| Three stages of emotional attunement | Why attunement is important | Attuned parenting |
What is attunement
Attunement, or emotional attunement, is a person’s ability to read another person’s emotional cues and match them with an appropriate response. When parents are attuned to their children, they listen to and respond to them in a way that subtly adapts or matches their behavior and emotional state to make connections1.
This emotional synchrony between a child and their primary caregiver is found to contribute to children’s wellbeing and development2.
The three stages of emotional attunement
The attunement process as observed by Stern (1985) encompasses three stages:
- The mother identifies her infant’s emotional state.
- She conveys this same emotion back to the baby authentically without using imitation.
- Infants perceive the mother’s response as referring to their own original emotion.
When an infant bumps his finger and cries in pain, his mother gives an exclamation of “ouch” and scrunches up her face to match.
Emotional attunement is important because in early childhood, infants first learn to recognize their own emotions by observing the mother’s marked expression3.
Why attunement is important
Parental sensitivity and responsiveness contribute to a wide range of positive developmental outcomes, such as attachment security, behavior, and cognitive and emotional development4.
In order to be sensitive and responsive, the mother uses emotional attunement to differentiate the needs of her infant, as well as provide the right level of stimulation and satisfaction.
Attuned parenting is not a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. It doesn’t tell you what magic items to use, how much interaction a mother should provide or how many hours she should hold her newborn.
Parents who are attuned are able to stay open to changes in their child’s responses and adjust accordingly.
The importance of attunement goes beyond infants and young children. School-aged children and adolescents can also benefit from it.
Human beings thrive on relationships and attunement plays an important role in them. Individuals who are attuned to their partner’s feelings tend to have more fulfilling adult relationships and even romantic relationships5.
Here are the steps you can take to help your child deal with their troubled emotions and to build a stronger bond with them using attunement.
The ability to attune requires a person’s willingness to accept and allow emotions without trying to change them.
Parents with an emotion dismissing attitude believe that their children can have any emotion as long as they desire to change it.
These parents dismiss and disapprove of their kids’ emotional experiences in the first place. They will not be able to attune to their children’s feelings with these core beliefs.
In order to become an attuned parent, you must first accept emotions without wanting to change them.
Don’t try to “fix” another person’s feelings; try to understand them instead.
Aware of emotions
Be aware of small negative emotions before they escalate into bigger ones.
We tend to ignore small negative emotions in hopes they will disappear soon. Unfortunately, they don’t always work that way.
A smaller fire will be easier to put out if the problem is addressed early.
An important attunement technique is recognizing nonverbal cues in your child, such as their corners of the mouth turning down or looking like they’re about to cry.
When you sense that something is bothering your child, ask them what is bothering them. Ask questions like “How are you?” or “You look upset. Are you ok?”
It doesn’t matter how small the issue might be, encourage your child to talk about it. For a child, things that seem insignificant to us might mean the world.
If your child opens up to you, give them your undivided attention and active listening.
Children deal with stress in different ways. Some of them may have a hard time describing how they feel if they haven’t had much experience practicing. Coach them to name their feelings.
They may need additional time to process. Let them go at their own pace.
This is probably the most challenging step in attunement.
Whenever their words or emotions are directed at you, down-regulate your own defensiveness before speaking. Take several deep breaths if needed.
Focus on your child’s perceptions on the situation, not on “facts” or “who is right.”
Empathize and validate
The final step in attuning is also the most crucial6.
Empathize by listening to your child’s negative emotions with compassion and trying to see their things through their eyes.
How would you feel if you were in their shoes as a child?
Then validate their emotions. For example, “It makes sense to me that you would be upset in that situation because it was the first time you tried that game” or “I get that. You had a good reason asking for a short rest, but you were still denied.”
Next: Discover the steps to effective validation.
- 1.Curran M, Hazen N, Jacobvitz D, Sasaki T. How representations of the parental marriage predict marital emotional attunement during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2006:477-484. doi:10.1037/0893-3184.108.40.2067
- 2.Trondalen G, Skårderud F. Playing with Affects. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. Published online January 2007:100-111. doi:10.1080/08098130709478180
- 3.Jonsson C, Clinton D, Fahrman M, Mazzaglia G, Novak S, Sörhus K. How do mothers signal shared feeling‐states to their infants? An investigation of affect attunement and imitation during the first year of life. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. Published online September 2001:377-381. doi:10.1111/1467-9450.00249
- 4.Thompson RA. The Legacy of Early Attachments. Child Development. Published online January 2000:145-152. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00128
- 5.Kobak R, Abbott C, Zisk A, Bounoua N. Adapting to the changing needs of adolescents: parenting practices and challenges to sensitive attunement. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online June 2017:137-142. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.02.018
- 6.Gottman JM. The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W W Norton & Co.; 2011.