Penny Anderson, a Family Support Worker at Family and Childrenâs Services of Guelph and Wellington County, describes how Circle of Security makes lasting improvements in parentâchild relationships
The primary goal of Childrenâs Aid is to keep struggling families together more safely. How does Circle of Security support this goal?
Circle of Security is a program that we offer to parents who are dealing with serious conflict with their children where safety, whether it be physical or emotional, is at risk. In the 14 years I have been working at Family and Childrenâs Services of Guelph and Wellington County, this has been the most effective intervention that Iâve used to work with parents who are really struggling in connecting with their children. The âdanceâ in the parentâchild relationship gets so much better after parents have an understanding of what their childrenâs needs are. One mum said to me, âThis should be taught in the school system. This should be happening before people have children.â
How does this program work?
Parents who attend the 8-week Circle of Security program have either been referred to the Family Support Program through their worker because of conflict at home or they have heard good things about it in the community and simply want to come and learn. We run the program here at our agency three times a year â fall, winter, and spring â in a group setting with 8 to 12 parents. And we also run it with clients one-on-one in the comfort of their homes. We also do this work one-on-one with parents who have children in foster care, where weâre assessing their parenting and looking for reunification. What we do is show parents a series of video clips of infants and toddlers and younger children so parents can learn to read their childrenâs cues, protect their children, promote healthy independence, and help their children with their feelings.
Many staff in the organization have been trained to deliver Circle of Security, including everyone on our Family Support team as well as Family Service, Childrenâs Service, Foster Care, and Adoption workers. Our agencyâs goal is to ensure that all staff understand the Circle approach. That way weâre all speaking the same language with parents as we are supporting them to learn new ways to be with their children.
What is the âcircleâ in Circle of Security?
Circle of Security helps parents understand what attachment behaviour looks like and how they can modify their responses to their child to promote secure attachment, to have a really healthy relationship with their children. In the âcircleâ thereâs a top and bottom that describes what childrenâs needs are (see image): parents need to support children on the âtopâ when they go to explore their environment, and they need to be welcoming at the âbottomâ when children come back in and need their parentsâ support. At the top of the circle, when children go out to explore, itâs about: âI need you to enjoy with me, help me, watch over me, delight in me.â And on the bottom they have a new set of needs: âI need protection, I need comfort, I need help organizing my feelings.â
How does this âcircleâ help parents to avoid conflict with their child?
If the parentâchild relationship is problematic, behavioural strategies and all that other stuff doesnât work. Not until you have a healthy relationship, until the child trusts the parent. So it has to start here. Until this child feels safe and secure emotionally and physically with you, this bedtime routine is still going to be problematic. Getting him to school every morning is still going to be a fight. Then parents are kind of more open to, âWell Iâve got to change how I respond.â And maybe start looking at themselves rather than saying, âWell if he didnât act like thisâ¦â Instead, they ask, âWhat part do I play in this dance?â So I find itâs a really kind, soft, and gentle approach to have parents be really reflective.
One of the key moments in this program is when one mum in the DVD clip says, âI no longer look at his behaviour as attention seeking but rather connection seeking.â And I think when the parents hear that phrase in the program, they go, âWow! Iâve been told to ignore attention-seeking behaviour. Now I know what kind of need it is and how I should respond.â Because what the child is really saying is, âI need you right now.â Iâve just seen such huge improvements in parent and child relationships using this type of intervention.
What impact does this realization have on how parents deal with conflict with their children, and in particular, how they discipline?
When we think about neglect and emotional harm, some parents donât understand that isolating a child when theyâre distressed is emotionally harmful to the child, to their brain development, to how they socially and emotionally mature. But for some parents itâs actually a strategy they use, so they arenât physically abusive. They think, âI used to get hit or physically punished, so I feel Iâm doing better than my parent did because at least Iâm just walking out of the house or locking them in their room.â But when weâre able to show them through Circle work how that impacts their childâs brain development and how they maintain friendships and relationships, they start to see how they need to do it differently.
What do you think explains the success of the program?
When parents can start to look through their childâs eyes youâll often have a lot of âAha!â moments with parents where theyâll go, âOh my Gosh, I do this with my kids too. And mom used to do this with me, and I never liked how it felt. But look, Iâm doing it as well.â So those kind of âOh wow!â moments, they make shifts then. And theyâre sustained shifts in how they parent for the most part.
So it sounds like a key component of Circle of Security is helping parents understand how their own parents didnât meet their needs that are laid out in the âcircleâ.
I would say that over 75% of the people that participate in Circle have had significant childhood trauma, emotional neglect, sometimes physical neglect, considerable losses. Lots and lots of repeated losses in their life. Nothingâs ever been stable or secure for them. So itâs really hard for them to trust in that. But they desperately want something different for their children. I have yet to see a parent enter the program that didnât want life to be better for their child. They have to reflect on when they were a child and were their parents able to be with them, understand them, and work through these feelings. As a parent, I may have struggles because as a child it wasnât something I received from my caregiver.
What has been your experience with parents who have completed the program?
As a result of being in Circle, parents start to have these small successes with their child. They have one success after another, until they feel their own confidence as a parent. And when that confidence is there, then I really see them flourish. And Iâve had some parents that Iâve done it with more than once because theyâve said, âI need to do it again. I donât feel I have it yet,â and we do it again. Because thereâs more that you can learn each time. Itâs really neat.
Penny Anderson is a Family Support Worker at Family & Childrenâs Services of Guelph and Wellington County. She help parents find new ways to manage their childâs behaviour, build better relationships with their children, and improve how family members talk and listen to one another.
This interview has been edited and condensed.