Attunement for Attachment
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[This article was original written for and published in the Winter 2011 Newsletter for the Austin Chapter of Families with Children from China]
Attunement (noun): being or bringing into harmony; a feeling of being “at one” with another being.
Think about the strongest relationships in your life. The person you call when you really need someone who gets it. How do you know they “get it?” What is special about those relationships? How does that relationship make you feel? Chances are, that person doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to fix anything. Or arguing. Or convincing you that it “really isn’t that big of a deal.” That person just listens. Says “Oh, you must be really hurting.” Provides a safe space for you to fully experience your feelings, and allows for those feelings to just be experienced and held. Attunement validates our inner world, providing a solid foundation for the development of a positive identity and sense of self.
Attunement supports attachment.
Imagine your child is upset because you are out of his favorite lunch. “I want macaroni and cheese!” he wails. You don’t have macaroni and cheese and there’s not much you can do about it. It’s easy to respond with “We’re out, I’m sorry. What would you like instead?” But as you’ve noticed, this may lead to your child kicking and screaming on the ground, in despair over the missing blue box. How about responding with “I know- I know you want macaroni and cheese. It’s so disappointing.” Or remember a time when your child came running in the front door with muddy shoes, carrying a bunch of weeds plucked from your hasn’t-been-mowed-in-several-months front yard. It’s natural to respond with “HEY! Your muddy shoes!! Don’t come one step further! Look at the mess you are making!” But what if you said “Oh Johnny! You picked those just for me! Thank you! That was so thoughtful! And oh my!! Your shoes are so muddy! Let’s head back outside with those muddy shoes!”
Attunement. To join our child on their inner journey. Your child isn’t thinking about your freshly mopped floors. He just picked you a beautiful plant from your yard and wants to share it with you. This doesn’t mean we gracefully accept muddy footprints all over our freshly mopped tile. It simply means that before tending to your dirty tile, you take a moment to join in with your child’s wonderment and excitement. To tell our child “I get it! You’re so excited and I understand. Your feelings are worth it and they are more important than my tile.” And then maybe you can both fill a bucket with water and have some fun with the suds.
Sometimes our adopted children have big feelings. Big feelings that are a little scary- scary for your child and scary for you when you hear your child express them. Feelings like “I hate it here! I look different and don’t fit in with any of you!” Or feelings like “She gave me away! She didn’t love me!” As parents, we want to reassure our children, to fix their feelings. We say something like “We love you! We don’t care that you look different! I love your dark hair and your beautiful skin! You fit in here with us because we love you.” Or “She did love you! She loved you enough to know she couldn’t parent you and wanted to find you a family who could take good care of you.” When we meet our children’s feelings with contradiction, they feel misunderstood and invalidated. Instead, we should mirror our children’s feelings and join in their journey and validate their feelings. The next time your child expresses grief over her adoption, try responding with “You look different than us and feel like you don’t fit in.” Or “You are so mad that your first mom gave you away and think that she didn’t love you.” By hearing you reflect back what she has expressed, your child feels heard and understood. She can then begin to process and work through those feelings, and your relationship strengthens because she is learning that you “get it.”
Attunement Decreases Difficult Behaviors
Attunement also means taking a close look at our children’s “misbehaviors.” Is your toddler tantrumming because she is hungry, tired, or overwhelmed? Is your preschooler whining because she misses feeling connected to you? Is your teenager being sassy because she’s having a fight with her BFF and is overwhelmed with feelings about losing her friendship? Attunement doesn’t mean we tolerate negative behaviors; attunement means that first we consider the source of the behavior and then tend to that pain.
Attunement Lays the Foundation for Attachment
Why bother? Why is attunement important? Think about how a newborn baby develops a healthy attachment with her caregiver. Baby sleeps. Baby cries. Caregiver tends to cry and fixes problem. Baby is consoled. Baby is happy and enjoys quiet, playful time with caregiver. Repeat. Again and again. This cycle of attunement- where the caregiver recognizes, understands, and then consoles- is the very foundation of attachment. Our older kids certainly have more complex needs than infants, and attunement can be much more difficult. However, true attunement with our older children will encourage the same healthy foundation of secure attachment.
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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin and Bastrop Texas specializing in adoption and attachment.