The concepts presented in Joy & Co. are grounded in research-based theories and knowledge about attachment relationships. In my own work of putting this into practice in my life, I have seen how understanding attachment at a deep level is very connected to having an understanding about emotional development and regulation, brain development, mindfulness and practices in self-compassion and compassion for others. It is a balance of learning some concepts and also being willing to do our own inner work with the help of wise people around us. It is a way of being in the world and interacting with others that requires an everyday intentional and mindful practice.
The amazing thing is that when we grow up experiencing relationships in this way, we know it deep within us. Many concepts about attachment relationships may feel obvious…because you know it within you. You’ve felt it. And yet, as each of us learn more through our life experiences and from things we read and are taught, layers are peeled back and the understanding becomes deeper. The only requirements for this learning to deepen throughout our lives are that we are present in our everyday experiences, and that we are open to learning.
While learning something new, I was once told, “You’ll learn new things here, but don’t forget what you already know. When you go away from here and sit with this new knowledge for a while, it will integrate with what you already know.” And so I say the same to you. Remember what you already know. Sit for a while with insights you gain. It will all integrate with what you already know.
I love the definition of humility as, “not being more than, or less than who you are”. Much of this is about taking our place in the world. I have my place and you have yours. Our places are not in competition with each other. I will find my way of being in the world and you will find yours. May we share compassion for each other in the process.
In Joy & Co., I have grouped concepts into four “co” words. Joy is a powerful feeling. I’m not talking about a fleeting happiness from buying something new. I’m talking about a deep feeling of satisfaction and joy while in those quiet moments when the dust has settled. Joy needs company. When coziness, connection, co-regulation and compassion are present, there is fertile ground for joy to follow.
- Coziness: The importance of being present.
- Connection: The importance of connections in relationships.
- Co-Regulation: The importance of receiving all emotions and co-regulating our children’s emotions.
- Compassion: The importance of doing our own inner work.
Coziness: The importance of being present
I have grouped some concepts from being present, mindfulness and attunement into the “co” word “coziness”. This is because we need to be present to all that is happening: the good, the bad and the ugly, in order to also be present for the amazing cozy, settled feeling of connected, loving moments with others.
In our age of smart phones and screen time this is utterly important. However, I expect that all throughout history, people have been distracted by various things and have needed to be intentional about being present. Being present means being physically available by turning off our phones and computers, looking at the people we are with, truly listening to others, paying attention to our own emotions and the emotions of others.
In a parent-child relationship, this is often described as attunement. To attune to a child, one must be present. Attuning to a child includes being aware of, and responsive to, another. What is my child thinking? What are they feeling? Are they hungry? Sad? Worried? How will I respond in a way my child can feel and receive? How is my child receiving my words and actions? Do they feel my love, support and care? What do I need to change so that my child feels felt?
Connection: The importance of connections in relationships
I gained a life-changing understanding of attachment through the Circle of Security (COS) model. I have deep gratitude that I have had the opportunity to take extensive training in using this model therapeutically.
All credit and copyrights for Circle of Security belong to the authors. For information beyond what I share in this blog, please read their book, Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting can help you nurture your child’s attachment, emotional resilience, and freedom to explore by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell, published in 2017. Information, graphics and videos can be found on their website at https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com
COS provides a user-friendly graphic, or map as they call it, for understanding a child’s needs and responding appropriately. The graphic is a circle, with an image of the parent’s open, welcoming hands on the left side. The parent provides two main things for their child: a secure base, and a safe haven. The parent is encouraged to learn to observe their child, to notice the cues that the child is sending.
The “top half of the circle”, as it is called, represents the child’s need to explore with the parent as a secure base. When a child explores, they need four main things from their parent: to watch over them, delight in them, help them and enjoy with them. This includes watching to make sure that their child is safe. Delight is about presence. Delighting in a child means to delight in who they are, not in what they accomplish. Helping the child means scaffolding their learning by letting them do the parts they can on their own, and helping them with the harder parts. Enjoying with them means showing them genuine enjoyment in being together and sharing a connection.
The “bottom half of the circle” represents the child’s need to be welcomed back into the safe haven of their parent. The child needs four main things from their parent: to protect them, comfort them, delight in them, and organize their feelings. Protecting the child includes physical protection from danger. It also includes protecting them so that they feelsafe. If a child is not actually in danger, but feels as though they are in danger, they need to be welcomed in, protected and comforted until they feel safe. Comforting a child includes offering comfort and nurture to soothe their uncomfortable emotions. The child needs to be comforted until they send a cue that they are ready. Delighting in the child in this context means delighting in who they are, even in difficult moments, and delighting in being able to be that special person for your child. Organizing the child’s feelings is probably the hardest point on the COS. This includes accepting the feelings that your child has in that moment (even if you wish they weren’t having those feelings right now), helping them to make sense of their feelings, and helping them find a way to calm.
Imagine a father, Tim, and his 3-year-old daughter, Ella, at a playground. When they arrive at the playground, Tim sits on a bench, while Ella runs off to the play structure, turning back once to wave and call, “Bye-bye!”. Tim smiles and waves. Ella runs to the play structure and climbs up. When she reaches the top, she turns back to Tim and smiles and waves and he smiles back. Ella has sent several cues to Tim that she is on the “top half of the circle” and ready to explore. She has run off with confidence and climbed the structure. She is ready to be independent in this moment, but she still checks in with her father to see him delight in her, and for reassurance that he is there if she needs him.
Then something happens. Maybe Ella just gets tired. Maybe she is hungry. Maybe a big dog comes into the playground. Maybe she falls and scrapes her knee. All these things could lead to her moving to the “bottom of the circle” and returning to her father for comfort and support. Let’s imagine there is a child, Alex, on the play structure with a plastic dinosaur. Alex takes his dinosaur, pushes it close to Ella’s face, and yells, “Roar!!!” Ella feels scared. She slides down the play structure and runs across the playground into her father’s waiting arms. Let’s also imagine that Ella’s father didn’t see what happens. As he notices the fear on Ella’s face, he comments, “You look scared.” He looks up and notices Alex with his dinosaur. Ella tells him a boy growled at him. Tim helps to organize her feelings by offering a nurturing hug that soothes and calms her nervous system. He also helps her make sense of what happened, “He made his dinosaur growl at you. You felt scared. You came for a hug. You’re safe.” Ella stays in the hug for a few moments longer, and Tim waits for her to send a cue that she’s ready to move. When Ella starts to pull away, Tim releases his arms and watches Ella to observe whether she feels safe enough to return to the play structure alone, or whether she needs him to move closer while she explores.
The goal is to read the child’s cues which then provide a roadmap for what the child needs. This gets more complex when the child sends a miscue, which is acting one way but needing the opposite thing. We learn these miscue patterns to protect ourselves. A skilled parent will see through the miscue to the need beneath. For example, 11-year-old Selina comes home from school with a scowl. Her mother asks if everything is okay. Selina says sharply, “Everything is FINE,” runs to her room and slams the door. Clearly, Selina does not feel fine, and in time, as she is ready, she will need connection and help to make sense of her emotions and of what happened.
How a parent reads and responds to a child’s cues and how the child in turn responds to that becomes this parent and child’s relational dance. If a child’s cues are not met with a responsive, caring response, the child learns to inhibit their needs, either on the top or the bottom of the circle. A pattern emerges. This leads to different patterns of attachment.
It challenges us as parents to organize our child’s feelings when those feelings are intense and uncomfortable. When my child is mad at me, it is a challenging feeling to support them through.
Circle of Security includes the motto: “Always be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind. Whenever possible, follow my child’s need. Whenever necessary, take charge.” A motto to remember daily.
Another wonderful model for learning about attachment relationships is Daniel Hughes’ model of PACE. You can read more about this in his book Attachment-Focused Parenting. The acronym PACE stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy. When these four aspects are present, it supports secure relationships. I will speak more to this in the next section.
Co-Regulation: The importance of receiving all emotions and co-regulating our children’s emotions
I have observed that many parents and caregivers have a wonderful understanding of how to spend positive quality time with their children and to do much to prevent the moments of intense, uncomfortable emotions from happening too often. However, when those moments inevitably happen (as they do for all people, in all close relationships), many are left feeling inadequate, wondering how to respond, and then feeling guilty about their own emotional reaction.
Every emotion is okay. Every emotion has a purpose. The wide range of emotions is an experience shared by all humans. When we are born, our brainstem (which controls autonomic functions like breathing) is developed, and our limbic system (which controls emotions) is developed. But the upper parts of our brain, including the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for impulse control and decision-making), is not yet developed. Emotions come, sometimes gently, sometimes like intense waves – and emotions pass. We can do things to help our emotions move effectively.
Every emotion is okay. However, there are things that are healthy to do with our emotions, and things that are not healthy. For example, it is not okay to hurt someone or break things when we’re mad. It is okay to say, “I need a moment alone to cool down,” and it is okay to run on the spot to help our mad feelings move. Once we have calmed down, we can think through what happened and make a decision, which involves using our prefrontal cortex.
A person’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until into young adulthood. In their book, The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson describe the prefrontal cortex as the “upstairs brain”, and the brainstem and limbic system as the “downstairs brain”. They explain that in a child, the upstairs brain is under construction. Imagine a staircase between the downstairs brain and upstairs brain. When emotions get heightened, it is as though a baby gate has slammed shut on the staircase, and the child loses access to the upstairs brain. This means that they lose the ability to think through consequences or make good decisions. So if a parent threatens a punishment in this moment, the child might appear to not care. What is happening is that they can’t process in order to make decisions. Their “downstairs” or emotional brain has taken over.
For a quick video tutorial of this, see,
We know that when children have intense emotions, they need help to understand their emotions, and to organize this complex inner world. When we help children to calm and regain a settled state, we are co-regulating their emotions. “The process of seeking and receiving help with strong emotions that is at the core of attachment contributes to the young child’s belief that the relationship is stronger than any given emotion” (Hoffman, Cooper and Powell, p. 34).
There is an increased awareness in the concept of self-regulation. In general, this is a really positive thing. However, sometimes adults forget that self-regulation requires the prefrontal cortex which is not fully developed into young adulthood. Children up to about age 8 require extensive support to work through emotions and conflicts. And from 8 into young adulthood, they require support as well. Through these millions of interactions of being co-regulated, they learn to self-regulate. Self-regulation is a goal, but it is a developmental process.
A newborn baby is a perfect example. The baby cries, and requires an adult to co-regulate them by picking them up, comforting them, and identifying their need whether it is hunger or a need for connection. Similarly, a crying 4-year-old, who has become independent in so many ways compared with an infant, requires comfort and help to identify their needs.
In his book, Attachment-Focused Parenting, Daniel Hughes discusses challenging moments with children. He says to balance focusing on a.) the child’s behaviour and need for direction with b.) curiosity and empathy about their emotion and about the distress caused by the limitation the parent is setting.
I love that. I especially love the concept of having curiosity and empathy about the distress caused by a limitation. When we set limits for our kids, they are often upset. That is a normal emotion when we hit a limit we wish wasn’t there.
Recently, my 3-year-old daughter needed a bath. For various reasons, she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days, and now she really needed one. I had told her the evening before and reminded her again in the morning that this morning, after we dropped my son off at school, she would need a bath. We walked my son to school, and on the way home, she asked to watch a video. I reminded her that she needed a bath first. She cried. She asked again, and I kindly set the limit, while telling her that I care about her and it is important to take care of her body. We got home, and she cried and ran upstairs. I followed her. She was crying and making an angry sound. I stayed close, saying not much at all except, “I know that makes you mad. I love you. I will stay with you until you feel better.” She cried a sad and angry cry for about 15 minutes with me staying close. If I attempted to move close to her, she made an angry sound and moved away. So I waited. As she calmed, I moved closer. When her body calmed, she reached her hand out to me and I took it. I then rubbed her back. When she was ready, I picked her up and she melted into my arms. All of this had taken about 20 minutes. I had set a limit, and supported her through her emotions that came from having that limit set. She had cried an angry cry, which turned to a sad cry, as she had come to accept the limit. She then took her bath with no protest and proudly said, “Now I can watch my videos!” Far from being misbehaviour, her angry cry was working through emotion. By being supported, she learned important lessons about taking care of her body, about limits being set, about angry emotions that sometimes emerge when limits are set, and that I will be there to support her until the feelings pass. This challenging moment ended with snuggles, follow through on a task, and even a proud sense of accomplishment from my daughter.
When parents and caregivers are making a shift from a more behaviour-based model to embracing relationships, they sometimes worry that they are spoiling the child. You cannot spoil a child by meeting their needs. Kids have a big need to have their emotions received and co-regulated on the path to learning self-regulation. Thousands of repetitions of scenarios like the example above, will teach my daughter how to receive her emotions, and to work with them, and how to self-regulate and move on. If not received and worked with, the emotions get stuck. We get more numb to them. We start to feel the difficult emotions less, but we also feel less joy, less satisfaction, and we miss those special, cozy, connection moments.
“Children who learned to trust that their parent would help them regulate painful emotions also accumulated confidence in their own ability to regulate emotion, and this resulted in greater self-confidence and self-esteem during preschool and by age 10.” (Hoffman, Cooper and Powell, p. 31). Regulating our children’s emotions does not make them overly dependent. It helps them learn this skill on their own, but also lets them know that throughout their life, they can seek help from a trusted person when needed.
And despite our best efforts, there are lots of times when things don’t go well or we don’t respond as bigger, stronger, wiser and kind parents. The beauty is that we can always make a repair. We can go back and tell our kids that we are sorry. We can talk about how things can go next time.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. Quite the opposite – it means we are not scared of the big emotions that come with hard things. It means that we have a sense that when hard things happen, we will figure it out together.
Compassion: The importance of doing our own inner work
Parenting uses so much of us. As women, we carry children in our bodies, we give birth, we hold them close when they are young, and many of us breastfeed. Our work lives may change – for sure our work/home life balance changes – as we adapt our whole lives to care for our children. We don’t go home from parenting. It’s a job for us to do all day, every day, year after year. We have to parent when we’re tired, when we’re sick, when we’re ready for a break. Parenting asks much of us.
Taking time to grow our own inner selves is the work of parenting. In my life, I see a wise person for a combination of counselling, spiritual direction and integrated body work. This has been such a helpful guide for me to integrate what I learn. The more we know ourselves, the more there is a cohesiveness between who we think we are and who we are.
Being our best selves is an ongoing practice. We don’t arrive. We practice this daily. This is how we turn reactionary living into conscious living
It’s not about not making mistakes. It’s about trying, making repairs, having compassion for ourselves and others. Compassion makes room for shifts.
If you know me, you know I mess this up in plenty of ways every day! But my intention is to keep trying and to keep being open to grow and change.
“Decades of research have now shown that having a secure attachment with a primary caregiver leaves children healthier and happier in virtually every way we measure such things – in competence and self-confidence, empathy and compassion, resilience and endurance…in the ability to regulate emotions, tap intellectual capacity, and preserve physical health…in pursuing our life’s work and having a fulfilling personal life,” (Hoffman, Cooper and Powell, p. 15). That speaks for itself.
And joy…this way of being and parenting doesn’t mean things will be easy, it doesn’t mean there will be no big emotions…but it means there will be a deeper sense of connection within ourselves and with others. This is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction and joy.
Can you imagine what the world could become…?
Book Recommendations for Adults:
- Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting can help you nurture your child’s attachment, emotional resilience, and freedom to explore by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper and Bert Powell
- The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
- The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn
- Attachment-Focused Parenting by Daniel Hughes
Hoffman, Cooper, Powell. Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting can help you nurture your child’s attachment, emotional resilience, and freedom to explore. New York: The Guidford Press, 2017.
Photo at top of “Grounding Theories” post by Chris Hoover.