Relevant Attachment Concepts

The Secure Base model is based in attachment theory. An in-depth knowledge of attachment theory is not necessary for professionals to use the model, but an understanding of some of the basic concepts of attachment is helpful.

This section of the website provides brief summaries of the attachment concepts that are particularly relevant to the model, under the following headings:


Attachment Theory

The starting point of John Bowlby's theory of attachment is an evolutionary one, in that babies are seen as having a biological drive to seek proximity to a protective adult, usually the primary caregiver, in order to survive danger (1969, 1973, 1980). The goal of this drive for closeness is to feel safe, secure and protected. This leads to a range of proximity promoting attachment behaviours.

Attachment behaviours may attract the caregiver's attention in a positive way, for example, cooing, smiling and reaching out. But attachment behaviours also include protest behaviours, such as crying and fretting, which will also bring the caregiver closer in order to soothe the child and end the behaviour. In the toddler years, attachment behaviours will include more direct actions, such as approaching, following, clinging and other behavioural strategies that can achieve proximity to the attachment figure.

All of these behaviours give strong signals which lead caregivers to approach and respond to the needs of the baby. In the first months of life, the signals are repeated countless times. When the baby is hungry, lonely or uncomfortable the sensitive and responsive caregiver will both recognise and react promptly to meet the baby's needs. This experience of a secure base settles the baby and reduces his anxiety, which in turn allows him to play and explore. When the baby is relaxed, smiling and playful, the caregiver will share and reinforce this mood. Through the process of attachment behaviours being responded to promptly and appropriately, therefore, the baby's survival is ensured, and also, his emotional, social and physical development is enhanced and maximised in the context of the relationship.

As attachment behaviours become more organised, so that demands for food or play become more targeted, the adults who respond to them become highly significant to the growing baby. In optimal conditions, attachment behaviours become linked with strong feelings of joy and delight in both directions. Caregivers, of course, respond to the needs and demands of their children in different ways and this gives rise to different attachment patterns.

Selective attachments, then, begin to form from birth and early infancy is a critical period for their development, but there are further key stages throughout childhood. During the toddler years, mobility, play and language develop, providing opportunities to extend attachment relationships to siblings and close adults. By the age of 4 years, secure children are able to think about other people's thoughts and feelings – key to managing relationships with peers and at school.

During the pre-school and primary years, secure children develop the capacity to hold the secure base relationships in mind when they are separated from them (for example, at nursery or school), leaving them free to explore and learn.

Also during this stage, children continue to learn to manage their feelings, co-operate with others and take into account the thoughts and feelings of others.

During adolescence, young people are becoming increasingly confident and competent. Their thinking is more complex and more reflective. There may be experimentation with the rejection of parental norms and values and moving away from the secure base. BUT, family ties and the knowledge that the secure base is still available in times of difficulty remain very important.

The formation and development of attachment relationships continue through the lifespan, so that adult children's relationships with their parents will change and, for example, as adults we both care for and receive care from our partners.

Two important concepts of attachment theory that are relevant for the secure base model will be briefly summarised here: internal working models and mind mindedness.

Internal working models

To understand the lessons that are learned in these early relationships and why they go on to affect subsequent relationships, Bowlby developed the concept of ‘internal working models'. An internal working model is a set of expectations and beliefs about the self, others and the relationship between the self and others. Thus, the internal working model of an individual will contain particular expectations and beliefs about:

  • My own and other people's behaviour
  • Whether or not I am loveable and worthy of love
  • Whether or not others are available, interested and able to help/protect/ support me

Internal working models begin to be formed in early infancy. If, for example, the baby finds that his feelings of hunger and his accompanying crying behaviour results in a prompt response from a loving adult who makes him feel better, he will learn that certain of his behaviours are linked with the positive behaviours of his caregiver. At the same time, he will feel that he is loved and nurtured and that he ‘deserves' this response. A more generalised expectation of adults as people who are likely to be there to help and protect also develops over time. At the other end of the spectrum, a response that is unavailable or cold will lead to an internal working model of the attachment figure as rejecting, the self as unworthy of care and others as not to be relied on for help and support.

The models are termed ‘working' models because they are subject to change and development according to changing experiences in relationships. Bowlby observed that these models are established in the first few years of life and as children get older models retain some flexibility but become increasingly resistant to change.

Children's behaviours become organised around their expectations of themselves and others and, as they grow older, these expectations tend to influence the way in which others relate to them. In this way, positive and negative cycles of reinforcement are set up. For example, the young person who feels good about herself and expects others to be mostly warm and friendly will present herself to a potential new friendship group in a way that signals ‘you can trust me. I will be a good friend' and so elicits a positive response. Conversely, a young person who expects rejection, has low self esteem and a sense of the world as a hostile place is likely to signal ‘I don't need or want your friendship, don't come close to me', which tends to bring about further rejection of the kind they most fear. Positive internal working models can cope with a degree of rejection. Negative internal working models tend to see hostility even in neutral behaviour. Thus to change children's negative expectations of self and others requires caregivers who can sustain availability and sensitive responding in the face of apparent hostility and lack of trust.

Mind mindedness

Bowlby's view of what was necessary for sensitive care relied on the caregiver thinking about the thoughts and feelings of the child, and over time enabling the child to think about the thoughts and feelings of the caregiver and other adults and children.

Modern attachment researchers have built on the foundations of Bowlby's thinking. Meins et al (2001) have shown the importance for secure attachment and social development of what they call the caregiver's ‘mind mindedness'; their capacity to be interested in what the child is thinking and feeling, to see things from the child's point of view, and to communicate this to the child.

This process begins in infancy with the sensitive caregiver viewing even the tiny baby as having thoughts and feelings. The caregiver speculates about these thoughts and feelings and reflects them back to the baby (Are you hungry? Were you feeling lonely?). In doing so, the baby begins to understand and make sense of his inner experiences and feelings and gradually to manage and express them appropriately.

As the baby grows, the mind minded caregiver also finds it natural to talk to the baby about their own feelings and behaviour (‘Mummy's tired now, so we'll stop the game and have a drink') and that of others (‘Your friend felt sad when you wouldn't share the toy, that's why she went off into the other room'). Through this sort of interaction and verbalisation of thoughts and feelings the child learns to distinguish between different feelings in self and others, to express feelings in ways that are effective and socially acceptable, and to empathise with others.

As David Howe (2011) puts it, ‘Parents who focus on their children's subjective experiences help them understand their own and other people's psychological states and how these are linked to actions and behaviour.'

Linked resources

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: a brief introduction

Attachment Patterns

Attachment patterns are ways of thinking and behavioural strategies that children develop in order to feel safe and to maximise their opportunities for receiving care and protection from close adults.

Different attachment patterns emerge in response to different types of caregiving. Mary Ainsworth (1971) used a combination of observations of caregiving in infancy and a laboratory situation called the Strange Situation to identify secure and two insecure (avoidant and ambivalent) attachment patterns. The Strange Situation involves the infant experiencing a series of brief separations and reunions while their reactions are observed. Later research by Mary Main and Judith Solomon (1986) identified a third insecure attachment pattern, disorganised.

Below, each of these four patterns is described in relation to the caregiving approach associated with it.

  • Secure: Secure attachment occurs when the infant or child is cared for by available, sensitive and responsive caregivers, who are accepting and co-operative, promoting trust and competence. Taking these strengths into childhood the child becomes able to think about and manage thoughts, feelings and behaviour in order to become competent and successful in activities and relationships outside the family. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as autonomous, free to evaluate.

  • Avoidant: When the caregiver finds it difficult to accept or respond sensitively to the infant's needs, the infant may find that their demands are rejected, their feelings minimised and that the caregiver tries to take over in an intrusive, insensitive way. Although the rejecting caregiver's overall role in providing practical care and protection continues, the infant and child learns to shut down on her feelings in order to avoid upsetting the caregiver and provoking rejection or intrusion. It is safer and more comfortable to be self-reliant and this also makes it more likely that the caregiver will stay close. The child is not avoiding a relationship, but avoiding showing feelings in order to maintain some kind of relationship. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern of minimising and apparently devaluing feelings and relationships is referred to as dismissing.

  • Ambivalent: In contrast, where the caregiver responds to the infant's demands, but only in a sporadic, unpredictable and at times insensitive fashion, the infant finds it difficult to achieve proximity in a reliable way. Care and protection is sometimes available, but the caregiving is uncertain and ineffective. Initially the infant may simply make demands almost constantly to attract and keep the attention of the caregiver or may become rather helpless in the absence of a predictably successful strategy. Over time, the infant tends to become needy and angry, a ‘clingy', but distrustful and resistant child. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as preoccupied and enmeshed.

  • Disorganised: Where the caregiver is rejecting, unpredictable and frightening or frightened, the infant is caught in a dilemma of ‘fear without solution' (Main and Hesse 1990). Caregivers abdicate the caregiving role, experiencing themselves as out of control and become hostile/helpless to protect the child. The infant's drive to approach the caregiver for care and protection results in fear and increased rather than decreased anxiety. The absence of a possible strategy to achieve comfortable proximity in infancy leads to confused and disorganised behaviours. But over time the pre-school child starts to develop controlling behaviours to enable them to feel some degree of predictability and safety. These controlling behaviours usually include role-reversal in which a child acts towards others like a parent might towards a child e.g. punitively aggressive, compulsively caregiving or compulsively self-reliant i.e. not accepting care. However, feelings of anxiety and fear remain unresolved and reappear in sometimes chaotic and destructive forms at times of stress. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as unresolved.

N.B. Disorganisation and maltreatment.

Although many children who have been maltreated are likely to be disorganised, not all children who are disorganised will have been maltreated. A caregiver may have experienced unresolved loss and trauma in the past. This may make them a source of anxiety rather than comfort for the infant, but does not mean that they are necessarily neglectful or abusive.

Linked resources

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: a brief introduction

A Secure Base

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