According to the attachment theory, infants are biologically compelled to stay close to a protective adult for survival. When a child can trust their caregiver for protection, they become a secure base for the child.
The caregiver’s ability to serve as a source of security can profoundly affect the child’s self-image and future relationships with others.
What is a secure base
A secure base is an attachment figure, usually the primary caregiver, with whom a child has developed a secure attachment. This attachment figure serves as a base of security allowing the child to explore the environment with confidence. The child can count on the caretaker to welcome them on their return, comfort them if they are upset, and reassure them if they are scared1.
Characteristics of a secure base
Here are the characteristics of the parents who can foster secure attachment in their children.
Being a secure base means being available when needed. A secure caregiver is available when the child needs help removing obstacles when they need to retreat to safety, when they are in distress, and when they are in need.
Such parents are ready to provide nurturance and protection. Having the confidence that they can always come home no matter what gives children the courage to take on challenges in life.
The parent supports their child’s exploration by not controlling or interfering unnecessarily.
Providing support, taking over, or controlling the child’s action when it is not needed can undermine the child’s confidence, concentration, and performance.
An intrusive parenting style can be a major barrier to a child’s pursuit of goals, as it implies they are incapable, incompetent, or not worthy of exploring independently. The child develops a negative perception of their own abilities.
Controlling parenting is the antithesis of secure attachment. It reduces focus, persistence, competence, and enthusiasm, and increases passivity and negative emotions. It also creates a negative experience that is discouraging2.
Encouraging and Accepting
Secure parents encourage and accept their children’s exploration, thereby motivating them to take on challenges, pursue personal goals, and grow through learning and discovery.
Acceptance and encouragement convey excitement and enthusiasm regarding the child’s adventure and confidence in the child’s abilities. Children who are not encouraged to embrace challenges or try exploration are less likely to succeed.
The importance of a secure base in child development
Infants who feel confident and secure are more willing to explore, play, and learn. They know they can rely on the caregiver to provide a safe base for them to return to when they are distressed.
In contrast, an infant with an unresponsive and inconsistent caregiver is less likely to explore because they are less confident about receiving support when needed. Oftentimes, such parents fail to notice the child’s signals, misinterpret them when they do notice them, and then respond slowly, inappropriately, or not at all.
A child who can depend on their parents is more independent. Studies have supported this notion. For instance, babies whose mothers attend promptly to their crying cry much less by the end of the first year3.
Securely attached children explore the world in a confident way. They know their safe haven will be available in times of need. They are able to regulate emotions, manage behavior, achieve independence, and develop healthy self-esteem.
Adolescents who are securely attached venture farther from their parents for a longer period of time. The more confident they are about their attachment security, the more they will feel comfortable venturing out and developing into independent young adults. They can accept challenges, try new things, and take risks knowing someone is available to provide comfort and assistance if things go wrong4.
In adulthood, these individuals are more likely to explore, learn, fulfill their potential, and find rewarding relationships outside of the family. Physical and mental health in children tends to be better.
How can parents become a secure base
In the eyes of society, dependency is viewed as an unfavorable characteristic of young children that should be outgrown.
However, having the ability to depend on their parents is what makes it possible for children to develop the strength to become independent.
Parents who are attuned to their child’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond promptly and properly become a reliable base for them to depend on.
Here are what parents can do to promote that sense of security.
A responsive parent is aware of their child’s needs and responds quickly to them. Children who can trust in the availability of a caregiver develop healthy emotion regulation5.
Be emotionally available
Making yourself available is easier said than done. Being available does not mean you need to be available even when it is physically impossible for you to do so. It means you are emotionally available regardless of whether you want to.
Parents who suffer from depression are generally less available emotionally. The development of insecure attachment in children is associated with parents’ emotional unavailability6.
Depressed parents must seek professional help as soon as possible.
By supporting their children’s goals, interests, choices, and sense of volition instead of controlling their behavior, parents foster autonomy, a sense of confidence, and self-esteem7.
Encouragement creates an environment in which children feel a sense of achievement and experience themselves as valued and special8.
Realistic parents accept both positives and negatives of their children unconditionally.
Realistic parents accept both positives and negatives of their children unconditionally. Children learn to accept failure knowing that they are valued and loved for who they are regardless of their performance.
Parents who provide unconditional acceptance to their children show them they are lovable, a subject of interest, joy, and value to others9.
- 1.Bowlby J. A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books; 1988.
- 2.Egeland B, Farber EA. Infant-Mother Attachment: Factors Related to Its Development and Changes over Time. Child Development. Published online June 1984:753. doi:10.2307/1130127
- 3.Ainsworth MD. Patterns of attachment. In: The Clinical Psychologist. Vol 2. 38. .; 1985:27-29.
- 4.NOOM MJ, DEKOVIĆ M, MEEUS WHJ. Autonomy, attachment and psychosocial adjustment during adolescence: a double-edged sword? Journal of Adolescence. Published online December 1999:771-783. doi:10.1006/jado.1999.0269
- 5.Gordon M. Roots of Empathy: responsive parenting, caring societies. Keio j med. Published online 2003:236-243. doi:10.2302/kjm.52.236
- 6.Ziv Y IV, Aviezer O, Gini M, Sagi A, Karie NK. Emotional availability in the mother–infant dyad as related to the quality of infant–mother attachment relationship. Attachment & Human Development. Published online September 2000:149-169. doi:10.1080/14616730050085536
- 7.Grolnick WS, Ryan RM. Parent styles associated with children’s self-regulation and competence in school. Journal of Educational Psychology. Published online 1989:143-154. doi:10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.206
- 8.Manning MA. Self-concept and self-esteem in adolescents. In: Student Services. .; 2007:11-15.
- 9.McCormick CB, Kennedy JH. Parent-child attachment working models and self-esteem in adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online February 1994:1-18. doi:10.1007/bf01537139