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Like Waves on the Beach: The Circle of Security

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

My earliest memory is of my mother’s voice. She was calling my name. “Karyn! Karyn!” But the urgency of her voice couldn’t quite cut through my toddler fascination with the foamy, knee-deep ocean surf in which I was splashing.

I was a long-legged one-year-old in a salmon-colored bathing suit, having the time of my life on Virginia Beach, where my family spent the summer of 1990. I could smell sunscreen and ocean brine; I could feel the cool water on my skin and the sloppy sand between my toes; I was tiny and joyful and free. There was so much to explore.

“Karyn! Karyn! Look out!”

I don’t know if it was the tone of my mother’s voice that finally got my attention, or if I simply turned to see where all the water had suddenly gone as the surf sucked it back out. All I remember is turning around and seeing a huge, towering wave blotting out the sun, curling over me, its dark underside all mottled green-and-blue. All I remember is the sheer terror I felt as the giant wave crashed over my head.

It wasn’t a giant wave; it was probably about four feet high, which I suppose is giant enough for a one-year-old. My mom reached me seconds afterwards, scooped me up, wiped saltwater out of my eyes, and cuddled me. She told me years later that I stopped shrieking pretty quickly, and within moments, was back to exploring the beach as if nothing had happened.

When it comes to attachment, children really only have two basic needs.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who fathered Attachment Theory in the 1950s, identified these needs as “Secure Base”—a child’s need for a secure and stable base from which to venture out and explore the world—and “Safe Haven”—a child’s need for a refuge to which she can return for comfort and nurture. Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, the clinicians who wrote the book Raising A Secure Child some sixty years after Bowlby, took these needs and placed them on a diagram of a circle, which they called the Circle of Security.

Hoffman, Cooper, and Powell wrote that children are always, at any given moment, somewhere on this Circle. Either they are going out (on the top of the circle), exploring from their Secure Base, or they are coming in (on the bottom of the circle), needing comfort and reassurance. Attunement, the most essential task of secure parenting, is simply being able to identify (often subconsciously or in a place beneath language) where your child is on the Circle and to meet them there in that need for either Secure Base or Safe Haven.

This is what was happening between me and my mother on the beach all those years ago; she was holding a Circle of Security for me, standing back to let me explore, and then swooping in the moment she identified I was in over my head (literally, in this case) and in need of safety, comfort, and a little emotional regulation. Then, once that need had been fulfilled, I was back to the top of the Circle again, venturing out and exploring.

The Circles children walk—or crawl—when they are young are, for the most part, quite small.

The nine-month-old crawls across the room to get a closer look at the cat. The cat bats curiously at the baby, and he gets scared and starts to cry. Dad swoops in to pick him up and reassure him that he’s safe. It’s a small Circle; it happens in less than a minute.

Seven or eight years later, this same boy ventures out on a much bigger Circle, going to a friend’s house for his first sleepover. At 9pm, he calls home because he’s a little scared to be sleeping in a strange place. Dad talks to him for a few minutes, holds a little space for his fear, and asks if he wants to come home. But Dad’s emotional attunement is all the boy needed; calmed and comforted, he tells his dad he’d like to stay for the rest of the night. That larger Circle took a few hours to complete.

Fast forward another decade. The boy is eighteen, a freshman in college, busy making friends and running late to class and pulling all-nighters as he tries to get his study habits under control. He’s living in the dorms, a few hours’ drive away from home; he doesn’t call home very often—maybe only once every few days, just often enough to refresh the sense of security he internalized from his dad long ago. He’s practicing bigger and bigger Circles, but he doesn’t always do it perfectly. One night, he goes to a party and drinks too much. Another time, he fails a final. He experiences his first heartbreak, his first financial crisis, and his first car accident that year. He still needs his dad’s support and guidance, in the exact same way he needed it as a nine-month-old. The Circle has only gotten bigger. This is healthy development, the fruit of good-enough parenting.

Wait a second. If parenting is really that simple, how come we all feel like we’re screwing it up all the time?

Well, perhaps because we are. For secure attachment to form, parents only need to get it right—to be accurately attuned and responsive to Secure Base and Safe Haven needs—a mere 30% of the time.

That’s right. You can literally get it wrong seven out of ten times, and your kids will still be okay. This is because of a beautiful process known as “Rupture and Repair,” where your fumbles and oversights and moments of misattunement become opportunities for apology, reconnection, and resilience-building between you and your children. They learn through watching you that you don’t have to be perfect to have a healthy relationship, that love can bear the weight of many mistakes, and that it’s safe to admit when you get it wrong.

There is one more reason, though, that this simple Circle of Security is so hard to hold for our children. The truth is, even though it only takes a 30% success rate to achieve secure attachment, many of us did not receive even that. In fact, at least half of us were raised with a parent whose attunement skills were so poor that they could not identify and meet our needs even 30% of the time.

What happens to children who don’t experience enough attunement and responsiveness?

Insecure attachment happens. This can look like patterns of avoidant attachment, where a child’s emotional needs are so infrequently met that they learn not to expect it or even ask for it anymore, and they numb their emotions to avoid feeling the pain of unmet needs. This can also look like patterns of anxious attachment, where a child’s emotional needs are met inconsistently, leaving them preoccupied with abandonment—whether or not anyone will be there to catch them when they fall—and forced into expressions of heightened distress to increase the chances that someone will notice their needs. In extreme cases, where caregivers are not just misattuned but frightening and unpredictable, this can look like patterns of disorganized attachment, where attachment strategies collapse altogether because the one from whom the child most needs comfort is also the one whom the child most fears—an irresolvable dilemma.

Most adults—even those who are basically secure—contain more than one attachment style within them because attachment styles are simply survival strategies for different relational contexts. When we become parents, however, these strategies that once helped us survive suddenly start causing problems—and those problems directly impact the wellbeing of our children.

It can be painful to recognize that the ways you had to adapt to survive have contributed to your child having to make the very same adaptations. But if you have disconnected from your emotions and needs, the result is that you are less likely to identify emotional needs in others, including your child, and you are less equipped to meet them. And if your attachment anxiety leaves you preoccupied with your own emotional distress, you are likely to function with some level of inconsistency or overwhelm for your child. So we replicate the same circumstances that originally wounded us.

The good news is, there is a way out.

Attachment can heal. The science of attachment shows that making sense of your story, creating a meaningful narrative out of your attachment history, contributes to what is known as “earned security”—the ability to raise secure children even if you have an insecure past. By reconnecting all the pieces of yourself you once disconnected, or by soothing the chronic attachment anxiety with which you’ve lived your whole life, you can actually learn to give your children something you never received yourself.

You can be the start of a legacy of security in your family.

My dad had to figure out how to be an attuned father without much of a template to work with; growing up, he missed out on many experiences of nurture from his own father. But one of my most precious memories of my dad is when he came to visit me when I was a sophomore in college. It was a couple of months after a life-altering diagnosis; I had gone back to school still raw and unstable—a wobbly venturing out on the top of the Circle. It didn’t go well. I crashed hard. And my dad drove out one weekend to be my Safe Haven. I remember sitting with him on the floor of my dorm room, my head on his knee, while we cried together for the pain he couldn’t fix for me. I remember even then being grateful that I had a father who could let me see him cry; his attunement with my anguish in that moment meant more than any words ever could have.

This memory came back to me last night, as I sat on my bed cradling my sobbing toddler. Somehow, through all her primal shrieking and flailing in the midst of a catastrophic meltdown, I found a place of calm and steady attunement within me. Because my dad had once shown me what it means to sit in the unsolvable hurt and just be, just offer presence, I knew how to hold my little girl until she grew still. I could just be and just breathe, until her sobs turned to hiccups and her hiccups turned to the deep, slow rhythm of sleep.

And because I am able to do this for her, I can trust that she will know how to do this for her own children, if she chooses to have them someday. In and out, in and out, the Circle keeps going, like the waves on the beach, like breathing, generation after generation. Each looping of this Circle, within you and within your children, is an invitation to security.

It’s never too late to accept it.

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