Anger without a voice, anger without a solution: Parent–child triadic processes and the experience of caring for a child with a diagnosis of autism

Rudi Dallos, Ben Grey, Rebecca Stancer

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The paper offers an exploration of triadic attachment dynamics in families with a child with a diagnosis of autism. The Meaning of the Child (MotC) framework was employed as part of a multiple case study design with 18 parents (9 couples) in order to examine their representation of parenting and relationship with their child. The MotC analysis employed concepts of parental sensitivity, mentalisation and reflective functioning, and a triadic, analysis was added to consider the family relational processes. The findings indicate that the parents were significantly influenced by the use of a dominant ‘autism discourse’. ‘Autism’ in their child presented a severe challenge for them and could foster a sense of disempowerment and emotional withdrawal. Locating the difficulties as reflecting ‘autism’ could also serve to detour conflicts between the parents, and in the parents themselves, trapping the family in unresolved anger or fear that could neither be named nor its impact addressed. Autism discourse tended to rob the actions of family members of interpersonal meaning, rendering conflict fixed and unalterable and requiring them to mask the deep feelings inherent in these relational ruptures. The analysis included an exploration of the parents’ own childhood attachment histories which revealed that the parents were also driven by corrective scripts in wishing to form better relationships with their child than had been their own childhood experiences of parenting. A sense of failure to achieve these added to their sense of disappointment and frustration, but also indicated potential avenues for positive changes and growth.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman Systems: Therapy, Culture and Attachments
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2022


  • autism
  • Attachment
  • mentalisation
  • reflective functioning
  • caregiving
  • family systems
  • parenting

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