Secure Base

Secure Base article header

A secure base provides a child (and adults) with a foundation of safety to retreat to when discovering new environments becomes frightening. Consequently, A secure base is essential for exploration. A child’s continual development and courageous endeavors into the unknown are aided by the implicit knowledge that a caregiver will come to their rescue. John Bowlby considered a secure base an essential ingredient for confident, securely attached children.

As a securely attached child becomes comfortable with their environment, they leave the safety of their mother’s arms and begins to explore. When the safety of the environment is disrupted by a surprising element, the child quickly returns to their mother for reassurance. Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999), a developmental psychologist, “​observed this behavior in so many of the infants that it led her to hypothesize that babies use their mothers as a secure base to depart from and return to in their explorations of the world” (2009).

John Bowlby (1907-1990), a British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst that specialized in child development, wrote that “when conditions were favourable an infant moves away from mother on exploratory excursions and returns to her again from time to time.” Bowlby continued, “This concept of secure base from which a child, an adolescent, or an adult goes out to explore and to which he returns from time to time, is one I have come to regard as crucial for an understanding of how an emotionally stable person develops and functions all through his life” (Kindle Location 568, 1988).

​Exploration and Attachment

According to attachment theory, we have an internal system that activates attachment behavior. When frightened, we seek comfort. We also have drives for exploration. However, exploration only occurs during moments of safety. With a secure base, we confidently explore, knowing we have a place of safety at our disposal whenever needed.

While watching my two year old grandson the other day, he climbed the stairs, occasionally looking back to make sure papa was behind him. Knowing I was behind him gave him courage to explore. As he reached the top landing, he charged towards the end of the hall where we store his toys.

However, this journey was disrupted. A door was open to an adjacent room, fans were running and the bed skirt was dancing in the wind. The movement in a room that usually has the door shut frightened my grandson. He immediately stopped, turned and lifted his arms to be held. My grandson’s exploration ended when a strange unexpected sight of movement and light intruded. He quickly recovered in the safety of papa’s arms. After a moment of reassurance, he requested to get back down and continue courageously to the toy room and retrieved his toy cars.

A Foundation of Safety

A sense of safety is necessary for exploration. Not necessarily insurance against failure but confidence that failure will not completely destroy.

An attachment figure provides a secure base. When an attachment figure, typically the mother or father for a young child, their “very presence, or ready accessibility…create the conditions which enables him to explore his world in a confident way” (Kindle Location 760, 1988).

Should the child lose sight of his mother, then, exploration his forgotten, and attachment behaviors activated. Bowlby postulates that the behavior that takes the child away from his mother into the wild world is termed exploratory behavior and “is incompatible with attachment behavior and has a lower priority. It is only when attachment behavior is relatively inactive that exploration occurs” (Kindle location 769).

A secure base allows the security of attachment to remain intact while temporarily exploring the world. When the safety of a secure base is not established, unhealthy attachment behaviors may intrude, becoming a basis for a variety of neuroses that disturb and disrupt development and relationships. 

Adults and A Secure Base for Exploration

The need for security doesn’t end with childhood. We are driven by security and belonging needs throughout our lives. A secure base provides both security and belonging. Abraham Maslow suggests that both security and belonging needs must be fulfilled before we can consistently and actively explore, achieving self-actualization.

Maslow's Heiarchy of Needs Pyramid, portraying the importance of a secure base.

Bowlby explains that during adolescents new attachment figures are sought. He explains that “throughout adult life the availability of a  responsive attachment figure remains the source of a person’s feeling secure. All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long and short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figure(s)” (location 772). Throughout our lives, a place of security becomes our base camp.

​A Secure Base and Trust

The strength of a secure base depends on trust in the attachment figure. A young child builds trust through repeated experiences of attachment behaviors that are met with reassurances of safety.  This trust provides the security necessary for exploration of environments.

The attentive parent emotionally attunes with the child and provides comfort, validating the child’s emotion, and reassuring with safety. The secure base creates an emotional intimacy where emotions are shared and honored.

Daniel Siegel wrote, “the emotional transactions of secure attachment involve a parent’s emotionally sensitive responses to a child’s signals, which can serve to amplify the child’s positive emotional states and to modulate negative states.” So then, security is a product of repeated safe interactions. Siegel continues, “the aid caregivers can give in reducing uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anxiety, or sadness, enables children to be soothed and gives them a haven of safety when they are upset.”

We feel safe because our world is safe. From these repeated experiences, the soothing becomes “encoded in implicit memory as expectations and then as mental models or schemata of attachment, which serve to help a child feel an internal sense of what John Bowlby called a ‘secure base’ in the world” (2020, Kindle Location 2253). We fear, and then a significant person in our lives soothes our fears. The repeated process shows life is safe. This process creates a secure base.

Natural Dispositions and Secure Attachment

Not all childhood homes provide a secure base for developing children. Physical and emotional separations may impair bonding and attachment, leaving a child anxious or avoidant—characteristics that may follow them throughout their lives. Childhood homes do not need perfection but they shouldn’t be toxic. We find safety not from perfection but healthy repairs to mend when interactions fail to support. The still face experiemtns in the 1970’s supports this theory.

A child’s natural disposition can also play into the development of a secure base. We are not blank slates. We come into this world with pre-programming. Some children are more cuddly then others. Some children invite closeness while others require more patience and emotional maturity to provide them with the necessary attention their delicate development needs. Adults can provide security to children, regardless of their personality traits.

Whether you are a child or an adult, key relationships build trust through responsiveness to our needs. When we trust that someone will be there, we courageously explore in confidence, knowing safety is only a beckoning for help away. “Please help me. I am scared.” Loving others hears our cries, and soothe our souls.

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Bowlby, John (1988). A Secure Base. ​Basic Books; Reprint edition.

Mooney, Carol Garhart (2009). Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus. Redleaf Press; Illustrated edition. Theories of Attachment: An Introduction to Bowlby, Ainsworth, Gerber, Brazelton, Kennell, and Klaus.

Siegel, Daniel (2020) The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Third Edition.  The Guilford Press.

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