A preschooler waits for his mother’s reassuring smile before joining other children on the jungle gym. A one-year-old calms instantly when her dad lifts her onto his lap, even though he’s talking on the phone. An older child manages his stage fright when he sees his mom in the audience nodding in empathy and support.

As fleeting as these micro-gestures are, each of them telegraphs a secure attachment—a special, trusting emotional bond—between a child and their caregiver. This kind of relationship is key to healthy development, say psychotherapists Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell. In their new book, Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore, the authors guide parents toward creating this kind of enduring bond with their children.

The Guilford Press, 2017, 280 pages

Parenting for a secure attachment has two themes: 1) providing comfort when needed and 2) offering the freedom to explore when desired. It’s a simple concept, but one that can be complex to manifest in the rush of everyday life. That’s why a book like this can be a crucial tool for parents.

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Research over many decades has shown that a secure relationship is the most important foundation of effective parenting. Children who have secure attachments tend to be happier, kinder, more socially competent, and more trusting of others, and they have better relations with parents, siblings, and friends. They do better in school, stay physically healthier, and create more fulfilling relationships as adults.

Unfortunately, there is confusion in the popular media about what a secure attachment is and how to foster it. This is partly because scientists have done a poor job at communicating the idea beyond the walls of academe. Additionally, the term “attachment parenting” has been co-opted by a philosophical movement that promotes parenting practices (such as natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping) that have not proven to be related to a secure attachment. For these reasons, Raising a Secure Child is a much-needed course correction.

What secure attachment looks like

As the authors describe it, a secure attachment is a “confidence and trust in the goodness of me, you, us” that a person carries throughout their daily life. It is the sense of being loved and supported no matter what happens. And when children feel secure, a world of possibilities opens up.

Hoffman, Cooper, and Powell distill the wisdom of attachment theory into an accessible and practical approach called the Circle of Security. The circle represents the ebb and flow of how babies and young children need their caregivers—at times coming close for care and comfort, and at other times following their inspiration to explore the world around them. The caregivers’ role is to tune in to where on the circle their child is at the moment and act accordingly.

Drawing on 30 years of working with children and families, the authors show how parents may feel discomfort or have difficulties with various parts of the circle. These difficulties arise from parents’ own childhood experiences and attachment styles, and, unfortunately, they can interfere with the formation of a secure attachment.

For example, a parent may rebuff a toddler’s need for comfort, believing that doing so will make the child more independent. But decades of research show that children need to feel secure in their relationships before they can develop authentic autonomy. Another parent may have difficulty with the exploration phase, fearing for their child’s safety. If they convey this anxiety to the child, they can send the message that the world is not safe or, worse, that the child isn’t competent. These children can become overly dependent on their parents.

Through their kind and compassionate writing style, the authors model the tone they ask parents to take with their children. They do not prescribe specific parenting behaviors but rather ask parents to pay attention to their own emotions and what they communicate to their children:

The youngest babies can sense ease versus impatience, delight versus resentment or irritation, comfort versus restlessness, genuine versus pretending, or other positive versus negative responses in a parent when these reactions aren’t evident to a casual observer. Little babies may pick up on the smallest sigh, the subtlest shift in tone of voice, a certain glance, or some type of body language and know the parent is genuinely comfortable or definitely not pleased.

No one can be attuned to another person at all times, though. In fact, the authors assert that the myth of “complete availability” actually undermines a child’s development. Ruptures, small and large, happen all the time in the fabric of human relationships, and so it becomes important that repairs, small and large, become second nature to parents. Caregivers may be relieved to know that children are not keeping a parenting score, but rather assessing whether the relationship is safe and secure overall. Good enough is truly good enough.

Parenting for a secure attachment helps parents to let go of any pressures they feel to constantly prepare their child for the future, which can inadvertently fill children with anxiety. Instead, it requires “being with” or cultivating sensitivity to what children are feeling at the moment and helping them label, understand, and manage their feelings…or simply sitting still and waiting with kindness and understanding they have their feelings. As psychiatrist Dan Siegel says, “feeling felt” is one of the most important needs children have.

How to read this book

Raising a Secure Child is neither a quick read nor a how-to, but instead invites thoughtful reflection from the reader. Some important points, however, are left undeveloped. For example, a short insert briefly acknowledges that babies’ temperaments matter, when developmental science has found baby temperament to be quite important.

Also, though the book is based on science, Raising a Secure Child lacks references. This leaves readers wondering which claims are based on research, clinical experience, or just sound conventional wisdom. And there are some near missteps: The reader has to look closely to see that the authors are claiming that parents and other adults, not just mothers in particular, can form secure attachments.

Finally, wisps of outdated theories can be found in the book. For example, the authors present the psychoanalytic “object relations” idea that babies begin as “one” with the mother and have to “split” to form a sense of self. This theory is not supported in modern developmental cognitive science.

These minor flaws notwithstanding, Raising a Secure Child is one of the most important contributions to the parenting literature in years. It is a much-needed correction to the confusion of “attachment parenting,” and fills a gap by focusing on the elusive, ephemeral flow of emotions between children and the adults who care for them. The guidance is offered with an understated grace and poetry, as the authors soothe the parents’ own attachment history to ease their relationship with their children.

I imagine that any parent’s nervous system will calm when reading that “every heart is still seeking the love it was born to know.”

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