The Circle of Security is a way to understand how you as a parent need to attend to your child's needs. Dr. Nanika Coor explains the concept of the circle and what it means to be a secure base and a safe haven for your child.
Your child came into existence with an instinct to seek closeness to a special person who will provide comfort, protection, and help with overwhelming emotional experiences. Your child also has an inborn drive to follow their curiosity and desires for learning and mastery. As children develop, they move between these two needs, seeking attachment or mastery, hundreds of times each day, usually without much warning.
It takes a sensitively attuned caregiver to understand what a child needs. And even when you can guess what they need, it’s not always easy to meet it. It can be slightly uncomfortable or profoundly frightening to meet some of your child’s needs, particularly if many of your own needs for autonomy and attachment went unmet in your childhood.
The good news is that when you’re able to understand what’s really happening with your child, you can see what they need in the moment. And you can consciously choose to meet that need through your relationship with them. You can break generational patterns of parent-child disconnection and pass down connection instead.
The creators of the Circle of Security parenting intervention designed a graphic to give parents a visual way of understanding the relational dance of secure attachment. The “parent” is depicted as two hands at the narrow end of the left side of an oval, i.e. "the circle." The child begins here, at the "secure base," and then moves away from the parent to explore the world at the far end of the oval. When the child experiences an internal or external sense of threat or danger, the child moves back towards the parent on the left side of the oval, towards the "safe haven."
Let’s take a closer look.
When your child needs you to be a secure base
When you’ve just filled your child’s connection cup, they feel confident, calm, and safe. Their nervous system is at equilibrium, allowing their exploratory system to do its thing.
Now they’re on the top of the circle, ready to venture away from you to explore their environment and go where their curiosity takes them. You might feel tempted to push your child to do things they don’t have the ability to do yet, focus solely on what your child accomplishes or achieves, or rush in to help them do it “right”. But instead, your job is to monitor their safety, to be interested and delighted in them and what they’re doing, and to be available when and if they need you.
Sometimes you might stand back and take their perspective and talk about what you guess they are seeing, hearing, or feeling: “I see you frowning—it seems like you’re really angry with me.” Or, “I’m wondering if all this jumping around means you’re excited to see your grandma!”
Secure Base Needs:
- “Watch over me and keep me safe.”
- “Delight in me by taking joy in me for who I am and what I’m doing.”
- “Enjoy with me as we do mutually fun things together.”
- “Help me, but just enough that I can do it by myself.”
Show that you welcome them coming to you by being emotionally available, accepting, and empathetic.
When your child needs you to be a safe haven
When your child is upset, injured, out of control, feels unsafe, or is overwhelmed by emotions they don’t understand, they often need to reconnect with you physically and emotionally to start feeling safe and calm again. Your child is now moving toward you on the bottom of the circle, and it needs to be okay with you that your child needs you. Your child’s proverbial "cup" is empty and they need a refill from you. They need you to figure out and offer what they need to help quiet their attachment system.
Show that you welcome them coming to you by being emotionally available, accepting, and empathetic. If you can, get on their level. Have a kind facial expression, give warm eye contact, understanding, and validation. Help your child recognize, label, make meaning of, and learn to tolerate their big emotions.
Safe Haven Needs:
- “Protect me from harm and danger.”
- “Comfort me when I’m in distress.”
- “Delight in me when I am vulnerable or struggling.”
- “Help me organize my emotions when they don’t make sense to me.”
When your child needs you to take charge
Whether your child has a need for connection or exploration, they always need you to be "bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind." Developing the wisdom to balance being bigger/stronger with being kind is no easy task for parents who experienced their own parents as mean, weak, or distant instead. Still, your child has a fundamental need for you to be a benevolent leader, facilitator, and guide as they journey toward adulthood.
To feel securely attached to you, your child needs to be able to count on you to take charge and set limits when it’s necessary, hold them when they’re scared, and co-regulate them when they’re out of control. They will sometimes push limits in an effort to seek reassurance that someone is in charge and will keep them safe. If you don’t give them that reassurance, they will push more limits and try even harder to meet that need.
Parent’s Hands-On-the-Circle Needs:
- Always: be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.
- When possible: follow your child’s need
- When necessary: take charge
When your past experiences of disconnection interfere with meeting your child’s needs
When a child’s relational needs go unmet, they will experience a feeling of utter aloneness and disconnection that their developing minds can’t bear for more than a few moments. This experience of actual or perceived abandonment is so dysregulating, threatening, and distressing that the child develops defensive strategies to protect themselves against it.
You may have learned in childhood that you needed to hide your need for comfort or need to explore from your parents because you sensed that that made them uncomfortable and drove them away. So you unconsciously hid your true need for comfort or mastery in an attempt to stay physically and emotionally close enough to your protective adult to feel safe. Expressing a false need instead meant you avoided the psychic pain that comes with the experience of abandonment and feeling unprotected. Now, as an adult, you may present yourself as self-contained and aloof when in fact you are lonely or sad and longing for connection or comfort. There’s an instinct you have to hide the sadness because if you show it, you’ll end up feeling worse.
As a parent, you may find yourself not only avoiding your own sadness but also shifting into a state of fight/flight/freeze when your child expresses sadness or a real need you didn’t feel safe expressing as a child. The creators of the Circle of Security map refer to this feeling that arises in you as “Shark Music”—the ominous music preceding the appearance of the bloodthirsty shark in the 1975 film Jaws. Your shark music triggers you to try to protect your child from that danger by passing on the same lesson: sadness isn’t safe to express. Practice hearing and feeling your shark music, but inhibiting the urge to act on it. Instead, call up your compassion for yourself and for your child, and give them what you know they need.
Sometimes your "Shark Music" wins out. Choosing to get your hands back on the circle means repairing that rupture.
When your child’s needs go unmet
There will be times that you recognize that you can’t, won’t, or didn’t meet your child’s needs. Sometimes you will have to attend to another child, go to work, or take a shower. And sometimes your shark music wins out. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s inevitable that you will step out of the circle at times. When you are not playing your role of being the “hands” on the circle—for whatever reason—there is a rupture in the relationship with your child.
Choosing to get your hands back on the circle means repairing that rupture. Acknowledge to your child that there’s been a rupture and how it must have felt for them for their needs to go unmet. Collaborate with your child to think of ways you might handle things differently in the future. Repairing your relationship with your child makes it stronger. Sweeping the rupture under the rug compromises the relationship. When you don’t help your child make sense of what happened and make it clear you’re committed to finding ways of being emotionally available for them when they’re feeling distressed, your child comes to their own conclusion: my true needs and feelings are unacceptable.
Here’s your challenge for the next 30-90 days. Start noticing the body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that automatically arise in you in response to your child’s expressions of different feelings and needs. Which of your child’s needs trigger your shark music? Which needs feel easy to meet? Which needs are you only now realizing are there? Let me know what you discover!
Your child’s first relationship is with you and they learn about you, themselves, and the world within that relationship. Even when you aren’t in your child’s presence, when they’ve grown up and moved out, their internalized sense of being with you impacts their experiences in life.
Ghosts of your past and your parent’s past and their parents’ past can unconsciously intrude on your ability to care for your child in the present. The cycle-breaking antidote is parental consciousness.
You can choose to show your own children that experiencing and expressing the full range of emotions is normal and acceptable. When you consistently meet your child’s fundamental needs, you’re creating a healthy environment for your child’s cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. You’re paving the way for an adulthood where your child can rely on themselves and others and navigate the world successfully because they experience their internal landscape, others, and the world as safe. And you taught them how.