Creating a safe haven and secure base

By Joshua Lockhart, PHEc

It’s been a few years since Brene Brown delivered her YouTube sensation TED talk about being vulnerable. She related how for humans, our core need and desire is security, and to do that, we have to be open and vulnerable with one another.

Back in 1957, Harry Harlow started conducting studies on rhesus monkeys where he removed the monkey from their mother and had them raised by machine mother monkeys. In some cases, there were two mothers the baby rhesus could choose from, one that was soft and covered by cloth, but did not dispense food; whereas the other was wired and could provide food. What is fascinating is that the baby monkeys chose comfort over food. Something different from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These monkeys spent roughly 23 hours of their day with the cloth machine mother monkey, and only went to the wire mother machine monkey when they were hungry.

This study was the foundation of showing how we are dependent on security. We need a safe haven and a secure base. This secure base and safe haven is created when a caregiver or partner, as with the rhesus monkey, is accessible to meet our needs in vulnerability. Of course, it also helps if the partner or caregiver is responsive and engaged, meaning they actually show genuine concern for us.

A secure base and a safe haven will not exist without vulnerability, being open. For example, if my wife comes to me with a struggle she is experiencing, she is currently being open with me and is in a state of vulnerability. If I responded with “buck up,” that doesn’t create an environment that is safe or secure for my wife to be vulnerable. What the research shows is I would need to respond with compassion or join her in her state of being vulnerable.

This is also true with our children. If they are being open with you on a behaviour they experimented with, responding with negativity will impact their perception of you being a safe and secure environment to be vulnerable in. It may be hard to be compassionate, or even be vulnerable yourself, with a child when they have done something that you do not approve of. But in that moment of weakness, they don’t need to be lectured, belittled or given the cold shoulder. They have turned to you, similar to that of the rhesus monkey, for a soft, secure and safe place to land after being outside in the world.

If you are struggling to create a safe haven or secure base for your spouse or your children, start off with being accessible to them when they need you and be responsive to their needs and be engaging. As you do this, it will give you opportunities to be vulnerable (open) and compassionate with them.


Josh Lockhart works for the College of the Rockies in Kimberley BC. He is also a columnist with the Battleford’s News Optimist and a Co-Author with Notes On Parenting. Josh is currently a counselling graduate student atGonzaga University.