This dimension focuses on the caregiver's ability to convey a strong sense of being physically and emotionally available to meet the child's needs, both when they are together and when they are apart. When the caregiver can do this, the child begins to trust that his needs will be met warmly, consistently and reliably. Anxiety is reduced and the child gains the confidence to explore the world, safe in the knowledge that care and protection is there if needed.
The child's needs and behaviour
Many children who come to the attention of children's services have lacked available care and protection from birth family caregivers. They have often experienced adults who have reacted to their distress with frustration, anxiety and rejection, or have ‘blown hot and cold' according to their own needs or the external pressures in their lives. Each of these approaches will cause children to have anxieties and uncertainties around caregiving. They will find it hard to trust that an adult will always be available or that their needs will be met consistently, safely and kindly. Most detrimentally, previous caregivers may have reacted to a needy child with unpredictable anger or frightening aggression, causing the child to feel deep fear, panic, confusion and helplessness. The child is then likely to associate closeness with feelings of fear and dread and feel panicked by the approach of any potential caregiver, however trustworthy they may be.
These deeply rooted experiences may lead children either to distance themselves from their new caregivers, to clamour constantly for their attention, to feel helpless or to be determinedly in control. These defensive strategies, which were necessary for survival at an earlier stage, can become problematic, stressful or hurtful to new caregivers who want so much to nurture, soothe and protect their children from further harm.
Caregiver thinking and feeling
The challenge for new caregivers is a complex one. The eventual goal is to change the children's expectations of adults – to convince them that children can rely on adults to care for them safely and meet their needs. Firstly, however, they may have to disentangle some confusing messages. Through words and behaviour, children may be indicating ‘I don't need you, I prefer to look after myself' or ‘I need you all the time, but can never be satisfied by you' or ‘I can only manage my anxiety by controlling you and everything that happens in the household'.
New caregivers may have to remind themselves of the true needs that lie behind these messages and this is no easy task when they are accompanied by extremely resistant, needy or hostile behaviour. Caregivers may need additional support, therefore, to help them to think about this particular child's previous experiences and speculate on what does this child expect from adults? In the light of this, the caregiver can think in a more focussed way about the question, How can I show this child that I will not let him/her down? Trust building interventions can then be targeted more precisely.
With this in mind, caregivers can begin to be more alert to their child's needs and signals and then take opportunities to do and say things that will begin to change the child's expectations of himself and adults. They will give verbal and non verbal messages of availability. But - and this perhaps, is the greatest skill of secure base caregiving – they will find ways of doing this that feel comfortable and acceptable to the individual child, such as knowing when to move closer and when to wait for a child to make the first move himself. Most important, however, is the capacity of the caregiver to generate flexible theories about what is going on for the child (e.g. this behaviour may be caused by a bad experience in early childhood, a difficult day at school or both), to try different approaches and to wait patiently for small changes.
The child's thinking and feeling
As children begin to trust that close adults are not going to disappear or let them down, their thinking will begin to change in subtle ways. They will begin to gain a sense of I matter, I am safe, I can explore and return to my secure base for help, and, crucially, other people can be trusted.
As anxiety is diminished, the drive to explore, learn and play becomes greater. There will be greater confidence and competence to venture away from the secure base and discover the wider world – but there will also be an increasing capacity to rely on caregivers for comfort and nurture and to enjoy appropriate closeness. Signs of progress in these areas may be painstakingly slow to appear, but they are among the most exciting and rewarding for caregivers to observe.