Consistent attunement is the single most important thing we caregivers can do to lay a solid foundation of psychological security, a sense of safety, agency, and the establishment of a coherent self and self-confidence, not to mention perspective taking, empathy, and moral sensibilities. Attunement provides the psychological foundation for developing useful skills and abilities, be they personal, social, physical, or occupational. We believe caregivers are responsible for this foundation, particularly his basic psychological security and budding sense of agency.
By attunement I mean giving the child the experience of being seen, acknowledged, and accepted. As with empathy and compassion, attunement involves understanding what the child is feeling, caring for him, and wishing him well. Attunement begins with paying close attention to the newborn’s facial expressions and movements, perhaps at first guessing what motivates them, but eventually knowing him well enough to understand accurately what your baby is experiencing, and all the while acknowledging that experience lovingly, loving what you’re sharing for its own sake; inherently acceptable as one of the million moments that comprise his development as a person.
Attuning to your child, done consistently, would go a long way to establishing psychological security. It is hard, but not out of reach of most parents if they put in the effort. This will sound idealistic, or at least aspirational, but to attune optimally parents must be present and attentive, emotionally available, spontaneous and responsive, emotionally mature enough to share feelings, “hold” the child in it, allow it to be real yet not let it be too much for either the child or the parents themselves, to hold back their personal reactions and then calmly convey to the child they understand the situation, the feelings, and that it will be ok. It’s easy to see how someone who is depressed or anxious, or absent or critical, or drunk or hung over, or overly self-involved, would have trouble at every step. Unfortunately, children take it all to heart and can’t protect themselves from our misattunements.
Newborns come into the world with some basic survival instincts and the need for attunement rivals eating as priority number one. They constantly look to us for attunement; their waking hours are dominated by experiencing their new world and looking to us for our reactions. Hundreds of times a day. It’s easy to see how our style of attunement gives the child a tremendous amount of information about themselves, us, and the world. They begin to adapt immediately and these adaptations become their personality; how much of the time they feel ok, how safe they feel, how important they are, whether to trust their feelings, how safe the world is, how outgoing, how shy, how guilty and ashamed, how proud, happy, calm. The foundations of personality and self-concept are being formed before the child can speak.
It’s hard to relate with what newborns must experience. Imagine yourself going into a completely new environment with high stakes – a new job, a very foreign culture – and the heightened feeling of needing to figure out what the rules are, the customs, what is expected of you, what is verboten. You would crave guidance, devour feedback, experiment carefully; anything to gain a sense of comfort and certainty. Try as you might you could never imagine a context that feels as new and foreign as the world your baby has entered. Want to express your love? Help him come to believe you’re paying attention, he’s not alone and every need will get satisfied, every pain will go away, and the world is a kind and caring place that provides for him.
A child’s budding personality is comprised of hundreds and thousands of attunements, not genetics or commandments or lectures. No amount of new toys, enrichment activities, or “I love you’s” matter more than simple attunements. The most important thing is our emotionally available, non-verbal attunement; this primitive exchange between parent and offspring was occurring long before our species achieved speech. But our verbal reassurance and explanations matter, so long as they aren’t overly disconnected from the emotional attunement. It helps kids to hear the calm tone of our voice as we reassure them and narrate our understanding of reality, and eventually they make the associations and come to understand the words and meanings we convey. We are explaining the world to them one experience at a time. And we are defining them with each experience. Even when we’re not speaking directly to them, they’re paying attention. So we should too!
Attunement answers the basic question, “Am I ok?” and validates one’s experience in increasingly sophisticated ways. It’s like bringing one’s view of oneself into focus. Attunement informs the child that what they feel is accurate, so with each instance they can with increasing confidence identify those feelings accurately, and thus be more accurately and comfortably self-aware. Since their experience of the feeling, even pain, was “ok”, they do not seek to avoid it and, thus, become more spontaneous, open, and at ease with themselves.
The gifts of attunement put children on the right track and give them so many advantages that will help them throughout their life. No parent attunes perfectly and it is impossible to know how a child will adapt to its unique context of caregivers, opportunities, and challenges. We do, however, know a lot about what can happen when attunement does not happen consistently. See related post on misattunement.