What Is Parental Attunement — And Why Is It So Essential To Good Parenting?

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Happy family

We all make mistakes.

Most of the time, our parenting mistakes are unintentional. We love our kids and strive to do our best. But sometimes, we misinterpret and misunderstand their needs. We might rely on advice from friends, neighbors, and social media, or enlist child-raising approaches learned from our families — but realize that these strategies don’t always work. 

Even the most well-intentioned parenting practices fall flat when we are not attuned to our child.

The parent-child bond rests on a secure attachment. Children need to feel they are understood, as well as loved, and that you are attuned to their needs.

Parental attunement requires an understanding of a child’s unique temperament, developmental level, and how they respond to challenging situations. It involves empathy for what the child is feeling — even when their reactions, behaviors, or emotional outbursts seem excessive.

It also asks that we reflect upon our personal beliefs, attitudes, worries, and expectations so that our needs (conscious or unconscious) do not contribute to misattunement.

Not an easy task.

Here is an example of how one parent in my psychotherapy practice addressed this challenge:

Kayla’s daughter Anna (their names are changed to protect confidentiality) landed the lead role in a school play. But you would never know that from her mood. She tearfully bemoaned her close friend Nicole’s anger toward her. Nicole auditioned as well but was awarded a minor part. Nicole had stormed off and wouldn’t speak with Anna, who now worried that the friendship was over.

Kayla felt frustrated, too. Her emotions translated into the following thoughts. Why is everything so darn complicated? Why does my daughter have to be so sensitive? She should be excited. I would have been ecstatic if I landed that role when I was her age. Why can’t she just feel happy for a change? She deserved that lead role and boy am I disgusted that her friend had to ruin it for her. Maybe it’s time that she stop being friends with that girl.

Kayla’s emotions and thoughts were understandable. However, she knew that sharing her reactions with her daughter would make matters worse. She took a deep breath and considered how to best respond to her child. Although not verbatim, here is a paraphrased version of her response:

"Honey, I know this must be so hard for you — it is so exciting that you got the lead role, but at the same time, upsetting that Nicole reacted like she did. I know your friendship with her is really important. Let’s give her some time to lick her wounds. She will probably come around and be your friend again. I hope that with some time, you can also feel excited and proud about this great opportunity with the play."

Self-awareness is key. Attunement requires an overriding understanding of what your child needs at any given moment. Like Kayla, sometimes that means swallowing your own anger or disappointment and helping your child navigate difficult emotions.

Kayla acknowledged Anna’s distress and did not disparage her daughter’s friend. She conveyed that it is okay to have conflicting emotions, and trusted that over time, Anna would have the strength to move beyond this impasse with her friend.

RELATED: How To Immediately Tell If You Have A Secure Or Insecure Attachment Style

What is parental attunement?

Decades ago, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described the importance of the parent’s healthy "mirroring" of their infant’s reactions, in which their response accurately reflected back what the child was experiencing. Infants feel safe when they gaze at their parents and see their own emotional state reflected back to them (think cooing when they smile, or a frowny face when they are upset). Most infants can overlook the parent’s occasional distracted mood if they feel understood and "mirrored" most of the time.

However, disruptions can arise when a parent is chronically distracted, depressed, anxious, or angry, and unable to respond in an attuned manner. A chronic lack of attunement can lead to a range of mental health problems for the child, including low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

"When non-verbal and verbal communication is positive and respectful, the human body responds with calm and well-being," explains psychotherapist Hilary Hendel. "In that state, we are able to connect positively with others. However, when communication is harsh, tense, hurtful, threatening, dismissive, or humiliating, the nervous system jolts into fight/flight/freeze."

Attunement does not mean you must always agree with your child, offer them a constant stream of candy and toys, or rescue them from challenging situations. Children recognize that you are not going to cave in or necessarily agree with them, and they will reluctantly admit that certain expectations and demands are appropriate. As children mature, they more easily weather occasional misattunement. They recognize that you get distracted and stressed — and sometimes even realize that you have a life of your own separate from theirs!

However, the sense that you still "get them" and understand their feelings is essential.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Be The Best Parent Your Child Needs — At Every Age

What to consider going forward

Children crave your attuned understanding. But most teens and older children recognize that you can be distracted, angry, or forgetful and that your reactions sometimes miss the mark. Cultivating a caring, consistently respectful relationship can offset those times when misattunements occur. As I commented in my book, The Gifted Parenting Journey:

"What buffers children from these momentary lapses in attuned attention is the stability inherent in a mutually respectful, caring, flexible, and well-intentioned family environment. Frequent, enthusiastic, and affectionate expressions of love for your child — just for being who they are — are essential. Letting them know you love them, enjoy time with them, appreciate their unique, adorable, and amazing traits, and relish watching them grow and flourish, will create a sense of security they will carry into adulthood" (p. 148).

The importance of parental attunement has received more widespread attention and has even hit mainstream media. In a recent Time article, journalist Jenny Anderson highlighted the importance of attuned parenting: "Being attuned to kids’ emotional states is a crucial way parents support healthy development … A child’s sense of self grows stronger and matures by being known, attended to, and by feeling they matter, first and foremost, to their parents or caregivers."

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Basic tools for parental attunement include paying attention to a child’s verbal and non-verbal cues, commiserating (although not lingering too long) with their disappointments, and sharing in their joy. When your child shows excitement, join in. When they are sad, let them know you understand their sadness, but assume they will rebound (and are there to help them). And ultimately, take care of your own emotions (through healthy adult relationships and emotional outlets) so they have less impact on your child.

In his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel emphasizes the importance of understanding your own childhood influences so you can parent at your best:

"If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to recreate the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself, as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations" (p. 15).

Attunement and empathy demand an awareness of our child’s unique needs, as well as our own wishes, expectations, fears, longings, and how our own childhood baggage affects us. Parenting is an education for all of us and we screw up at times. However, perfection is never required. We can strive to be more attuned to our children and commit to becoming more aware of our own feelings and motivations. And while we cannot prevent some of life’s mishaps and tragedies, we can provide a safety net through our loving, consistent, flexible, and attuned presence.

RELATED: You Aren't Born Knowing How To Be A Perfect Parent

Gail Post, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, parenting coach, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She has written hundreds of articles and blog posts, several book chapters, and a new book, The Gifted Parenting Journey.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.