The Shape of a Child: Attunement as a Key Parental Tool

Erin Belanger, LMHC

Did you know that our emotions are contagious and that, as parents, we impact the emotional states of our children? If you want a scientific explanation from the field of neuroscience, take a look at the new research on “mirror neurons”. This is a new and fascinating study, explaining how emotional contagion works. But without going into a long and dry lecture, let’s take a look at a practical example of how this plays out.

I remember a particularly profound experience from when my son was about three months old. I was getting ready to take him on a plane for a family vacation. Mind you, this was my first child and the first time I took him on a plane. Getting through security was a whole new experience. As my son and I came through the other side of security into the terminal, I thought I heard our names being called. Almost immediately, my stomach dropped as I realized that the plane just made its last call for us to board before taking off. I started running, pushing my son in the stroller, and hoping everyone else would keep up. I got all the way to the end of the hall (because, of course, the plane had to be departing from the furthest possible point from where we started) and I looked for the quickest (and safest) way to get myself and a stroller down a level.

I must have looked a bit maniacal to the random passersby as I nearly ran them over… and, I admit, I felt a bit panicked. I’d never missed a flight before. I’m sure you can tell where this story is going - I arrived at the gate just as the plane was backing up. I was so upset and had no idea what I was going to do. It was at that moment that I looked down. My son, along for the ride, was about to cry. Seeing his face contorted into a scared pout and tears welling up, I knew he was reacting to what I was conveying to him about his environment with my speed, my body language, my tension. I was telling him that this was a scary, bad situation.

Recognizing the impact I was having on him, I relaxed my body and smiled. I spoke to him in a light voice and he smiled back and relaxed completely. It was such a profound and clear moment that helped me understand how important my reactions, emotions, and explanations were to his understanding of his own world and emotional self. And, just in case you’re interested… we were on the next flight, no charges, and a few extra hours to connect.

I see so many of these moments play out as my children look to me to help them understand a difficult situation. I also see these moments as they look to me to track and highlight their amazing moments. Children want and need to be seen, and they need accurate feedback from their caregivers about the experience they are having so they know how to interpret and understand it.

Think about your own experiences with the children in your life. Children study us and learn to interpret their world, internal and external, based on what they see and learn. If we work to attune to their experiences, we can provide accurate interpretations for them. This means that the next time your five year old screams about something not being fair, you can recognize that they are feeling frustrated with a world that seems unpredictable, or with not having control over something. At that point, you are better able to respond by saying, “I know that it feels unfair to you that you have to go to bed right now - you want to be able to stay up late. Tonight is not a night that we can do that because you have school tomorrow, but if you are playing nicely and showing me that you are not too tired this weekend, we can have a stay up late night.” Instead of responding to the “not fair” part, the attuned parent responds to the “no control” part. This doesn’t mean that your child will suddenly say, “Ok! I’m super happy to go to bed right now!” It just means that the intensity will come down a little, your child will feel heard, and you will help them develop (when you follow through with your promise on the weekend) a sense of trust in the world. Your child will grow up knowing that the world is not perfect, but that there are people and places that they can trust and rely on.

Attunement is wonderfully versatile. While it is very helpful to tune into what your child is feeling in the hard moments, the joyful and light moments are just as important! Think about the beautiful summer day on which you take an afternoon to go play with your kids in the park. To track your kids as they climb across the monkey bars, run up hills, fly kites, and spy on ants building a nest is a gift to them (and to you). As they tear around, reflecting that you see them, they will feel connected to you and seen. They will understand the joy they feel. Maybe a child slips off the slide a little too fast - attunement means going over to a child that looks a little stunned or upset and saying, “You came down that slide so fast… that was a little scary when you flew off the end like that. Are you ok?” You express concern, certainly, but you also help them understand their emotional experience.

This concept is not limited to young children. It is important for middle and high schoolers, and even your college kids. Being able to talk to your child in an attuned manner about classes, friends, sports groups, and college decisions means being able to track your child’s inner world and describe it for them. The 17 year old who comes home after her first serious break-up doesn’t need someone to tell her that it was not real love, that there are more fish in the sea, or that it’s just a high school relationship and she’ll get over it. Instead, she needs to hear that you get how important the relationship was and how much it hurts to lose someone you care deeply about. She needs to hear that it’s ok that she’s sad, angry, etc.

Being tuned in to the people you love in life - especially your children - takes energy and focus. I think, though, that the more we let go of our agendas for our children, and the more we track their experiences, the less tedious and the more rewarding our lives together become.