As a clinical psychologist, I see its effects daily. As a mom, it’s always in the back of my mind.
We get a lot of mixed messages about this word. From other parents, the media, and all the parenting books. There’s even a parenting style that has, with good intentions, co-opted the word but misapplied the concept. It’s no wonder we’re confused!
We all want our kids to form a healthy bond with us. To feel loved, safe, and secure. But attachment is even more important than that. The bond we form with early caregivers organizes how we see and form relationships, navigate trust and boundaries, and regulate emotions, and it is the basic foundation of our self-image. Those lucky enough to have formed “secure” attachments with early caregivers tend to have healthy self-esteem, supportive and trusting relationships, and the capacity to experience and cope with their emotions productively. They are better buffered against life’s stressors. They are simply better equipped to deal with life.
It sounds so daunting, but there is ONE KEY concept any parent can keep in mind. And I promise, it’s not 24/7 breastfeeding and baby-wearing. (This topic is huge, so a helpful and easy-to-read primer is right HERE.)
Attunement — The Key Takeaway for Building Secure Attachments
Attunement is all about tuning into your kiddo’s signals and putting yourself in his or her shoes when you choose a response. Children, especially babies, are amazingly good at letting us know when they need something. A cry, a look, a smile, and even hitting a sister smack in the face are all signals intended to prompt a response from us. And unless you’re raising a sociopath, most misbehavior reflects an unmet need (keeping in mind that needs include boundaries, better coping skills, and even the simple need for one’s brain to mature).
Attuning is often referred to in developmental literature as a process of “serve and return,” similar to tennis or ping pong. Our children “serve” us a message verbally or nonverbally (e.g. I’m hungry, I’m happy and want to play, I’m bored, or I’m angry) and we “return” it with our response (e.g. feeding, playing, changing activities, or comforting). Sometimes our responses are right on — score! We get the message, read it accurately, and lob it back with the perfect amount of oomph and spin.
Other times, many times, we miss it entirely, misread it, or send it back with too much or too little speed and power.
Fixing Our Mistakes in Attunement
I must emphasize: It is totally NORMAL to miss the mark. In fact, the research estimates we may only be fully attuned about a third of the time. We have a million other things competing for our attention and affecting the way we perceive these signals. Every parent knows this intuitively. On a day I’m calm and have extra time, I’m much better at tuning into my children’s messages than when I’m running late to work and the pancakes are on fire. We’re human. What’s important is that when we recognize we’ve missed the mark, we swing back around to the misstep and repair it.
Heck, even psychologists miss the mark. One night, I was feeling stressed and frustrated and yelled when I didn’t intend to. I missed that my son’s misbehavior was an expression of sadness and a misguided attempt to get my attention. When I calmed down, I remembered that he recently went back to school after a break during which he had lots of individual attention. He was missing me. When I recognized this, I went back to apologize for yelling and carved out 30 minutes to build Magna-Tiles® with him. He needed that time with me and a calm discussion about better ways to get attention than misbehaving. He also needed to see his mommy take responsibility and apologize for doing something that I myself have told him is not an acceptable behavior (yelling).
A Secure Relationship, Built on Empathy
Every kiddo has different needs and sends messages in her or his own unique ways. That’s the piece “attachment parenting” can miss. There’s no one specific set of practices (e.g. co-sleeping, breastfeeding, etc.) that creates a securely attached child. Attunement is about being aware of and meeting our children’s unique needs in the moment. It’s not about following a generic or pre-determined plan, and it’s not about meeting a child’s every expressed want.
Security is built over time when a caregiver is tuned in enough to see things from a child’s unique perspectives, and responds empathically with deeper needs in mind much or most of the time. And sometimes those needs are independence, risk-taking, and responsibility. The better we get at picking up on our children’s hidden meanings and responding reliably and accurately to them, the more our kids see us as a dependable, trustworthy, and safe bases from which to explore the mysterious, exciting, and sometimes frightening world around them.
I believe the best gift we can give our kids is the experience of being truly seen, heard, and understood at a deep level. When we consciously look beneath the surface of a behavior with nonjudgmental curiosity, we’re more likely to give them this precious gift. And it can make our own parenting journeys easier and more rewarding too.
A critical aside: Talking about attachment has a way of making us think about our own childhoods. The health of the attachment styles we developed as children is almost entirely determined by luck. We didn’t get to choose our caregivers. And it’s unlikely the ones we got learned about these concepts. Rather, most just carried down the attachment patterns they were handed by their caregivers. And yes, these styles do have a way of unintentionally carrying through the generations. In any case, if this discussion has you wondering about your own attachment style or how it might affect your parenting, it’s never a bad idea to discuss this with a mental health professional. Attachment styles can change, and healing can occur with the help of therapy.