Catharsis, containment and physical restraint in residential child care

Steckley, Laura (2018) Catharsis, containment and physical restraint in residential child care. British Journal of Social Work, 48 (6). pp. 1645-1663. ISSN 0045-3102 (

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In residential child care, physical restraint continues to be a contentious and high-risk intervention with potential for physical and psychological harm to all involved. Its relationship to catharsis is poorly understood and rarely addressed in policy, practice and literature. Indeed, there is a paucity of application of catharsis theory to residential child care (or social work generally). This article redresses this gap by presenting findings of a large-scale, qualitative study of children, young people and practitioners’ experiences of physical restraint and analysing them through lenses of catharsis and containment theories. It offers evidence of cathartic expression in situations involving restraint, as well as a potential relationship between ongoing, repeated restraints and a drive for catharsis. It is argued that catharsis theory, especially when combined with containment theory, has explanatory power in making sense of physical restraint and how to minimise its use while still meeting the needs of children and direct-care practitioners in residential and other relevant settings.