By Jessica Kilpatrick, MA, LPC- STARRY’s Director of Training and Program Development
Attunement is a word and a concept that has been fascinating to me for some time now. What does it mean to truly be attuned? How do you learn attunement? How do you teach attunement? Is it even teachable? Why are some people so much better at it than others? What happens to our neurobiology when we receive it? What happens to our neurobiology when we don’t receive it? How can we heal?
Let’s start with the definition of attunement; the dictionary defines attunement as
“Being or bringing into harmony; a feeling of being ‘at one’ with another being.”
The synonyms for attune are: accommodate, accustom, adapt, conform, acclimate, accord, balance, compensate, coordinate, counterbalance, familiarize, harmonize, integrate, reconcile, regulate, tune, make agree.
Let’s just think about the beauty and the pain of that concept for a minute. If there is a concept as profound as this, it means there must be a concept that means that we can be without this profound beauty. Loneliness can happen in a crowded room. We can feel disconnected even in our everyday relationships. There is a deeper need that our souls are desperate to have and that our children and those around us are yearning to receive.
When I began to really understand the concept of attunement was when I read the book I Love You Rituals by Becky Bailey and she gave a story that illustrates attunement in a way that really drove home the concept. She told the story of a child in a café who is eating with his mother. A fire truck drives by and the mother is picking up his toys and putting his jacket on him. She is meeting his need for instrumental care very well, but the deeper need is unmet. The child needs a safe adult that he can look at to know that everything is okay. “You hear a fire truck,” the caregiver says with a smile. The child knows that all is well in his world.
When it comes to our children, attunement isn’t just listening to them when they say they are sad, or happy, or mad, it’s a deeper knowing and full acceptance of this emotion. Attunement means that we see the need before the need is even expressed and we meet them there. We anticipate the need, accept the need, and meet the need- the need for acceptance, for love, for appreciation, for structure, and for nurture.
It seems in our culture that is inundated with the chaos of work, work, work we may be more and more challenged to be in attunement with our children. There is simply too much going on at times. We cannot be attuned all the time, but if we feel challenged we can make more effort to still our own minds and the world around us to hear the quiet whisper or the loud temper tantrum that says, “I need you to understand me and ‘be with’ me.”
As our children get older it gets more challenging to be attuned. Understanding and accepting the feeling of our teens gets perplexing. What do they need? It may be independence, respect, freedom, a hug, or more discipline and structure, but we won’t recognize the need if we can’t tune in. The only way to tune is to be still enough so we see the need.
Here are some practical ways to be attuned with your younger child today:
• Anticipate hunger and feed them just before they get hungry
• Make sure you have a water bottle readily available for your child so that they don’t get thirsty
• Notice what seems to set your child off into a tantrum and navigate around that difficult time
• Get them into bed before they get too tired
• Make sure you look them in the eyes when you say “I love you”
• Ask them if they need a hug
• Give them warnings about transition such as leaving the house or stopping an activity
• Ask them what they want to eat
• Let them have some quiet, calm time when they may be overwhelmed, knowing that kids need break just like you
• Empathize with them when they say that they hate homework- you were there once, too!
• Give them choices
• Be patient and calm when they are feeling frustrated, keeping in mind that this is normal for their developmental age
• Let them get messy!
Here are some ways to meet the needs of your older child or teen:
• Let them tell you about their day and truly listen without advice and lectures
• Care about whatever they care about even if it’s not your favorite
• Understand their need for friendships at this age
• Give them reasonable limits and boundaries
• Make sure to make eye contact with them when you say “I love you”
• Don’t take it personally! SO hard, but so important
• Know what sets them off and try to help them find ways to navigate this successfully
• Understand that sometimes they don’t even know why they do the things they do or feel the way they feel
• Remember how hard it is to be this age
• Don’t solve all of their problems for them, but be there when they need you to help guide them
• Teach them skills in a way that is playful and fun, not through lectures
• Let them sleep! They need it!
• Let things go when it doesn’t hurt anyone else or themselves