The Duchess of Cambridge and the Wonders of the Attachment Theory
It is fair to say that psychology and psychotherapy’s courses, trainings and events are rarely “trendy”, they never really make the news. Therefore, yesterday I was rather excited when I found that, following the visit of the Duchess of Cambridge at the Henry Fawcett Children's Centre, Kensington Palace posted about the Circle of Security parenting program on Twitter and Instagram.
You most likely have never heard about the Circle of Security. I did not either until two years ago when my lovely brain twin colleague and friend Eleni from Barcelona invited me to join her for this training at the Centre at St Mary’s in London and we became qualified Circle of Security (COS-P ) facilitators.
I can say that it was by far one of the most illuminating of my career as a Counselling Psychologist and Systemic Family Psychotherapist.
And the most mind blowing and game changer learning experience as a parent.
Based on John Bowlby's Theory of Attachment and its subsequent developments by Mary Ainsworth , The Circle of Security® is an early intervention program created by Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman and Bert Powell , three psychologists based in Spokane, Washington, who have been working together for decades.
Led by a Circle of Security trained Facilitator, the program consists of 8 sessions in which parents - generally in a group setting but can also be on a one -to-one basis- have the opportunity to really think about their child’s emotional needs and at the same time to effectively learn how to respond to them.
Most parents nowadays tend to constantly ask themselves questions, often self doubting their behaviours and responses to their children. Am I doing this right? Am I protecting my child enough? Is my son going to be strong and brave, am I preparing my daughter enough for the challenges ahead?
It is indeed very hard to find a balance between protecting our children and giving them the autonomy to explore their environment.
According to the Attachment Theory, a child needs to be securely attached to their caregiver in order to become a confident adult.
But what does “securely attached” exactly means? How do we manage that as parents?
Attachment is one of our primary needs as humans and it is built in our nervous system. From the minute we are born, we immediately seek for a human connection, for an adult caregiver who can protect us when we are distressed and can respond to our needs. Based on the caregiver ‘s availability and response, the child will develop a pattern of attachment .
Through repetition of positive interactions, children with a secure attachment learn that they can rely on the caregiver who can help them regulating their feelings, making sense of their internal and external world.
Conversely, if a child learns that the primary caregiver is consistently not available in times of need, she may develop an insecure attachment, which increases the likelihood of suffering from emotional or behavioural problems.
The good news is that parents can be supported and taught to enhance positive attachments by becoming more aware of their interactions with their children and of their needs.
The Circle of Security provides a very effective drawing to show how a parent can raise a secure child: the child must be able to move on the Circle, to go and come back.
In this drawing, the hands in the Circle are the Parent .
The aim is not to be a perfect parent but a "good enough" parent, able to act as a safe base that encourages their child to explore their environment, to be curious and free to learn, building a strong self-esteem. At the same time, parents need also to be the safe haven, the open arms ready to welcome their child back after their exploration and whenever they need protection and help to make sense of what they are feeling and experiencing. In other words, they have to be emotionally available when the children will look for reassurance.
Through reflections, questions on videos and clips, participants of the Circle of Security program will have the chance to think about their parenting, on how their own experience of being parented may be influencing the way they respond to their children’s needs.
They will learn that as human beings, we all have our “core sensitivities”, defences that we inadvertently put in place when we struggle in our interactions with others and that are based on our internalised experiences of relationships with parents and significant others. Basically, on our own attachment history.
In my clinical practice, I notice every day how our attachment style as parents, our own experiences of being parented and our strategies to protect ourselves from pain are interlinked. But this does not mean that we cannot change, quite the opposite.
Bianca (fictional name), for instance, is a fully hands on, loving and dedicated mother, who nevertheless finds it extremely hard to comfort her 4 years old Oliver when he gets angry or frustrated. Her stress levels rise up . She feels her son should just be happy and grateful for all the love he receives and not being able to calm Oliver down or take the anger away from him is really upsetting for Bianca. Looking at her own history, it turns out that when she was a little girl, Bianca did not have emotionally available parents to turn up to when she was upset. Preoccupied by their own distress at work and in their rocky marital relationship, Bianca’s parents were unable to notice and contain her “ugly” emotions such as anger or sadness.
She had to manage on her own and over time she developed an involuntary coping strategy: “swallowing “ her feelings and keeping them in, at such a deeper, internal level that as an adult she is often not even aware of her negative emotions which however are still there and affect her.
Her own defences make it hard for her to accept, contain her son’s feelings and to comfort him. Through various activities that invite reflection and promote awareness, the Circle of Security help the parents identifying what makes them uncomfortable and what may be in the way when they try to understand and respond to their children’s needs.
What struck me the most from the Circle of Security program is that unlike most parenting classes , groups or trainings, the target is at a much more profound level than simple child behaviour management. In this approach, the aim is to guide the parents in understanding what is underneath the behaviour or acting out, what need is the child actually communicating to the caregiver? As the three founders of the COS-P would say, what is “hidden in plain sight”? Is it the need of being comforted? Could it be that this child is desperately seeking help in making sense of her own emotions?
Once we start to see to see the world and relationships through the lens of Attachment , fortunately it is not possible to go back. Scattered pieces of a multi-dimensional puzzle start to come together and new meanings arise. Relationships make much more sense, the role we play in them, our expectations on others, the defences we may adopt, our parenting style and how our parents brought us up.
After various trainings based on Attachment Theory that I have done in the last decade , as a Counselling Psychologist and in particular as a Family Therapist for whom the focus on relationships is omnipresent, I honestly cannot think how mental health clinicians could work without it
Similarly, we tend to forget that just a few decades ago children that needed to be hospitalised in UK were mostly not able to see their parents during their stay at the hospital, causing an unimaginable amount of psychological distress to the children and most likely compromising their recovery . How could we not see how harmful it was?
It is also significant that Bowlby himself was raised by a nanny who was his main attachment figure (she then left when he was four) and he only saw his mother one or two hours per day.
The eye-opening work of John Bowlby revolutionised the way we perceive children and their needs, and the Attachment Theory applications to therapy and to early intervention are just invaluable. Spreading this understanding and knowledge will undoubtedly make relationships easier, allowing the experience of parenting to be even more rewarding and the children to grow up as confident, optimistic and secure adults able to form fulfilling relationships.
The acknowledgement and the endorsement of the Circle of Security by the Duchess of Cambridge is indeed an excellent step in that direction.
(To know more about the Circle of Security visit https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com and if you would like to take part in one in Angel Islington visit the “parenting groups” on this website https://www.cityandangelpsychotherapy.co.uk/parenting-groups)