The Power of the Secure Base

Sometimes parents worry the focus on promoting emotional health and meeting children’s needs will create very dependent children who are unable to stand on their own two feet.

How infants and children learn to feel secure

Theories about letting babies “cry it out,” or not coming to the aid of an older child who calls out for help, so these children will learn to be independent may seem logical in one way. However parenting experts, therapists and clinical researchers show that the road to becoming independent begins with a solid and secure base in which trust has been developed.

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Infants and children of all ages need parents who are consistently available to provide nurture, guidance and support.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in his 2015 book, The Body Keeps The Score, offers the following information: “As we grow up, we gradually learn to take care of ourselves, both physically and emotionally, but we get our first lessons in self-care from the ways that we are cared for. Mastering the skill of self-regulation depends to a large degree on how harmonious our early interactions with their caregivers are. Children whose parents are reliable sources of comfort and strength have a lifetime advantage— a kind of buffer against the worst fate can hand them.” [Page 110]

He goes on to describe the amazing work of John Bowlby, known for his research on the power and importance of attachment. Bowlby noted that, “the more responsive the [primary] adult is to the child, the deeper the attachment and the more likely the child will develop healthy ways of responding to the people around him… When infants and young children notice that their mothers are not fully engaged with them, they become nervous.…”

Dr. van der Kolk tells us that, “Bowlby saw attachment as a secure base from which a child moves out into the world. Over the subsequent five decades, research has firmly established that having a safe haven promotes self-reliance and instills a sense of sympathy and helpfulness to others in distress.” [Page 111].

Dr. van der Kolk goes on to describe how research has shown that a secure base helps children develop self-awareness, empathy, impulse control, and self-motivation, all of which help the growing child develop into a healthy member of the larger culture, capable of experiencing and nurturing healthy relationships throughout that child’s lifetime.

Comforting a child promotes a secure base

Consistently, comforting a crying infant who may be insecure, frightened, or in a state of disequilibrium, and in need of a warm, loving connection promotes a secure base.  Children can easily feel abandoned when parents ignore their pleas for help, refuse to cuddle, or hold and comfort them (“What do you mean you want to sit on my lap? Only babies do that!”).

Can lack of a secure base cause trauma?

Or when parents spend more time looking at the smartphone, television or computer screen than at them, seeming to be more interested in their reading. The highly distracted parent, the nonresponsive parent, the parent who is critical and judgmental (which is a form of emotional abandonment) can cause children to devalue themselves and their needs, to question their worth in their family, in their community and in the world and over time can erode their confidence in their right to be loved.

With children, the road to independence comes from being allowed to experience healthy dependence. By creating and maintaining a strong and healthy secure base for children from the time they are born through their adolescence, parents give children the gift of an inner security and the power to be fully independent as well as interdependent with others.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. Have you heard and even believed that it is important to force children to become independent by allowing them to struggle, “cry it out” or in other ways feel as if they must do things on their own? How does this information resonate with you?
  2. What are some ways you can help your children feel safe and secure and within a loving and nurturing relationship with you?
  3. What are some things you can do to promote that security, including becoming more aware of times when you might be emotionally abandoning your children through too much attention to some kind of screen or other distractions?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network