Dr. Kent Hoffman is a clinician, attachment researcher, co-author of Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience and Freedom to Explore and co-founder of the Circle of Security program. His life’s work has included building intervention approaches for at-risk families dealing with parenting stress.
Your book, Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience and Freedom to Explore is a book about attachment, but it’s not really an “attachment parenting book.” How would you differentiate this book and your work from the so-called “attachment parenting movement”?
While we want very much to be respectful of what the Sears have done in promoting the profound value of nurturing for infants and young children, their definition of the word they’ve chosen (“attachment”) is limited in problematic ways.
The problem? Contemporary attachment research offers two key themes rather than one: Infants and all children require nurturing/soothing/comfort. At the same time, infants and children also require access to experiences of autonomy.
Unfortunately, attachment parenting focuses primarily on nurture and closeness as the primary need of children. In addition, there is a focus on certain techniques (baby wearing, co-sleeping, etc.) as the royal road to healthy attachment. The research, since at least the 1990’s, is clear that particular approaches to closeness are not, in themselves, synonymous with secure attachment.
Importantly, it isn’t what the parent does, but the state of mind of the parent as they are relating to their children that transmits security or insecurity. Hence, an insecure parent “doing all the right things” will actually be transmitting insecurity.
More specifically, a common theme of one kind of insecurity (known as “preoccupied”) is the tendency to overemphasize closeness (the very themes that attachment parenting prioritizes as central) at the expense of recognizing and honoring a young child’s bids for autonomy.
Within attachment research, security for children is found by the having both closeness and autonomy honored in a balanced way.
You recently wrote an article for us that listed nine benefits that come with secure attachment, so we’re sold on why it’s important. If you had five minutes to spend teaching a parent how to raise a secure child, what would you tell or show them?
The answer to the first question would be at the heart of my answer to this question.
A parent who can balance a child’s needs for closeness (soothing) and autonomy (“I need to do this myself”) will tend to have a secure child.
As it turns out, most of us tend to emphasize either self-sufficiency at the expense of the comfort or vice versa. But when they are both offered in a balanced way, a child grows up feeling good about being both self-reliant (as opposed to self-sufficient) and sharing vulnerablity.
In the research, a capacity for both vulnerability and self-reliance are necessary for healthy intimacy and this applies to both childhood and adult relationships.
In the book, you and your co-authors make the argument that secure attachment may be even more vital a foundation for children than nutrition, healthcare and education. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Well, we talk this way because we’re focused on the psychological themes of life! In no way would we advocate for psychological health at the expense of physical health.
At the same time, early in the field of psychology it was believed that children were only focused on relationships because of their need to have proximity to being physically nurtured. The past 60 years of research has blown that view out of the water.
Infants and children (as well as adults) literally require emotional presence and nurture in order to survive. The work of Rene Spitz many decades ago clarified that children in orphanages who had their physical needs met but who weren’t touched or emotionally connected were prone to death.
The power of current developmental research is its ability to quantify the ways in which infants and children require emotional connection — honoring a child’s needs for both nurture and autonomy — in order to become secure adults.
The Minnesota Longitudinal Study clarifies the key benefits of a secure attachment:
- A greater sense of self-agency
- Better emotional regulation
- Higher self-esteem
- Better coping under stress
- More positive engagement in the preschool peer group
- Closer friendships in middle childhood
- Better coordination of friendships and social groups in adolescence
- More trusting, non-hostile romantic relationships in adulthood
- Greater social competence
- More leadership qualities
- Happier and better relationships with parents and siblings
- Greater trust in life
What is “Being-With”?
“Being-With” is the term we use with all the parents we work with to provide the “bull’s eye” for what their children most require. It’s sort of the opposite of “doing it right” or “doing parenting perfectly.” Rather, it’s a relaxed presence, a willingness to slow down and actually listen to what a child is needing moment to moment.
It’s important to note that this isn’t something we can offer our children all through each day, but it is something we can offer our children many times a day — 45 seconds here, three minutes there, 20 seconds here, five minutes there.
Our colleague Jude Cassidy has a wonderful way of expressing the message a parent is giving in such moments: “I’m here and you’re worth it.”
In other words, Being-With is a way of expressing, “For these moments I’m fully here. I’m noticing your joy as you play with those blocks or as you come running to me. Rather than immediately picking up my phone to text a friend, I delight in your excitement as you climb that structure in the park. I stay with whatever you’re doing and honor it as utterly important. And, when you come running back to me, I welcome you in because I know it’s time to refill your emotional cup with a little bit of tenderness.”
For these moments or minutes: No agenda other than my child’s agenda. No learning or teaching or quizzing or praising. Simply Being-With.
From our research, this single capacity is at the heart of secure attachment.
Why does wanting to be a perfect parent tend to backfire?
Children seem to have an uncanny capacity to read their parent’s intention. We see it as a capacity to “read between the lines” of whatever we’re doing with them. So, when we’re trying to be the perfect parent, what is the child actually experiencing? They experience a parent who is anxious, who is concerned with all the mistakes he or she makes or with always getting it right or perfect. That, as it turns out, is a burden for a child to carry.
Deeper still, the child intuits a painful awareness: “While this need to be perfect seems to be for me, it’s actually for my parent. It’s more about her (or his) need to feel good about being a good parent. Truth be told, this feels lonely, as if I’m not actually the focus of what’s going on right now.”
You have dedicated a good part of your career to working with people and parents who don’t have homes. What would you say is the most important thing that this experience has taught you about parenting, attachment or people in general?
Two things: I’ve learned that every person we will ever meet is equal in terms of a need to matter to someone. We all have that exact same need. Whether it’s a homeless teen or President of the United States, we see the same need being expressed: “I need to be seen as someone who counts, as someone who matters.” As we see within the issue of untreated narcissism, if we didn’t experience this developmentally in a way we could believe it, we continue to demand it from others for the remainder of our lives.
Second, I’ve learned that every parent is actually hardwired to do the best he or she can. I’ve worked with many parents who come from severe backgrounds of abuse and neglect and in almost every case, I see a parent who is trying to do what they currently believe will most benefit their child. It may be 180 degrees off from what will be beneficial, but the deeper motivation is a positive intentionality.
Our work within the Circle of Security is to offer a research-based road map for what is most needed. The really wonderful news of all of our research is that parents, even those with horrific histories, when offered a clear path toward security, tend to choose security. This is profound and it is also deeply reassuring about human nature.
How do you account for cultural differences in parenting when teaching parents how to be-with their children and foster secure attachment? Do cultural differences play a role or are these concepts universal?
Developmental research from around the world makes it clear that the basic needs for secure attachment are universal. At the same time, some cultures emphasize one aspect of that which supports security (either closeness or autonomy) over another. So, cultures prioritize one theme (and sometimes even stigmatize another). But security is security is security no matter where a child is born on planet earth.
For more about Dr. Hoffman’s work, visit him online at www.eightysevenminutes.com.