When we think about figuring out our child’s needs, we think about their hunger, thirst, sleep, diaper changes, safety and other basic care. These aforementioned needs are the critical building blocks for developing a loving and connected relationship with our children. The next step beyond simply providing these building blocks, however, is learning to “attune” to your child.
What is Attunement?
Attunement is knowing how and when to deliver care to our children in order for them to feel safe, understood and prioritized. Attunement is expressed in “behaviors that reflect ‘the quality of feeling of a shared affect state without imitating the exact behavioral expression’”. This just means that your baby learns about their feelings by “observing themselves in the mirror of their mother’s [or father’s face]” (Booth, P.B., & Jernberg, A.M. 2010).
What Does Attunement Look Like?
Being attuned with your child means that you are responding to your child’s needs and learning each other’s rhythms. Our rhythms are how we interact and respond with people and objects around us. For instance, you establish a rhythm or pattern with your child based on how you respond to their cries or their yelling your name from two rooms away. Your child is able to predict how you will respond and know that you will be there to give a comforting hug or express concern when you hear their shout.
In fact, this set way of responding is developed the moment your child is born. Your baby cannot speak or understand the words you are using but they understand your non-verbal cues and ways of communicating. They are becoming aware of your gentle, crinkly eyes, your smile and laughter when they do something cute, and the tone of your voice while playing peek-a-boo.
- If you are still curious (or for those of us that are visual learners) what attunement looks like, watch the Still Face Experiment by Dr Edward Tronick. This video gives us a great visual representation of just how much our verbal and non-verbal communication expresses our interest or “attunement” in others.
Imagine that you go to a friend to share some exciting news. Perhaps you got a new job, a new house, or had a new partner to share about. If your friend responded with no outward expression, a straight face, how would you feel? You might leave feeling like your friend expressed no genuine interest in your excitement, that your friend was mis-attuned to your excitement, and perhaps you would walk away feeling not seen or heard. Children are looking for similar (though MORE!!) attunement from their attachment figures/parent(s) every time they are scared, hungry, happy, and more.
“Good Enough Parenting”
No matter how hard we may try, there is no way to be attuned to our child(ren) all the time. Dr Donald Winnicot, a British Psychoanalyst and Pediatrician, coined the term, “Good Enough Parenting”. Winnicot determined that parents need to be meeting their child’s needs “30% of the time to create happy, well attached children” (Johnson, P. 2021). It is also important to note that how much attunement or responsiveness we give our child decreases over time. We respond and react more frequently when our children are infants versus when they are teenagers due to your child’s need for independence.
How Can I Increase Attunement with my Child(ren)?
Here is a list of simple activities you can do with your child to enhance your relationship and attune to their needs:
- Read a book or tell a story: Pay attention to how your child responds verbally and non-verbally. Comment on how they reacted to better reflect your understanding.
- Reflect to your child if they had a hard day at school (do you need a minute of quiet? would you like a hug? etc).
- Draw or paint a picture together. Get creative and maybe a little bit messy!
- Play a simple game of Simon Says, Follow the Leader OR create your own game.
These moments of feeling seen and heard can happen while eating dinner, cleaning the dishes together, during bath time, bedtime, and more. You know your child best, so try to find a time where you can fill their “attunement meter”.
Booth, P. B, Jernberg, A.M. (2010). Theraplay: Helping parents and children build better relationships through attachment-based play. Jossey-Bass.
Johnson, P. (2021, August 6) Good Enough Parenting. Forest Psychology.
Manela, M. (2014, February 10). Four Easy Activities to Enhance Attunement. Thrive Group.
Blog written by Sentier therapist, Bridgett Brye, MSW, LICSW.