Written by Keryn O’Neill, MA PGCertEdPsych, Knowledge Manager
The concept of “attachment” has found its way into much writing and talking about parenting, but what does it mean, and more importantly, how can parents help their child to develop a secure attachment?
Attachment is the lasting emotional bond that a child forms with a specific person that provides safety, comfort, soothing, and pleasure. Almost all children will develop an attachment but the nature of attachment varies, depending largely upon the care-giving style of their parents. Children who are securely attached are more likely to be resilient under stress, have better relationships, and enter school ready to learn.
Drawing on attachment research a group of American psychotherapists have developed a user-friendly graphic illustrating the different needs children have of their parents, named the Circle of Security (COS) (Cooper, Hoffman, Marvin & Powell, 1998). The hands represent the parent, and the circle represents the child moving away to explore and coming back when necessary.
To develop a secure attachment, children require their parents to fulfil two key roles. First, (on the top half of the circle) the parent’s role is to be a secure base from which the child can move away and explore their world. For a baby this may be subtle, looking away from mum as something catches their interest, for a toddler with new-found mobility, it may be more obvious! This is an important role as it is through exploration that a child’s learning occurs. Children are more likely to explore when they feel safe and look to their parents for cues that it is OK.
There are several distinct needs that a child has while exploring. Sometimes they need help, ideally just enough to do the task themselves, without the parent taking over. Children need their parents to enjoy their adventures and achievements with them, but they also need to know that their parents delight in them, just for being who they are (as distinct from what they do) and experiencing lots of genuine delight is likely to lead to a secure attachment.
Secondly, children need a safe haven (bottom half of the circle) to return to. Children come to their parents and move away over and over again. As children get older they are likely to venture further from their secure base, and stay away longer, but still need to know that they are welcome to come back. One of the needs on the bottom half of the circle, is help to organise their feelings. Babies and children need support when they face feelings that are too intense to manage by themselves. This support is most effective when parents accept the child’s feelings and don’t try to get them to feel something different. Easier said than done!
Being emotionally available to our children is necessary, just being physically present is not enough and even very young children will spot the difference, as adults do. For example, imagine how different it feels to talk to your partner who is really ‘with’ you compared with when they are listening – while watching TV! As parents we can be doing all the ‘right’ things but may allow ourselves to become too busy to really ‘be with’ our children. Can parents do this all the time? Of course not, but if we can really be with our children more often than not, and at times when they really need us, that is good enough. A secure attachment doesn’t mean always getting it right, but it does mean repairing the relationship when necessary.
Typically, parents feel more comfortable on one half of the circle than the other. They tend to overuse the role they are more comfortable with, for example, providing comfort, and underuse others, such as enjoying their child’s exploration. COS helps parents to understand this about themselves, and to develop those areas that are not strengths so that they can more effectively respond to their child.
Sometimes a child will let their parents know what they need in a direct way, for example raising their arms to be picked up; at other times they may be less direct, such as coming in close to their parent when they want a cuddle. However, if a child has learnt that their parent is uncomfortable meeting some of their needs they may behave in a misleading or contradictory way, for example, appearing as if they want to play when they actually need comfort. It can be helpful to consider what lies behind our children’s approaches to us. For example, asking for help with a task like putting on their socks may be more about seeking emotional support than actually requiring our help. Recognising this helps parents to respond more effectively to their child’s needs.
COS also helps parents understand what they bring to their relationship with their child, and how subjective their perceptions of their child can be. Parent’s own upbringing influences the areas which they struggle with and reflecting on their responses is vital. Certain needs of their child can activate painful feelings for the parent. For example, a parent may feel abandoned when their child is moving away from them, and may therefore encourage their child to be overly reliant on them (usually unconsciously). The child may then act like they need comfort a lot of the time.
None of us get it right all the time, and (thankfully!) it is not necessary to do so, but if we are trying to recognise and meet our child’s needs, both for attachment and exploration, they are off to a great start.
First published in Brainwave Trust Newsletter, Issue 11, June 2010
Cooper, G. (2009). Understanding Attachment: The Circle of Security Approach. Seminar at Auckland, NZ, 26th May 2009.
Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Marvin, R. and Powell, B. (1998). Circle of Security: Parent attending to the child’s needs. Available from https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/userfiles/Downloadable%20Handouts/full%20circle%20new.pdf (Original Circle)
Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Marvin, R. and Powell, B. (2000). Circle of Security: Treatment Assumptions. Available from https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/treatment-assumptions
Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., Marvin, R. and Powell, B. (2004) Travelling Around the Circle of Security. Available from https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/userfiles/Downloadable%20Handouts/COS_travelingaroundCOS.pdf
Dolby, R. (2007). The Circle of Security: Roadmap to building supportive relationships. Research in Practice Series, 14(4). Available from www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au.
Marvin, R., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K. and Powell, B. (2002) The Circle of Security project: Attachment-based intervention with caregiver-pre-school child dyads. Attachment and Human Development, 4(1), 107-124.
Powell, B. (2008). Understanding Attachment: The Circle of Security Approach. Seminar at Auckland, NZ, 24thOctober 2008.