The concept of a “secure base”, introduced by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1960’s, reflects the empathic and interested responses of caregivers to a child’s attachment needs. With security as a foundation exploration of the environment follows. “Safe haven” (John Bowlby) is a term which describes the consistent acknowledgent and soothing a child can return to when she feels tension. For example, a toddler expresses excitement discovering that she can make a ball roll. After playing for a while with another child an unexpected stranger ( a neighbor ) arrives. The toddler returns to her parent seeking cuddling. The parent relates to her with reassaurance, she hugs her child and says, “It’s OK, that’s Annie’s big brother.” We can imagine that she feels safe exploring the world because she can reunite with her attentive, loving parent who is appreciative of her experience.
From infancy onward, a child and caregiver communicate through eye contact, facial gestures, body movement and vocalization – showing feeling states and needs. Needs for loving attachment persist “From the cradle to the grave” (John Bowlby 1979). Interest and joyful responses from those whom we choose to share our deep experiences with validates, supports, inspires, excites and soothes us. We gain security as we absorb positive experiences with people who are curious about and affirming of who we are. Engaging in the world feels good. Emotional security plays a significant part in our ability to regulate stress.
When caregivers are preoccupied with unresolved trauma, loss or abuse it is challenging to be present and available to their children (or to adults who need them). Shadowed by insecurities around attachment needs, they may feel and respond with avoidant, ambivalent, dismissive and confusing relational styles when approached by someone who needs attention. This might be an occasional response, it can also be chronic. The idea of connecting can jolt fear, anxiety, anger and sadness. People find themselves in the folds of powerful affective states and don’t necessarily understand the meaning behind them. Their quality of life is powerfully influenced by insecurity and unresolved conflict. Isolation may feel safer than human contact.
Many people are fortunate to be exposed to a variety of opportunities along life’s journey. Therapists, teachers, extended family members and friends can reflect that our feelings and thoughts are meaningful. We can develop security through new experiences which support and convey our value.