The circle of security is a very valuable lesson on parenting that changed the way I parent my child. The circle is made for parents and their children, however it can often be applied to other relationships as well.
To begin this entry, I want to say that there are no perfect parents and everyone struggles at some point on the circle.
The top of the circle is where a child goes out to explore. The parent plays the part of the welcome arms, the secure base and safe haven. Exploration is necessary for every child’s development and they begin even as newborns. Their circles start out very, very small, such as looking around and then returning to the mother. A toddler and older children have larger circles that continue to grow. The parent’s role in their exploration is to support them. Talk to them about what they’re doing and be engaged. Help them when they need it. For a toddler, this will look like keeping an eye on them while they play and being engaged. The best way to support a child’s exploration is to narrate what they’re doing. For example, “Oh, did you find a lego? You’re putting the green lego on top of the red lego? Uh oh, did they fall down?” You don’t need to do this every second of every day but pay attention to your child’s cues. They can sense when you struggle with the top of the circle and that can cause miscues. If your child looks at you while playing, they want to know you’re there and you’re engaged with them. Even while doing work or chores, keeping an eye on them and engaging every so often is great and your child will feel more secure.
A child can sense that a parent is struggling with part of the circle as early as eleven months. When a parent has anxiety about letting a child explore, they can feel that. There are many parents who want to keep their children sheltered because they know they will be safe. Exploration is a huge part of growth and it’s important to give them that opportunity. Odds are, your child will be hurt at some point. I know that thought can be terrifying but they learn from it. A child who is locked away at home all the time with helicopter parents can grow to resent their parents for not allowing them to experience their childhood. Instead of sheltering them, allow them the opportunity to explore. If they are hurt, they will come back to you on the bottom of the circle and you can play your role as a parent by being the safe haven they can always return to. That gives children the freedom to make mistakes and the security of having a loving parent always there to fall back on. You can teach them how to be safe and give them the tools for success but mistakes are learning opportunities.
The bottom of the circle is where your child returns to you for comfort. In a small infant, this looks like them wanting to make eye contact with you or interact with you. You are their safe haven. In a toddler or older child, this looks like them coming back to you to connect and for comfort. The parent’s role in this situation is to provide that comfort and connection, but don’t judge it. There are no bad emotions and allowing your child to feel and explore those emotions will provide them with emotional security later in life. When your child is crying and comes to you for comfort, it’s important not to make them feel as though their feelings are invalid. When your child wants a red cup and you give them the blue cup because the red cup is in the dishwasher, and they cry and tantrum because they wanted the red cup, validate their feelings anyway. It might seem small to you but to them, its huge. They feel big feelings and those feelings are okay. My daughter is 18 months and tantrums when I won’t give her my water bottle. She always has her own and even if it’s full, for some reason mommy’s just looks so much better. I don’t like sharing because of the back wash and then she will often throw a tantrum. In this scenario, I comfort her so that she knows when she feels big feelings, even towards me, I’ll be there with her. But I won’t give in to her demands because I don’t want to teach her that crying will get her what she wants. I don’t ignore her because then she will feel like her feelings are unimportant to me.
A parent that struggles with the bottom of the circle often is overwhelmed by a child’s big emotions. These parents often never had a safe haven to run to and feel uncomfortable with it because they have no experience with it. As someone who has always repressed my feelings due to the invalidation from my parents, I often struggle to let Salma in when she needs it. I have no idea what to do sometimes because no one has ever done it for me. This one is hard to break. What I do is I hug her and tell her “mommy’s here” and stroke her back until she calms down. Every parent and every child is different so this might not work for everyone, but I recommend exploring different ways to comfort until you find one that feels comfortable for both of you.
When parents struggle with part of the circle, children can sense it and that causes miscues. When a parent struggles with the top of the circle, a child might act like they want comfort and protection when they actually want to explore. When a parent struggles with the bottom of the circle, a child might act like they want to explore when they really just want comfort. I never thought I struggled with the top of the circle until I learned about miscues and I realized that Salma does come to me acting like she needs comfort but she really just wants to play. It hit me that I tend to check out whenever Salma is playing. I am not engaged with her at all and just leaving her to her own devices. Once I realized this, I made an effort to engage with her. We colored together for the first time and she had a lot of fun. She’s also been much better about not miscuing me.
I highly recommend googling the circle of security. The founders of it have tons of free YouTube videos with in-depth lessons on it. Even while you’re healing, it’s important to repair the bond with your child and to help them feel secure so that you can break the cycle. Like I said, no one is perfect and every parent struggles somewhere on the circle. However, what matters is the effort you put in. As long as it’s good enough, your child will feel secure with you.