Friday, August 21, 2015

Being "Good Enough" on the Circle of Security®

This is a follow-up to our original post on the Circle of Security®.

Parents function both as a “secure base” from which their child can explore the world and as a “safe haven” to which the child can return when she needs comforting or reassurance. When we (as parents) can do a good enough job at this, our children will feel comfortable going out and discovering the world, learning new things all the time. They will also feel good about seeking help and support from others, whenever they need it, and to share their experiences so they don’t feel alone.

Typically, people are stronger on one side on the circle than the other. Some parents are much better at supporting independence and exploration (the top half of the circle). And some of us love to cuddle and protect, supporting safety (the bottom half of the circle). Take a moment to look around the circle and see where you feel the strongest!

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This Circle of Security® (see this blog post from 27 May 2015) starts to develop in the first year of life. As we grow from being a baby to being a child, and from a child into an adult, we internalize over time how these needs are met. “When I am scared, I can go to my dad and he will comfort me” or “when I am excited about a new toy, my mom will enjoy with me and she will let me take my time to explore it.”  We usually can’t put these lessons into words very easily, but we feel them in our whole being. 

You may notice that you find yourself uncomfortable with the opposite side. For instance, a parent who loves to stimulate independence may cringe at “coddling” their baby. Such parents are wary of creating a child that becomes overly dependent and can’t do anything on its own. On the other hand, a parent who loves to keep their child safe and secure may become anxious at letting the child roam too far. Such a parent may just want to protect their child from anything, whether it is truly dangerous or simply threatening the parent’s own sense of security.

For example, some parents have a hard time hearing their baby cry or seeing their older child upset. Most of us want to see our children happy! Parents who feel secure with unpleasant emotions know that children learn resilience and problem-solving from having difficult experiences. But some parents feel threatened by their children’s suffering, and it upsets them personally. This is related to the parent’s temperament but also to how their own Circle of Security developed when they were children. You can’t give what you do not have.

Young children are sensitive to emotions and to subtle expressions in parents’ faces, bodies, and voices. And when they notice that their parent is not comfortable with certain aspects of the Circle, children quickly learn to miscue their needs. Even though children do not come with a written manual, they all give out cues for what they need. These cues are signals for specific needs that the child has. For instance, reaching out his arms and looking up at his caregiver are cues that a baby wants to be picked up and be close to his mom or dad. Before they are a year old, infants learn that their caregivers are comfortable with some cues, but not comfortable with others. Discovering this (all without words), babies begin to send out “miscues” – a cue that is misleading or contradicts what the child really needs.

For example, if a parent really values independence, they may encourage their child to self-soothe, solve their own problems before helping them, and playing independently as much as they can. But all children need both halves of the circle. If the parent feels uneasy about comforting their child when she is upset, the child may learn that the only way to get the parents attention is by becoming whiney, or defiant, or out of control (whatever it is that catches the parent’s attention). So the need in this case would be: “I need closeness and comfort, mom” but the cue might be “I’m acting out so that you have to pay attention to me.” Some children learn to not express their needs at all, and they seem to communicate “I don’t need anyone”, while they still do.

As a real-life example, consider a 4-year-old girl who bumps into her little brother as she comes running through the room and crashes into her mom. Her mom is not happy with this and asks, “What did you do that for?” The girl shows a wide grin and her mom gets more irritated, “It’s not funny. You just hurt me, and you hurt your little brother, too. You’d better go into time out for a few minutes!” Upon this, the girl starts to whine, “No”, and she lets herself fall onto the floor. Later, they talk about it and she says, “Mommy, I was just afraid you were going to go away and I didn’t know when you would be back.” The child’s need in this case is closeness to the mom, and being assured that the mom will not leave her (or will be back soon). But the cue that the child gave was: I need boundaries and discipline, as I am hurting you and others. This is a miscue. If the parents only focus on the behavior, the issue is likely to continue, because the child’s need (for reassurance) is not met.

Miscues are very hard to deal with, because they are usually not obvious. As parents, we always need to figure out what is going on when children act out or get upset. Some patterns are clearly recognizable and straightforward (e.g., she acts like this when she is tired; she just needs a nap).  Others are not: we may keep correcting our child’s behavior over and over again, unsuccessfully, because the outward behavior is a miscue of what the real underlying need is. As parents, we can only try to find out what it is that the child needs. And trying to do this, until we find how to help our child, makes us good enough parents, even if we don’t get it right the first time!


We all have learned which cues (for which needs) are safe, and which ones we’d better cover up or ‘translate’ into another cue. As a parent, it is really hard to know sometimes what it is that your child needs in that moment. Sometimes, it is love, hugs, and acknowledgement of emotions (the bottom half of the circle). Sometimes, it is clear expectations for what the limits are (the top half of the circle). Often, if we are baffled by our child’s behavior, it is because they miscue us. It is up to us to do the detective work to find out what the underlying need on the circle is! 

-Ilse

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