Toddlers, tantrums and time-outs: How the circle of security can help you and your little one

 In All, Parenting, Relationships

So, remember last week I told you I was going to do a talk. Well, it was on Friday and I think it went really well. We had a fairly large group of parents and it was a really great experience to finally get a chance to share my skills with the parenting community in Berlin.

But I know that some of you, especially those not in Berlin, might be feeling a little left out and would also like to hear about how to deal with tantruming toddlers so I thought I would share the talk with you and you are welcome to share it with other parents who you think could benefit.

The following information comes directly from the Circle of Security (COS) intervention, which I am licensed to teach so please be careful not to distribute any of this information without giving credit to the creators of COS.

“Good morning everyone. Today I am going to be talking to you about the wonderful world of toddlers and tantrums but before I begin, let me tell you a little bit about myself and how I’ve come to be interested in working with parents of infants.

I am a qualified clinical psychologist from South Africa. In South Africa we get a general training and are not required to specialise. After graduating, however, I selected to participate in two separate training workshops to improve my skills with regards to parent education paying particular attention to the role of facilitating bonding between parents and infants/toddlers.

I am a licensed Babies in Mind Practitioner and I am a certified Circle of Security Parenting Facilitator. Today I’m going to highlight some of the ideas I teach during the Circle of Security workshops that I am trained to provide.

I moved to Berlin in July 2014 and have been working as a private pay clinical psychologist. I do plan to run the full Circle of Security workshops this year so if you like what you hear today then please come and find me at the end of the session and I will take down your details so as to get hold of you with information about upcoming workshops and talks.

So just to give you an overview of the talk today, I’m going to start by introducing the Circle of Security. We’re going to learn very briefly some of the main concepts that are taught in the workshop without going into too much detail. We will then use these concepts to understand tantrums and other difficult behaviour and a new way of dealing with problem behaviour will be proposed. I’m going to run you through the basic concepts and then there will be quite a bit of time for us to process these new concepts and discuss how they can be used to understand tantrums and your children’s behaviour.

The Circle of Security Parenting Program was developed by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell. This program is based upon five decades of research about how security is supported and not supported. We’re all hard-wired to feel secure. This need for secure relationships is built in to our most important interactions throughout every hour of every day. Babies naturally seek security and caregivers want to provide security.

The first thing you need to know about the Circle of Security Parenting Program is that it is a relationship-based parenting approach. Parenting is a hard job and it can sometimes feel like an emotional rollercoaster, especially because children don’t come with an instruction manual! You might sometimes want to ask your children “what do you want from me?” But in actual fact our children ARE the instruction manual. We just need to learn what to look for.

Our job as parents is to give our children a sense of security. The more secure your child is, the more she or he will be able to enjoy you, have higher self esteem and the confidence to turn to you in times of trouble both now and in the future. Our children depend on us to meet a fundamental need, the need to be in relationship with caring adults. Thus we play an essential role in our children’s lives.

Without going into too much detail about the Circle of Security (which you will learn if you partake in the full workshop) let’s just say that the important thing to remember is that it’s a system that describes the relationship between caregivers and their children. In the full course you get to learn about the Circle of Security graphic and how to use it to make sense of your children’s behaviour. One of the important lessons you will learn is how to identify what your child needs from you at any given moment. The Circle of Security teaches us around 8-10 different needs but today I just want you to get a grasp of the definition of one such need. Sometimes our children need us to help them make sense of their emotions. These are “organize my feelings” moments on the circle. By teaching our children that they’re not alone in their feelings, they learn to trust and share their emotions, without being overwhelmed by them. This is very important from a psychological perspective as it is proven that children who not learn adequate emotional regulation strategies develop into adults with mental health problems down the line.


One of the best and simplest messages that you learn through the Circle of Security is that you only need to know 3 things. Here is a handout (see image above) for you to take home with you, stick it on your fridge or something, and keep it in the back of you mind. It is a simple formula for how to build security in your children. It is (almost) everything you need to know about supporting security in 25 words or less.

The three things you need to know is:

• Children need us to be bigger and stronger so they can feel safe, knowing that someone is willing and able to protect them. Our children also need us to be kind. If you’re bigger and stronger without being kind then you’re at risk of coming across as being mean. If you can approach your child with kindness, no matter what they’re doing or how they’re making you feel, then you’re going a long way to building security.
• Wise? What does it mean to be wise? Well, our wisdom shows up in knowing the balance of firmness and affection, giving children access to the no nonsense tenderness that leads to security

2. Whenever possible: follow your child’s need.
• The circle of security takes the guesswork out of knowing what our children need. If you attend the full workshop you will learn about ALL of the various needs that children may have, you learn how to identify them and how to meet them.
• When you learn how to read the “instruction manual” then you can start to see how every behaviour, every demand, and every moment with your child can be interpreted in terms of some or other need.
• When we follow our children’s needs we give them a sense of confidence, not only in themselves but in us.

3. Wherever necessary: take charge.
• But any parent will tell you, it’s not always possible to follow your child’s needs. For example, a child’s desire to explore a new toy can sometimes clash with our need to get to an appointment
• Although they may protest, our children appreciate the sense of safety that comes from knowing we’re in charge
• This is very important in terms of understanding tantrums. I recently witnessed a child having a full-blown tantrum in a supermarket. If we look at this formula for security, how can we understand the child’s behaviour and how should we respond?
• Well, firstly it is important to acknowledge that a supermarket is a very stimulating place for a little one. They are confronted with an immense array of toys and sweets, etc. And because they are mammals and because they are humans, their senses communicate with their brains and stimulate desire. Are they wrong for wanting the toys they see? Are they bad for being seduced by the delicious looking sweets on display? No. Please don’t tell me that as fully grown adults, you haven’t also picked up one of those delicious treats so artfully placed at the check-out of the grocery store. Of course you have! And so have I! Perhaps you use your powers of reasoning at times. You tell yourself that the snacks are full of calories or that they’re expensive or that you don’t need them. But a little one doesn’t have these capacities yet. Their brains haven’t developed in such ways. Thus, it is our job to be BIGGER and WISER in that situation.
• Do you want to know what the father of this child did? He picked her up (BIGGER), took her away from the stimulating toy area (WISER), got down to her level on the supermarket floor, and spoke to her in a calm and caring voice (KIND). He demonstrated to her that he understood that she wanted x and y, and that it was difficult to have him say no to her (organize feelings) but that it wasn’t going to happen (TAKE CHARGE). And do you know what happened? The child soon started to calm down, and the tantrum was very quickly and efficiently dealt with.

But I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Well sure, that’s great for this father and his child but sometimes my child acts up and throws a tantrum for no apparent reason other than because he/she is being a little nightmare, and trying to get on my nerves, then how does the circle help me?”

We’re now going to talk about what to do when your child is acting difficult. You might be looking for a solution but it’s going to be coming in a form that is different from what you’re used to. What I’ll be suggesting is more of a way of being than a series of techniques. We’re going to look at the quality of the relationship as a way of dealing with difficult behaviour.

I’m not sure what kinds of books you’ve read or whether you’ve been to other talks about parenting but it’s likely that you’ve encounted a behavioural program along the way. In these programs behaviours are either punished or rewarded and therefore extinguished or reinforced. But the Circle of Security is not a behaviour-based programme. Like I mentioned before, it is a relationship-based programme. With Circle of Security, behaviour is seen as communication. Therefore your task as parents is not to change behaviour, your task is to hear and respond to the message.

Of course, children make mistakes and it takes time for them to learn appropriate behaviour, but, persistent misbehaviour is not their first choice. Their first choice is behaviour that allows them to feel our support and connection. No child wants a relationship in which acting out is the key to reaching us. Being difficult is just too difficult. It is too much work and isn’t rewarding for them or for us.

Often children persistently misbehave when appropriate behaviour isn’t getting through to us. This means that most of the time, if we’re having an ongoing problem with our children, our relationship with them needs to be the solution. Since we’re the bigger, stronger, wiser and kind half of the relationship, we need to take the lead in meeting their needs on the circle.

So…when our children are upset, acting up, pouty or lose it they are ACTUALLY saying, “I’m really lost – I need you – I don’t know what to do with how I’m feeling. They are looking for you to help them with their feelings.

What’s important to remember, is that we as grown ups also have feelings. And our little one’s behaviour may trigger stuff in us that we react to. When faced with a tantruming toddler, we might be triggered to feel frustrated, powerless, lost, angry or afraid. In this moment, we stop seeing the child as someone who is little and in need of us. Instead all we can see in that little face is anger or rejection or demands that make no sense. When this happens, we have “stepped off the circle” and suddenly our children don’t have us there to be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind.

When we don’t see that our child needs help with a problem but see our child AS the problem we’ve stepped off the circle. If we see our child as “bad” like mean, selfish, bratty, and so on then we know we’re using blame when we shouldn’t. However, if we hold a sense of our child as “good” even though they are acting out to get some need met, we are seeing our child and can be available to them in the relationship.

Remember, all parents will have this happening to them some of the time. It is inevitable and that is fine. In psychological terms we call this a “rupture” and no relationship that has every stood the test of time has been rupture free. The bad news is that repeated ruptures, without repair, create serious problems. The good news is that we can repair ruptures in a way that strengthens our relationship with our children and teaches them how healthy relationships work. Repair is basically about getting back on the circle and saying, “I’m here, I know you need me, and we’re going to work this out”.

So do you want to hear how to repair?

There are three steps to repair:
1. Recognize the rupture
2. Time out for us when needed
3. Time in for our children

Once we know we’ve stepped off the circle (basically any time we’ve failed to be bigger, stronger, wiser and kind) we need to find our way back on. If we’re feeling stressed, angry, frustrated, etc. then first we need a break to get ourselves calmed down before we can help our children. This is where a “time out” for us can be helpful. The important thing to remember here is that we cannot be helpful to our children when we’re upset. We need to take care of our upset first. When we’re losing it, we can’t help them find it.

We start with “time outs” by seeing that our children are in a safe place while we organise our own thoughts and feelings enough to get back on the circle. Sometimes we need a time out just to catch our breath, and sometimes we need a time out to notice our feelings and reactions to our children’s behaviour.

All this process involves is saying to yourself, “Okay, I’ve stepped off the circle. What do I need to remember again? And that’s when you consult the “Formula to Security” sheet that is either on your fridge or memorized in your head!

Once we see how we’ve stepped off the circle, we can then begin to make another choice.

So remember, this concept of “time out” is about us calming down and is not used as a punishment for our children. “Time outs” for children are sometimes useful because at least they know we’re in charge. The problem is we’re punishing them for not being able to organize their feelings alone, by making them organize their feelings alone. It turns out that children learn to manage their feelings best with our help, not alone.

Discipline is about helping children learn to make better choices not about making them feel bad.
Instead of punishing our children with a time out, leaving them to deal with their feelings alone, the Circle of Security proposes that you use a Time In when dealing with your children. When we are calm enough to stop taking their fussing, tantrums, or pouting personally and can see that they are not doing something to us but are needing something from us, we are ready to start a ‘time in’.

In this calm connection, we can help our children organize their feelings. We need to remember this is a learning moment, not a lecturing moment because lecturing breaks the connection. If there has been a rupture, we need to take responsibility for our part and help our children understand what went on inside of us. Then we can help our children see what went wrong for them. By reflecting with our children on behaviours and feelings, we can learn how to do it differently next time and the next time and the next time until we have a new way of dealing with this particular problem. With ‘time ins’ like many things worth learning, the first 500 times are always the hardest.

Remember, you are teaching your child a way to be in a relationship that will be helpful throughout their childhood, teenage years, adulthood, and with their children someday.”


If you would like any further information about how Circle of Security can help you and your child, please send an email to

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