Be Attuned

What is attunement?

Attunement can be described as alignment to another, congruency, or being “in-step” with someone.  It is awareness, connection, and mindfulness.

When a toddler suddenly bursts into tears because their block tower falls over and a caregiver recognizes why they are crying and sad, that’s attunement. The attuned parent may come over and check in with the child. They may mirror the child’s expression, comfort them with a hug, or explain “You are upset because your blocks collapsed!” All of these are signs of attunement because the caregiver was connected and aware of the child’s needs.

father cooking eggs for daughter

But it’s just as easy to be unaware. An example might be when you give your pre-teen eggs for breakfast and they scrunch up their nose but you turn around before you see it. Your child might then eat breakfast very slowly as you’re saying “hurry up we have to go!” This is an example of misattunement because you missed the cues that your child was giving – that they didn’t like the eggs and didn’t want to eat them.

This happens all the time with our spouses, friends, and family. Humans cannot always be present and fully attuned at every moment in our lives- it’s impossible. The reality is misattunement is really common, but it’s not anything to stress about. What we can do is be aware of it and change our behavior when we recognize we aren’t in tune.

What makes us misattuned?

Previous experience, our own feelings, or misreading cues can make us misattuned. We all make quick assumptions based on previous experiences as to why someone may be acting a certain way. It‘s easy for us to assume our significant others are angry when we’ve misread anxiety. Or perhaps you know they’re angry and try to talk to them about it but they really just want you to sit in the feeling with them, or indulge in their anger, or just be present through their difficult time.

Dan Siegel has defined attunement using the acronym COAL which stands for curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. Attuning is an attempt to be as present as possible and see the event exactly as the other person sees it.

5 Questions to ask yourself to get attuned

1. Is there something preventing me from being present?

It’s important to have the person you’re attuning to be your focus and for them to feel it. A quick glance at our phones, a task at hand, thoughts about work stress or even a glance away are all common culprits for pulling us away from the moment. When we can put distractions aside, check in with ourselves, and convey open-body language we are more likely to be attuned.

mom looking at phone sitting with kids on couch

2. Are we really listening?

Listening is such an important skill. When we truly listen to our children we suspend our judgment, bias, previous experiences, and anything else that is getting in the way of really hearing them. 

3. What does our body language say?

Attunement can often be reached if we kneel or crouch to be on our child’s level and are aware of our eye contact, movement, and body posturing. Depending on the situation it can mean mirroring body language with the person we would like to attune to, or it could mean uncrossing your arms and relaxing your posture in a way that says “I am calm, present, and receptive to you right now.”

mother kneeling to talk to daughter

Attunement can often be reached if we kneel or crouch to be on our child’s level and are aware of our eye contact, movement, and body posturing. Depending on the situation it can mean mirroring body language with the person we would like to attune to, or it could mean uncrossing your arms and relaxing your posture in a way that says “I am calm, present, and receptive to you right now.”

tone and language can make a big difference when talking to your kids

4. What is your tone?

Our tone and language can make a difference too. When our children hear anxiety, anger, or brevity it can make them shut down. Humans are experts at assessing the environment and tone can communicate a lot. In fact, more is often conveyed with our tone than in the words we say.

5. Do we understand what our child is feeling?

Attunement can sometimes be “feeling with.” Is there empathy and understanding for what our tiny human is feeling? Feeling our child’s feelings doesn’t mean accepting all behaviors that come from feelings, rather it’s about resonating and understanding how they feel. 

It’s important to think about attunement as an important aspect or skill to help in times of distress for our children, and to remember that perfect and consistent attunement is impossible. Remember – there is no “perfect” anyway. Do your best, ask yourself the above questions regularly and it will become a positive habit.

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