What is a secure base and why is it important for children's development?

A secure base is provided through a relationship with one or more sensitive and responsive attachment figures who meet the child's needs and to whom the child can turn as a safe haven, when upset or anxious. When children develop trust in the availability and reliability of this relationship, their anxiety is reduced and they can therefore explore and enjoy their world, safe in the knowledge that they can return to their secure base for help if needed.

The concept of a secure base is important, because it links attachment and exploration, and provides the basis of a secure attachment. A securely attached child does not only seek comfort from an attachment figure, but through feeling safe to explore develops confidence, competence and resilience.

Do adults also need a secure base?

Yes. As we move through the lifespan, we form new attachment relationships with friends and partners. These relationships serve the same function for adults as for children; they provide a secure base which offers comfort and reassurance and at the same time, allows us to operate in the world with confidence. In the words of Bowlby:

All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures. (Bowlby 1988)

What happens when children do not have a secure base?

Early experiences of separation or neglectful or abusive parenting will cause children to remain anxious and to distrust close relationships. Children adapt to the lack of a secure base by developing different patterns of behaviour. For instance, they may become wary and defended or especially needy and demanding of care and attention. Some children with unpredictable or frightening care may try to make their environment more predictable through role-reversing and controlling behaviour. All of these behaviours are characteristic of insecure attachment patterns.

What happens when children are removed from a harmful environment?

For many children, serious experiences of neglect and maltreatment will have had a profound effect. They will have developed negative expectations of adults as part of their internal working model of relationships. They will transfer these expectations into new environments (such as foster or adoptive families or in residential care), along with the patterns of defensive behaviour that have functioned as survival strategies in the past. In these circumstances, children will find it hard to let adults come close enough to establish trusting relationships and provide a secure base. The risk, then, is that feelings and behaviours might become fixed in destructive loops and the damage of the past will not be healed.

What can be done to help?

Attachment theory would suggest that exposure to warm, consistent and reliable caregiving can change children's previous expectations both of close adults and of themselves and there is ample evidence from research and practice to support this (Howe 1996, Wilson et al 2003, Cairns 2003, Beek and Schofield 2004,).

The role of adults who can provide secure base caregiving, therefore, is of central importance. They must take on a parenting / caregiving role for the child, but they must also become a therapeutic caregiver in order to change the child's most fundamental sense of self and others (internal working model). In order to achieve this, they must care for the child in ways that demonstrate, implicitly and explicitly to the child, that they are trustworthy and reliable, physically and emotionally available and sensitive to his or her needs. In addition, they must be mindful of the protective strategies that the child has learned in order to feel safe in the past and adjust their approaches so that their parenting feels comfortable and acceptable to the child rather than undermining or threatening. The ensuing relationships will provide a secure base, from which children can develop and be supported to explore and maximise their potential.

This outcome may be supported by the use of the secure base model across all services to vulnerable children.

Linked resources

Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption

Providing a secure base in Long Term Foster Care

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: A brief introduction