What is Attunement?

Therapy Tips on How to be
an Attuned Parent

Attunement can be described as alignment to another, congruency, or being “in-step” with someone.  Attunement is awareness, connection, and mindfulness. So what is the definition of attunement? Dan Siegel has defined attunement using the acronym of COAL which stands for: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love.

Attunement from a caregiver is exemplified through the following example: a toddler’s block tower falls over and they suddenly burst into tears. The parent may come over and check in with the child and recognize that their child is crying and sad. An attuned parent may then mirror the child’s expression, provide comfort with a hug, or validate the child’s emotions. All of these are signs of attunement. 

Of course nobody is perfect and there can also be missed attunement. The following example articulates misattunement: you give your pre-teen eggs for breakfast and they scrunch up their nose in disgust. Because you’re holding the frying pan, however, you turn around to finish cooking and don’t pay attention to their reaction. Your child may then eat breakfast very slowly while you’re hurrying them to finish before school starts. This is an example of misattunement. In missing the cue that your child didn’t want to eat the eggs, your response misaligned with their feelings.

Looking at the above examples, it’s important to recognize that attunement isn’t a replacement of discipline and boundaries but actually a tool that can be used to open lines of effective communication. With that in mind, here are 5 questions to ask yourself to check your attunement:

Am I holding a frying pan?

It sounds silly but just like the eggs example, it’s important to ask yourself, “is there something preventing me from being or appearing present?” Often a quick glance at our phones, a task at hand, a glance away, or thoughts about work stress are common culprits for pulling us from the moment. It’s important to not only have the person you’re attuning to be your focus, but also for them to feel it. When we can put distractions aside, check in with ourselves, and convey open-body language, we are more likely to attune.

Am I really listening?

 Listening is an important skill that we can all try to perfect at and yet always fall short. Listening is about suspending your experience, judgment, bias, previous experiences, and anything else that is getting in the way of hearing out your children. When your mind is focused on a million different tasks or concerns, take a moment to connect to the present moment: are you truly listening to your child?

What is my body language communicating?

Body language matters. Begin to pay attention to your eye contact, movement, and body posture. Attunement can often mean mirroring the person you’d like to attune to with body language. Or it can mean uncrossing your arms and relaxing our posture in a way that says, “I’m calm, present, and receptive to you right now.” With younger children specifically, it can be beneficial to kneel or crouch to be on your child’s level.

What tone am I using?

Your tone and language can make a difference too. Attunement can be misaligned when your children hear anxiety, anger, or brevity. These cues will often cause them to shut down. Humans are experts at assessing the environment and tone can communicate a lot. When attempting to attune you can ask yourself: “is my tone open, excited, calm, or soothing?” It’s often more about what we convey with our tone, than the words we say.

Do I understand what my child is saying?

Attunement can sometimes be “feeling with.” Is there empathy and understanding for what your child is feeling? Feeling your child’s feelings doesn’t mean accepting all behaviors that come from feelings. Feeling your child’s feelings is less about rights or wrongs and more about validating how they feel.

It’s important to remember that perfect and consistent attunement is impossible. As parents, you can remember that there is no “perfect”. You’re going to get it wrong from time to time – and that’s okay! Allowing your child to see your mistakes is also a valuable parenting tool. What matters most is that regardless of who’s right or wrong, they feel seen and loved by their parents. If you’re having trouble connecting with your child on this level, connect with a member of Decade2Connect today!

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