Applying the Anna Freud Toddler Group Model Internationally

5th December 2017 By: Hannah Evans

The Anna Freud Centre Parent–Toddler Group Programme, which are run by psychoanalytically trained child psychotherapists, have the advantage of being experienced by most parents as a far less stigmatising setting than traditional 'therapy'.

These groups provide social support and educational input alongside their therapeutic functions, and as a result, they appear to be more acceptable to families who would not otherwise access therapeutic help (Zaphiriou Woods, 2000). In recent years, the model has been adopted in children's centres in the UK and in other European countries such as Italy and Russia (Ivanova, 2007), where the groups have become embedded in mental health Centres and kindergartens.  A few of our alumni have gone on to apply this model elsewhere.  Here are some of the stories.


Fatima studied and later worked at the Anna Freud Centre between September 2001 and September 2004. She was particularly interested in the work done in the Parent Toddler Groups. Initially as a student, then as a Toddler group assistant and later as a Toddler Group leader, she learned and applied this experience in the work with parents and children. Later in a new post as a Child Mental Health specialist in the South London and Maudsley Trust, she started a new Parent and Toddler Group where she applied this exact psychoanalytic model in Peckham in a community Centre for the Children’s services. This group catered for people in the community where there was high mobility and people with mental health needs. This group was and still is, as it is still going over 10 years on, a resource for parents and children in the community. Fatima is no longer working there as years later she finished her training as a psychoanalyst and moved on to individual work with adults in private practice


She was introduced to the idea of parent-toddler groups while doing her MSc in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology at the UCL University / Anna Freud Centre. After she finished the course, she wanted to start a similar program in Greece, with the challenge to adapt the Anna Freud Centre approach to a different society and culture. The program started in Greece in 2004 and was hosted at a Community Mental Health Centre in Athens, which had extensive experience in primary intervention and family support programs. Initially some groundwork had to be done to prepare the way for starting a parent-toddler group program and for that reason the following year, they organized a couple of symposiums. The program began as an unofficial pilot in order to make the necessary adjustments. In September 2011, the Parent-Toddler Groups Program became part of the programs of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Athens University Medical School, General Pediatric Hospital of Athens "Agia Sofia", and it was funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for three consecutive years.  The last four years they have also developed a training program with the aim to introduce mental health care professionals, in the clinical work of Parent-Toddler Groups and thus to help further the exploitation of the program. None of these would be done without the great support of the Anna Freud Centre and particular without the endless personal help of Marie Zaphiriou Woods and Inge Martine Pretorius.


Since March 2017,  Maria Paz has been working as a volunteer for a foundation called CRAN (Centro para el Reintegro y Atención del Niño), which works under the supervision of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF). As a volunteer, she was leading a family group taking the AFC´s Toddler group model. Initially she planned it to be a toddler group, but the characteristics and necessity of the participants made her adjust the boundaries. Now she welcomes anyone who wants to join. The ICBF takes care of the children whose caregivers (usually parents) have been labelled as unsuited to keep looking after them. Then, all these children are allocated in different institutes, such as CRAN, under government protection. The children may take one of two paths: reintegration with their original or extended family, or adoption. CRAN takes care of children from 0 to 8 years old and its first and foremost objective is to reintegration. Families might regain custody of their children, if they manage to make required changes (i.e. therapy, modifications in their house, and arrangements for them to keep going to school among others) to prove they are suitable caregivers. The entire process may take at least 4 months, sometimes even 1 year, during which families are allowed a 3-hour visit to the children each week. Her group works with such families during their weekly visit. Just as with the Anna Freud Centre´s Parent-Toddler Groups, this group has a psychoanalytic orientation and aims at providing a “mental environment” that encourages reflectiveness. Through play and talk, they do their best to promote relationships based in trust between caregivers (parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts) and their children (Woods & Pretorius, 2011).  Each week she receives between 2 to 9 families, the majority of them have more than one child.  Just some of them stay the whole two hours, most of them come for a while (average 25 minutes) and go, but they keep coming every week. Caregivers have started to play more with their children and even with the group leads. "Some mothers “cook”, some fathers make music while others participate clapping. Children love to shout at me from the other side of the room when they are sharing a game “Look Maria-Paz, we are making turns!” And the best part for is when it’s time to say goodbye as they are going to reintegrate and I am certain the children will be better with them than at CRAN."



In 2010, they implemented a toddler group, following the model proposed by the AFC, at a women’s prison in Lima (Peru). Children born in prison must then be placed with a family member, or in less favorable cases, with a government institution, at the age of three. Social workers supervise the process, but there is no specific psychological space to guide these mothers and their children through this separation. This void led them to think about the importance given by the institution to caring for the minds of these mothers and children, and the consideration they give to each person’s subjective experience. This is especially important considering the crimes committed by the nine mothers that made up their group: homicide, terrorism, kidnapping, and drug trafficking; and the pasts they had “survived”, which also condemned them from a young age: sexual, physical and psychological abuse, abandonment, negligence, etc. Carrying out the toddler group within the prison was not an easy task, but after one year they think the mothers have started to see it as a space where freedom to act, feel and think was possible. At a Christmas gathering they gave the facilitators a mug with the word: Freedom. They themselves created a symbol based on the experiences they shared with the group. In the mug they saw a container, held by others, that allowed the mothers to taste the freedom to differentiate themselves and create their own space in which they could begin to assimilate the contents of their inner world.

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