who we are because of our relationships. IPNB combines many scientific disciplines to study connections within a person’s brain, as well as between the brains of different individuals that emerge in their relationships with one another. Given IPNB looks at how our mind, our brain, and our relationships interact to shape who we are, you can think of IPNB as the “triangle of well-being.”

The Triangle of Well-Being

Image: Siegel (2018)

The concept of “integration” is important in understanding IPNB. Integration refers to a person’s use of all parts of the brain system (more specifically, the entire interconnected brain and body neural system), rather than subsets such as the fight-flight-freeze subset. According to IPNB, human beings seek continuous self-organisation toward greater levels of integration between the brain, mind, and relationships. With increased integration between the brain, mind, and relationships with one another, an individual can experience improved health, growth, and restoration.


What is Attachment Theory?

The concept of attachment, founded by psychiatrist John Bowlby, refers to the quality of the relationship between a child and their parent or caregiver. Whilst this may sound scientific (and even a bit boring!), this concept is important for parents to understand as it essentially tells us that forming a strong relationship with your child is essential for their healthy development and wellbeing. Exploring this further, research has shown that the degree of attachment and security that parents and carers have with children has a big impact on many long-term developmental outcomes, including:

  • Brain development
  • Resilience
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of relationships with friends, family, and future romantic partners
  • School readiness, learning, and long-term academic outcomes
  • Presence of absence of behavioural difficulties

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth, through her studies using the ‘Strange Situation’ (Ainsworth, 1970), along with later discoveries by Main and Solomon (1990), discovered that there are 4 attachment patterns:

  1. Secure attachment

A child who is securely attached believes and trusts that their needs will be met by their caregiver/s. Their caregiver/s are sensitive and quick to respond to their needs, allowing the child to feel secure, independent, and confident to explore their environment.

  1. Ambivalent attachment

A child who is experiencing ambivalent attachment cannot consistently rely on their needs to be met by their caregiver/s. They experience inconsistent parenting that is sometimes sensitive, yet sometimes neglectful. This leads to the child feeling anxious, insecure, and sometimes angry.

  1. Avoidant attachment

A child experiencing avoidant attachment with their caregiver/s subconsciously believes that their needs probably won’t be met. Their caregiver/s are often distant and disengaged, resulting in the child feeling unable to safely explore their environment and experiencing a sense of emotional distance.

  1. Disorganised attachment

A child who is experiencing disorganised attachment feels severely confused, with no strategy to have their needs met by the caregiver/s. They experience parenting that is extreme, frightening, and passive, often from parents who are themselves frightened. These children feel very scared and sad, with low self-esteem. They are passive and often feeling angry. 

When your child has a secure attachment with you, they are able to use you as a secure base from which they can venture out to explore their environment, in turn learning about the world and their place within it. Your child can also use you as a safe haven should they need comfort, protection, or help with calming down when they feel overwhelmed.

There are, of course, differences in how independently and how far children will venture out from their parents. These differences will depend on their age, temperament, and even what kind of day they are having! However, the important thing to know is that the key to fostering and building a secure relationship with your child is supporting their individual need and ability to venture out and explore, as well as their need to return to you, as often as you can.


Child-Centred Play Therapy

Integrating IPNB with Attachment Theory

Play therapy is a powerful, evidence-based method of therapeutically working with children through exploring and joining their innate, creative, and non-verbal capacities. Landreth (2012) defines play therapy as:

… a dynamic interpersonal relationship between a child (or person of any age) and a therapist…who provides selected play materials and facilitates the development of a safe relationship for the child ... to fully express and explore self (feelings, thoughts, experiences, and behaviours) through play, the child's natural medium of communication, for optimal growth and development. (p. 11)

In child-centred play therapy (CCPT), a non-directive approach is used by play therapists with children who are experiencing social, emotional, behavioural, or relational difficulties. This form of play therapy was originally developed by Virginia Axline in the mid-20th century, with a strong influence by the person-centred approach of Carl Rogers (1961). The focus and goal of CCPT is to allow children to feel safe and comfortable to explore their concerns through creative play and a trusted relationship. The therapist does not direct, shape, or lead the child’s expression or behaviour, rush the therapeutic process, or set limits until required (Axline, 1989). In this way, the CCPT approach allows children to develop a warm, caring, and accepting relationship with the therapist, enabling them to express any emotion and gain insight. In forming a therapeutic relationship between a child and therapist, CCPT combines IPNB science with attachment theory to foster a child’s development of secure, interpersonal relationships to allow for healing and growth.

To read more about Play Educate’s CCPT services, and how this therapeutic method may be beneficial for your child, please see here <insert link to play therapy services at Play Educate>. If you would like to know more about developing a secure relationship and attachment with your child, please see here <insert link to parent support services at Play Educate>.



Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bell, S. M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41, 49-67.

Axline, V. (1967; republished 1989). Play therapy: The inner dynamics of childhood. New York: Ballantine Books.

Landreth, G. L. (2012). Play therapy: The art of the relationship. New York: Routledge.

Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation. In M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford Press.

Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2018) The yes brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. New York: Bantam.