By Pam Ponich, LCPC
Intermountain Clinical Supervisor
Abigail watched from behind the one-way mirror, amazed as her 10 month-old son Eli briefly explored the playroom, scurrying on all fours, picked up (and tasted) a few plastic blocks, then sat up and suddenly looked around. Realizing that his mom was nowhere in the room Eli crawled to the door and began to whimper and then wail (REALLY loudly). When she came back into the room, Eli hurried to her and stretched out his arms, tearful eyes begging to be scooped up. Abigail obliged and instinctively picked up her infant son, hugging him close and cooing, “It’s okay honey, mommy’s here.”
Little Eli instantly calmed in the safety of his mother’s arms. And then, once again, he was off to check out the wonders of the playroom. “I never knew I was so important to him,” Abigail said later. While parents usually see their baby as the center of their worlds, having planned for and waited in anticipation for their little bundle of joy for nine months, it is rare that they realize how important THEY are to their children. Sure, they are the source of their food, shelter and dry diapers but beyond that, what more could an infant even care about?
As it turns out, babies need much more from their parents. In fact, over 50 years of attachment research has proven that THE most important gift that caregivers give is the gift of safety. In order to develop and thrive, babies have to know that there are adults in their world that will always be there for them, but not only to feed them and keep them in dry diapers. Even more important is the trust that comes from knowing that whatever happens, their caregiver will be there for them and that therefore their world is safe.
It has become increasingly evident in recent years that parents can use some help understanding how important they are to their children and how to show them they are truly there for them, holding them in their hearts and minds and keeping them safe. This is where Circle of Security Parenting© comes in. Circle of Security© is a model developed several years ago by a team of child/family therapists in Spokane, WA who understood that by helping parents identify and meet their children’s emotional needs, they could go a long way to build secure, strong attachments in families. And, what attachment research tells us is that by building healthy attachments in early childhood, children will ultimately grow to develop higher self-esteem, stronger academic, vocational and social skills and are much more likely to live happy, successful lives.
The tenets of Circle of Security© are so simple, yet so easily missed by even the most well-meaning new parents. In a nutshell, COS teaches that parents/caregivers absolutely MUST be a safe “secure base” for their children so that they learn to trust the world. Though parents do not need to be perfect by any means, it IS very important that young children learn by experience that, when they have emotional needs, e.g., to be comforted, to be enjoyed, to have help in organizing their difficult feelings, that their parents are there for them.
One of the most basic but most important tools taught by the Circle of Security© method is to simply be with your child. That is, no matter what is going on, no matter how fussy, or upset, or playful your child is you are truly “there” for her, attuning to her feelings and needs and unconditionally just being fully present. The power of this is immense. And it sounds so easy, right? Unfortunately, in our busy, multi-tasking, technology-filled lives it is actually a huge challenge. We are far too frequently NOT truly available to and emotionally present to our little ones. Babies give us cues as to what they need hundreds of times a day and sadly, many of these are missed while we are on our “smart” phones (not so “smart” in the world of healthy attachment, by the way), working on our computers or watching the evening news. And, since babies are born wired for relationships, they will continue to let their caregivers know what they need, even if they need to get loud and distressed to do so. But if they learn that becoming upset, scared and fussy (like little Eli when his mom left the room) is the way to get their emotional needs met, they are likely to continue this negative “connection-seeking” into their later years.
What Circle of Security© teaches parents is that by simply paying better attention to our children and meeting their needs for connection and closeness up front (“filling their emotional cup”), that they will feel more relaxed, content and safe. And once this sense of safety is established, our children will more readily and confidently explore their surroundings, learning and growing with each new discovery.
Pam Ponich, LCPC, been a child and family therapist for over 20 years. She is currently a Clinical Supervisor at Intermountain and has a small private practice in Helena. She has a passion for prevention and early intervention and specializes in attachment and parenting challenges. She is also a certified Circle of Security Parenting trainer. Ponich will offer a Circle of Security class in January. Call Intermountain at 406-457-4810 to learn more.