Pam Skiver, LCSW and Nan LeRoy, LPC

What’s done to children, they will do to society.                                               

Karl Menninger

Circle of Security (COS) is a relationship based early intervention program that was designed to enhance attachment security between children and their primary caregivers whether they are parents, grandparents, foster parents or anyone who is important in a child’s life. COS is not only for parents of infants and toddlers, but also for parents of children of all ages – even teens.

The COS intervention and the graphic designed to explain it are intended to help caregivers increase their awareness of their children’s needs and whether their own responses meet those needs. With increased awareness parents can expand their moment-to-moment parenting choices where needed. In this shift from mind-blindness to seeing what is hidden in plain sight lies the potential to break the stranglehold of problematic attachment patterns, passed from one generation to the next, that can compromise healthy relationships throughout a child’s lifespan.

Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman, and Bert Powell, the originators of COS, have been working together since 1983, designing and implementing treatment protocols for individuals, couples, and families. Their work is based upon an interface of attachment theory, object relations theory, and family systems theory. Their work successfully translates complex clinical insights into accessible protocols for use with families and adult clients.

Importance of Promoting a Secure Attachment

Recent longitudinal studies (birth to adulthood) at the University of Minnesota have found that secure attachment has served as a protective factor for children whose families have experienced high levels of stressful life events. In comparing competent children with less competent children from highly stressed families, researchers found that a history of early attachment-related competence proved to be a major protective factor against the adverse effects of stressful life events.

There is increasing evidence that an insecure attachment during infancy, especially one that is “disorganized,” is an important component of the cumulative risk factors on a developmental pathway toward maladaptive child outcomes. These outcomes are related to social competence with peers and teachers, impulse control, conduct disorders, anxiety, depression, dissociative disorders, and other psychiatric and legal problems.

Circle of Security Intervention overview

The COS intervention was originally done as a 20 week group with videotaping of the Strange Situation protocol done at the beginning and toward the end of the 20 weeks. That way clips from each parent/child dyad could be used to tailor the interventions for that particular dyad. Currently the same great material has been well crafted into an 8 week parent group using clips from other parents. This allows it to be more widely available. The COS intervention has most recently been rated as Promising Research Evidence (level 3) in the topic areas of Home Visiting for Child Well-Being, Infant and Toddler Mental Health, and Parent Training (California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse).

A child at any age learns or responds to therapeutic change from within a secure base relationship. The quality of the parent/child attachment is amenable to change and plays a significant role in the life trajectory of the child. Learning (including therapeutic change) occurs from within a secure base relationship, and lasting change comes from parents developing specific relationship capacities rather than skills or techniques to manage their child’s behavior.

COS teaches these relationship building skills. Parents learn observational skills based on a model of a child’s developmental needs, reflective functioning and an ability to have a reflective dialogue with their child, the ability to engage with their child’s emotions, and to experience more empathy for their child and for themselves.

Observational Skills

Much of the training with parents (and therapists) entails helping them develop the observational skills to differentiate between exploration and attachment systems; it also involves differentiating among the specific needs within each system. With a clear understanding of attachment theory and enhanced observational skills, parents (and therapists) can sharpen their responses to further promote secure attachment.

Reflective Functioning

We do not learn from our experience, we learn from standing back and reflecting on our experience. Our program teaches parents to reflect on their experience by utilizing video review and reflective dialogue. Current attachment research shows a direct correlation between a caregiver’s capacity for reflective functioning and the security of her/his children.

Emotional Regulation

Many theorists are currently focusing on the essential role of emotional regulation in the health of individuals and relationships. Much of psychotherapy and psychopharmacology are designed to help people contain emotional experience within a manageable range. Through the course of the COS group, parents learn to identify, acknowledge, and bring language to their children’s emotional experience. This process teaches children that emotions are a useful source of information rather than something they need to hide or be punished for feeling. Through this process of working with their children’s emotional experience, parents in the group are able to increase their own capacity for emotion regulation


Our experience is that as parents gain experience using the Circle of Security as a map, improve their observational skills, enter into reflective dialogue, and contain their own affect as they attend to their children’s need for affect regulation, we see a shift from defensive process to more empathy for their children. This “empathic shift,” is a movement away from focusing on children’s behavior to focusing on the relationship in general and on the specific underlying emotional needs of the child.

If you would like to learn more about the Circle of Security Intervention, you can go to their website at It contains, among other things, a well done, downloadable animation giving an overview of the Circle and many informative handouts and articles about the COS intervention.

Circle of Security

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