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A New Hope: Changing Parent-Child Relationships with Circle of Security Parenting©

By Charlie Slaughter, MPH, RD

May 8, 2013 Back


Many parenting programs focus on teaching techniques to parents to help them manage their children’s behavior. Success is having the child change their behavior so the parent is no longer irritated, angered, etc. Unfortunately, use of skills, strategies, and techniques to manage behavior often don’t build basic relationship capabilities and don’t address the powerful underlying force of the quality of caregiving parents received in their own childhoods.

Circle of Security Parenting© (COS-P) takes a different approach.1 Basically, COS-P says if we can improve the quality of the parent-child relationship, the child’s behavior will improve.

COS-P focuses on building basic relationship capabilities, helps parents understand where they struggle in maintaining a relationship, and helps parents repair the ruptures in their relationships with their children. To see a short trailer about COS-P go to

Attachment research tells us the quality of the parent-child relationship can be broken into two major groups – kids with a secure attachment and kids with an insecure attachment. Decades of research have shown that secure attachment “continues to be a powerful predictor of life success.” 2 Kids fortunate enough to have a secure attachment are more likely to have successful close relationships, develop desirable personality traits, and have better social problem-solving skills.3

A foundational and essential component of the parent-child relationship is the child feeling safe and secure which allows the child’s innate desire to explore to kick in. As a result of feeling safe and secure, the child will go out to explore their world. Inevitably, the child encounters distress such as fear, surprise, etc. The child then needs to return to the parent for comfort, soothing, protection, etc. This, in turn, helps the child regain their sense of safety and security.  When both components of going out to explore and then being welcomed in after hitting distress are present, this builds secure attachment.  This is not a small gift; it is a profound, powerful, and lifelong gift.

COS-P uses a drawing, the Circle of Security (download at the link below), to visually show this pattern of exploring from a secure base and returning to a safe haven when distressed. This pattern starts at birth, continues into childhood, and even continues through adolescence and into adulthood.

Children cannot develop this strong foundation on their own. The primary contributor to a child’s foundation is the quality of the parent-child relationship, particularly in infancy and the remaining early childhood years. This relationship lays down a foundation that directly impacts children’s joy of learning, self-control, sense of deep emotional connection, and other attributes described by the economist James Heckman as “soft skills.” In turn, these “soft skills” have a strong impact on academic and life success. A child’s foundation can be strong and very supportive of later learning, development, and school and life success. However, we know too many children have a limited, weak or quite damaged foundation. That has life-long consequences. We think Circle of Security Parenting© can help many more parents and caregivers develop the relationship capabilities needed to build, maintain, and strengthen a strong foundation in young children. As a result, children win, parents win, and communities win.

[1] Hoffman K.T., Marvin R.S., Cooper G., Powell B. (2006). Changing Toddlers’ and Preschoolers’ Attachment Classifications: The Circle of Security Intervention. J Consult Clin Psychol. Dec; 74(6):1017-26.

[2]Lewis T., Amini, A., Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of Love. Vintage Press: New York, NY. Page 74.

[3] Cassidy, J. and Shaver, P. (2008).Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guildford Press: New York, NY. P. 361.

About The Author

Charlie Slaughter, MPH, RD

Charlie is a Prevention Coordinator with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF). He has a passion for community-wide approaches to build and support a secure attachment pattern in children and approaches that attract parents to voluntary behavior change. He is also interested in effective systems change within communities and organizations to support children's healthy development. Charlie is involved with a number of early childhood initiatives, including the statewide DCF-Head Start Partnership and has been the primary champion and leader for bringing the Circle of Security approach to CT.