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Therapist believes parents need to offer children connection, security  

By Kaye Hult – North Idaho editor

Brenda Hammond shifted from therapy to teach parents.

Brenda Hammond, the mental health specialist at three Mountain States Early Head Start (MSEHS) centers in Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone counties, believes strong families begin with secure attachment and relationships between parent and child.

As a teacher in the 1980s and 1990s, she found that in order to help children, she needed to work with their families.

After helping organize the Community Action Agency in Sandpoint in 1999, she became more aware of poverty and that there was “no such thing as a level playing field for children.  So much depends on resources families have.”

Since earning a master in social work degree in 2004 at Eastern Washington University, she has worked at MSEHS.  She stopped working as a mental health therapist in 2016.

After teaching, social services and therapy, Brenda realized she wanted to focus her energies on working with a program that would have an impact on children.

Instead of pulling people who were drowning out of the water downstream, she said—using a metaphor about charity and human services work—she wanted to find out why people were falling in the river upstream.

“Having a secure attachment to parents, grandparents, foster parents or guardians is the greatest protective factor for children to grow to their fullest potential,” said Brenda, who grew up in Michigan, and lived 25 years in New Mexico before settling in Idaho in 1987.

While Mountain States Early Head Start offers free comprehensive child development, health, nutrition and support services to low-income families from pregnancy through a child’s first three years, Brenda said that the Circle of Security (COS) stands out, so they are seeking funding sources that will make it possible for them to share it with the wider community.

“Working with COS has been my way of going upstream,” Brenda said.

The Circle of Security helps the adults better understand and respond to their child’s needs, she said.

It fits the Early Head Start mission to promote healthy pregnancies, healthy babies and healthy families, and to enhance the development of very young children, she said.

The goal is to have impact on school readiness, child development, family development and community development, building on values of honesty, hope, trust, integrity, strengths and compassion, she said.

A child’s readiness for school begins with a healthy pregnancy, Brenda said. 

So MSEHS provides pregnant women with family consultants who visit parents and other family members for more than an hour and a half each week to discuss child development, health, mental health and school readiness.

Consultants try to make sure children are up to date on well-child visits, and on vision and hearing screenings.

They teach parents about child development, describing what comes next, so the parents can support their children’s development in the physical, cognitive, social and emotional areas.

“We also connect families with community resources,” she said.  “We support their goals, such as a mother earning a GED, a father finding job training so he can take a better job.”

MSEHS serves families in Bonner, Kootenai and Shoshone counties. 

“We offer socialization opportunities for parents and children to get together.  The children socialize with other children, and the parents with other parents,” she said.

In the eight years they have used the Circle of Security for parents, family consultants have noticed positive changes in the parent/child relationships at home, Brenda said.

Developed by Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman and Bert Powell from Marycliff Institute in Spokane, and Robert Marvin at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, COS teaches parents about attachment.

The Circle of Security program strengthens parents’ ability to observe and improve their own care-giving skills, which then allows them to offer a secure relationship to their children, Brenda said.  This promotes their children’s current and future well-being.

Trained facilitators offer eight classes. A DVD and handouts provide content that invites parents to talk about their challenges in a safe environment, she said.  For those not interested in group learning, the information can be shared at home.

“I learn so much every time I teach a class,” she said.  “I see parents opening up and understanding more.

“When parents participate in a class, they see others struggle too,” Brenda said. “They see that struggle is normal, and parenting is just plain hard.”

Parents learn to be self-reflective.  When they are more able to look honestly at their own feelings, thoughts and behaviors, they have more control over how they interact with their children, she explained.

As parents look back and develop a coherent life story, Brenda said, it frees them from unconscious reactions and makes them able to offer connection to their children more than correction.

“Parents learn that their children’s behavior tells them what they need,” she explained. “Parents also learn to validate their children’s feelings by being with them in their feelings, which helps them learn effective ways to regulate those feelings.

“Parents come to understand there is no such thing as a perfect parent,” Brenda said.

One mother commented, “I used to think my son was really being a pest. 

“Now I understand that he’s trying to tell me something. If I can meet his need, we’re both much happier,” she said.

Brenda said it’s never too late to strengthen the connection, the relationship, between parent and child. 

“According to attachment research, if a parent can ‘get it right’ 30 percent of the time, that individual is a good parent,” she said

The Early Head Start speech therapist observed that when one mother began to understand her child, the quality of their relationship became more harmonious.

Having seen changes that come from using the Circle of Security, MSEHS has committed to send all of its staff that work directly with families to be trained to teach it.

It is also taking the Circle of Security beyond their enrolled families. 

“We applied for grants to offer the program in the communities,” Brenda said.

“In Sandpoint, we received funding to offer three series.  We will be offering classes in Kootenai County in February, and in Shoshone County after that,” she said.

Brenda said parents come eager to learn and share.  Their feedback is positive, and parents are grateful. 

“We see how great the need is.  We think we have something to offer that answers their need,” she said.

Mountain States Early Head Start just received a grant from Idaho Children’s Trust Fund for another series of classes. 

That trust fund, whose mission is to prevent child abuse, sees the Circle of Security as a way to prevent child abuse by helping parents understand their children and meet their needs.

MSEHS wants to remove barriers to attending the COS program, so they do not charge for classes.  They also provide refreshments and small stipends for child care and transportation.

Working with MSEHS and COS fits with her Methodist upbringing and her Baha’i faith.

“A basic belief in both is that everyone is here to make the world a better place,” she said.

For information, call 208-263-2569, ext. 419, email or visit the website at

Copyright © January 2018 - The Fig Tree