Becoming an Emotionally Attuned Parent
Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT
In the movie Inside/Out, Riley’s parents initially demonstrate the damaging impact of being emotionally unattuned when they fail to understand their daughter’s pain over their move to San Francisco. At the end of the film, when they embrace Riley’s sadness upon her return home after a runaway attempt, they model the healing impact of being emotionally attuned.
But let’s imagine a different scenario at the end of the movie: Riley walks through the door after attempting to run away, tears welling up in her eyes, and her mother greets her this way, “Riley where have you been? Your father and I have been worried sick about you. What were you thinking? How could you do this to us? Young lady, those tears will get you nowhere. And if you want something to cry about, I’ll give you something to really cry about! Now go to your room and consider yourself grounded for the next three days – that includes no hockey practice!”
If Riley’s emotional world was crumbling because of her parents’ earlier lack of attunement, a response like this would have crushed it. In real life, this is the kind of stuff of which trauma is made.
Thankfully, the second time around, her parents get it right. They provide the emotional attunement that Riley needs to help her regain her emotional equilibrium. Attuned responses integrate, vitalize, and expand one’s inner world. Malattuned responses fragment, crush, and narrow one’s inner world.
Attunement builds and strengthens. Malatunement tears down and weakens.
I believe that the first responsibility of every parent is to be emotionally attuned to their children. Fifty years of research on child development has demonstrated that consistent emotional attunement is what is most needed for a child to become healthy and strong. On the other hand, a consistent lack of emotional attunement seriously damages a child’s development and sense of self. I often feel like telling parents, “You can provide it now or pay me to provide it later.”
Your child comes home from school and says, “Dad, I hate my teacher. He’s so mean and unfair. I want to put a tack on his chair tomorrow.”
Here are two possible responses. Which type of parent are you?
Option 1: “Listen honey, that’s no way to talk about your teacher. You must respect him and appreciate how hard he works. Besides, haven’t we taught you how important it is to love people? And I’m appalled that a daughter of mine could even think of hurting another person, let alone your teacher. Young lady, go to your room, and I hope you’ll be singing a different tune when you come out.”
Option 2: “Wow, you are really angry at Mr. Roberts, aren’t you? I know what that feels like because just yesterday I was so angry at a partner in my office. Would you like to tell me more about what happened, and why you’re so mad?”
The mantra of every parent should be: “Listen first, educate and correct second.” Our need to correct and educate our children must yield to the necessity of being attuned to their feelings and perceptions. This principle is based on a verse from the Book of Proverbs which says, “Educate a child according to his unique temperament.” Employing this simple principle would alleviate so much emotional damage done by well meaning parents, besides saving millions of dollars spent on therapist and family lawyer fees.
There are four main aspects of emotional attunement:
- Unconditional acceptance of another person’s feelings. This means taking a stance of being curious as opposed to being judgmental and critical.
- Listening without interrupting or trying to make reassuring comments such as, “I feel so sorry for you.” Attuned listening requires discipline and self-control.
- Naming the feeling in order to bring it into awareness. The more accurately we are able to name the feeling, the more understood, comforted, and encouraged one feels.
- Helping the person to understand the meaning of their feelings within the specific relational context that they originated. Making sense of our feelings helps us to own and make good use of them.
(A must-read for every parent on this subject is the classic work, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish)
Emotional attunement is not only for children, it is a universal need for people of all ages. Our world is filled with so much pain and brokenness. Everyone knows how crushing it is to have one’s feelings dismissed. One of the greatest acts of kindness is to listen to another’s feelings in an attuned and caring way. Attuned listening is an expression of love. The next time someone wants to talk to you, be prepared to listen first and then give your opinion. We could bring so much healing into the world if we would only listen a little more and talk a little less.