What is attunement and how can it strengthen your relationship with your child?
What is attunement? The definition is to bring into harmonious or responsive relationship. Some amazing examples of attunement are birds flocking, fish swimming in a school, and people at a stadium doing the Wave. Other more common examples are sitting down or rising from a chair at the exact same time as your friend, or realizing that how your body is arranged while sitting across from a friend or family member is the mirror image of theirs; and when you shift a little they unconsciously shift as you did. When we vocalize in response to a baby’s vocalization we are attuning to their attempts to communicate.
How can adoptive parents practice attunement with their child? The basic elements of attunement are to be open to the other’s experience, use acute listening and observing, be responsive and synchronous. How can we apply this to parenting our children; adopted or birthed? First, empty your mind of any preconceived notions of what you think is causing your child’s behavior; second, imagine yourself in your child’s shoes; third, gather information from your child, if possible, to open the door to her internal experience and accept it for what it is, then consider what you could do that would be most helpful to him. This sounds very simple but sometimes can be hard to do.
What are some of the barriers to being attuned to your child? When a person is experiencing an unpleasant emotion like grief, it can trigger our own grief that we don’t want to feel. Often our first reaction is to try to cajole them out of that feeling. We might find ourselves saying something like it is not that bad or other kids have it worse, let’s think of something pleasant to make those feelings go away, or let’s go get some ice cream to make it all better. Another barrier to being able to create attunement with your child is cultural differences. An example of this is the reserved nature of many Asian cultures. When American parents meet their child for the first time they want to hug and kiss this child that they have grown to love through developmental reports and letters. However, these displays of affection are not common in Asia and the child experiences the parent as being intrusive.
What can parents do to overcome these barriers? One thing is to be open to experiencing their uncomfortable feelings. If a parent finds themselves getting uncomfortable they can take deep breathes and acknowledge their own feelings to themselves, and in some cases even their child. It is important for parents to maintain an appropriate distance from their difficult emotions so they can remain available for and focused on their child. Parents should encourage their child to talk about the feeling or just cry if words do not seem appropriate. It is important to follow the child’s lead in how long to stay with these feelings. This sends a powerful message to your child that you accept and understand to a degree all of their experiences and they do not have to put on a happy face for you. Practicing attunement over and over again with your children lets them experience you as an ally and someone that they can come to with whatever is bothering them.
Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member