What is "Good Enough" Parenting?
Attunement and Self-Esteem in Child Rearing

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

Although we all love our children, researchers (1,2) who study infant and child development document a need for something more, in order for a child to develop a true and solid appreciation of who they are in the world. With greater understanding of what contributes to healthy development in newborns, infants and children, it becomes clear that adequate "attunement" is also desirable.

To "attune" to our child means that we attempt to respond to his or her needs, particularly emotionally, resulting in the child’s sense of being understood, cared for and valued. Depending on the age and development of the child this means different things. Attuning to a two-year-old child in the midst of a temper tantrum will include not only responding with appropriate limits, but understanding what the emotional meaning of the outburst might be. Is he or she tired? angry? hurt? challenging limits to get clarity? In contrast, attuning to a newborn’s wails will always be an attempt at primary soothing, as limit setting of any kind would be inappropriate. To determine the "attuned" response, we must seek to truly understand the nature of the experience of the child and his or her needs, even though they cannot always tell us. The job of parenthood can be a highly challenging one!

Yet, if we can maintain a clear vision of our goal: to be as attuned as possible, we will inevitably learn more. If at first we do not succeed, sooner or later we will come to better understand our children and better able to meet their emerging needs. We will become better parents with practice and a vision of what we believe will make a difference in our children’s development. But the world is not a perfect place and we are not perfect parents. Though we will often meet our children’s needs, we will sometimes frustrate them. Our hope is to provide a matrix in which the frustration itself becomes a tool for building strength of character. Psychologists have termed this "optimal frustration". The key here is to determine what amount of frustration is overwhelming and will result in a breakdown of a healthy sense of self for the child, and what is benign or even advantageous to work through with appropriate emotional support. This balance creates the essence of the "good enough parent". (3)

The dilemma of "good enough" parenting is at the heart of parents’ questions about many things. One common example revolves around how to get a child to sleep through the night. What is too much crying and what is not? How soon should I get him or her in the middle of the night? Again the answers to these questions depend upon your child’s unique set of needs as well as your own. It also depends on your family’s style and values. In her book, The Sleep Book For Tired Parents,(4) Rebecca Huntley offers various strategies for walking this line of maintaining empathy and attunement to your child’s needs while taking care of your own.

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need "perfect" parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children. Then we can rest assured that our natural failings will be enough to provide our children with some appropriate frustration along the way!

The following discussion is by no means exhaustive of the topic of healthy attunement or "good enough" parenting, as this would be beyond the possible scope of this article. Instead, I will attempt to touch on some of the most common ways that we as parents may misunderstand our children. I will focus on the ways this can happen, even when we are doing our utmost to be sensitive to our own child’s feelings based on our memory of our childhoods. I hope you will find some or parts of this discussion useful and applicable to your own situations.



Our ability to attune as parents depends not only on the child, but on his or her stage of development and on the emotional legacy of accurate understanding we received from our own parents. The ability to attune also depends on the personality and temperament of the child and how easy or difficult it is for us to relate to a particular child, given our own individual personality traits and family upbringing. Giving nurturance to a child includes identifying with the infant and later, the developing adolescent, enough to have empathy for their situation in the world and the control they have or do not have over it. It is sometimes easy for us to identify with wounds we had as children that we swear we will not do to our children. However often we can over-identify, and actually be out of attunement with our children, in an attempt to heal personal wounds from our past.

Projecting our own childhood experience is a common pitfall conscientious parents fall into when they have difficulty separating themselves from their own offspring who have not experienced the same childhood wounds. There can exist a subliminal drive to re-experience childhood through our own kids, but this time to have it "right". In an attempt to heal past pain, we may unwittingly project it onto our child’s behavior because it "looks" similar to our pain, though the meaning for the child may be entirely or significantly different. In such cases parenting reactions that originate to answer our childhood pain miss the real needs of the child who stands before us, a completely different person with a different set of experiences.

Naturally it is the case that we can repeat traumas to our children (such as child abuse) when we are unaware of our own pain. The old adage of "what was good enough for me should be good enough for junior" reflects the attitude in which these painful legacies are past down through generations. By not identifying with what was painful in childhood, we are more likely to repeat the damage. However, as parents are educated to the ways in which this is true and become attuned to their childhood experience, it is often the case that the appropriate healing for the past is projected inappropriately onto the next generation in an unsuccessful attempt at healing.

For Example: A 35 year old mother complained about her four year old child’s persistent tantrums. Sally was a stay-at-home Mom who spent most of the first 2 years at home caring for Elia, and had put him in very part-time daycare in the last 2 years. Though he spent plenty of time with her, he seemed extremely unhappy to be separated from her, though he played very well and happily once she left. Elia would not let her leave him without major distress and had difficulty sleeping at night, crying profusely to have her stay with him in his room. No amount of being with him or attempts at soothing activities or objects satisfied him or caused him any greater ability to fall asleep on his own. Sally and her husband were desperate for sleep and to answer their child’s needs. Yet no matter what they did to comfort him before bedtime, he screamed and cried relentlessly for one of them to sleep with him each night.

Sally had experienced very little emotional attunement to her needs as a child, particularly around getting appropriate help and support from her parents. She had been left to fend for herself in many ways, including being given money to go out and buy herself a wardrobe at age 10. She was told that she was indeed loved, but both of her parents worked outside the home full time once she began school, and did not have time to attend to her needs, particularly with the "trouble" her brother was causing them. Her mother left her cakes and other sweets to show her affection, and Sally ended up battling bulimia in her later adult life, partially an expression of the anger she could not express directly in her role of "good girl" in the family at the time. She resented being forced into independence at such an early age, and felt sadness and anger at not having received more guidance as a child. Instead, she had been lost in the role of the "good" child, while her parents spent most of their energies dealing with her older brother who earned himself the role of "trouble maker". Sally had worked through these feelings with her mother to a great extent, and enjoyed a positive relationship with her as an adult. Still it was hard for Sally to observe the way in which she had projected her own unmet childhood needs onto her son.

Sally and her husband Sam finally sought some brief term counseling for their son, frightened that he was in some distress that was not resolving. Following a thorough evaluation, their counselor assured them that their son was actually quite independent and capable when he was at preschool. He had no trouble traveling a distance to the bathroom facilities by himself. He could be with friends or play by himself with ease. Elia was clearly not in distress of abandonment! Sally came to understand that she had projected her own intense fears regarding any distress that her son might have, to such an extent that he had learned a pattern of getting what he wanted by increasing his demands, which indeed became distressful as his parents were unable to assure him that he in fact would be just fine in his own bed. He had somehow internalized the idea that he should never be left by his mother, or left alone at night. Though most of his development progressed smoothly, transitions involving separation became highly charged between mother and son.

Throughout Elia’s life it had been difficult for Sally to differentiate normal stress from distress when the two of them separated. Naturally, this became more problematic as her son grew older and needs for dependency and developing independency clashed. Both mother and son were caught in confusing normal, healthy separation with abandonment. Elia’s father, who was not in a primary caretaking role and had his own abandonment issues, was not able to intervene effectively to break the pattern of over responsivity that Sally showed Elia at these times, and it had grown into a viscous cycle; a virtual battle of wills with enough drama to wrench the heart of any parent. But within a short time, when her son learned his parents would not respond to his demands because he really was ok, he was able to sleep peacefully by himself, and the extreme tantrums upon separation diminished.

Attunement to Elia, who had not suffered forced independence too early, meant a genuinely confident and realistic expectation that he would be able to soothe himself and fall asleep on his own. Elia needed his parents to guide him in this way, but it had been difficult for Sally and Sam to separate normal stress of inevitable separations from Sally’s fears, based on her own consistently unmet needs as a child. With the guidance of a counselor she did answer her own need for reassurance which she could then pass onto her son with confidence. The realignment of the couple relationship was also helpful, as both parents learned and bonded from the experience of helping their son enjoy more independence. It left more room for couples’ relating. And Sally learned to rely on Sam to help her sort through her feelings as a parent, while Sam learned that he had much more to offer as a vital part of the parenting team!

Whether we seek professional help along the way or not, most of us have come across these times in parenting where we identify our unmet childhood needs in the cries of our children. Getting help to sort things out with a spouse, a friend, a relative or professional means you are answering your need to reach out and depend on others. The following questions can help you reflect on the role your own projection of childhood pain may have in a situation, and assist you in sorting out what you believe is healthy attunement to your child, vs. a wish or desire to heal your own "inner child". (5)

Ask Yourself

  1. In the present situation, do I feel overly charged about how my child should feel?
  2. Does it remind me of anything particularly painful that happened to me as a child? If so, is my child experiencing the same intensity of this feeling as I did in childhood?
  3. Does my child’s previous experiences in this area equal the deprivation or pain of my childhood experiences at the same age? Or is it milder or not comparable? Do I know the range of what is normal distress in this situation or am I confused by the reminder of my own pain?
  4. What is the meaning of this experience to my child and what does he or she need?
  5. How is my child’s experience different than mine? How is it similar? Be sure to include an assessment of your child’s particular temperament compared to your own, in answering this question.


Contrasting previous experiences of your child to yourself at that age, the availability of support experienced as a child compared to your child in the present situation, and the particular meaning the event has for your child can help you sort through your past, finding the most accurate attunement to your child.

As research on patterns of child abuse bear out, parents are less prone towards repeating abuse when they have become aware of their own past hurt. But we must go beyond simply understanding our childhood pain to be truly attuned to our children. When we respond to a child as if they bear our own scars we fail to see them in their own rite. The child’s needs can become distorted, leaving him or her vulnerable to misattunement, as in the above example. Finding a neutral path, one that is not reactive but truly thoughtful and aware, is sometimes the hardest one to walk.



Children need our accurate reflection of their feelings so that they develop not only words to express feelings, but ways to understand themselves and their experiences. Reflecting to a young child, or an older adolescent that he or she is angry, disappointed or matching their delight and enthusiasm about something they have done is a necessary part of their development. When traveling through times of stress or change, or when facing failure or disappointment, children need to feel their feelings can be named, reflected back to them and accepted as natural and understandable events. It is through this process of naming feelings that a child grows a sense of self.

It is also important to be sure you include anger as a feeling that can be expressed and tolerated especially when your child or adolescent is angry at you! When anger is directed towards you it is natural to feel defensive. However the more you understand that the expression of anger within healthy and respectful limits allows for love and compassion to flow as well, the easier it can be neutralized if you do not retaliate or withdraw. By absorbing appropriate anger a child may have for you with matter of fact neutrality, you teach a youngster modulation and a willingness to understand what has precipitated his or her rage. Particularly with teenagers, a commitment to deeper understanding of your child’s needs, despite their abrasiveness at the time leads to later appreciation of your caring for them, and becomes internalized as a capacity to soothe themselves through frustrating times when they leave home and you are not around!



Through all of the attunement we are working towards in our relationships with our children, it is essential that we assist them to develop an awareness of others’ needs and feelings as well. To be capable of relating is necessary not only to survive in the world, but to do so in a way that brings us happiness and connection to one another instead of loneliness and alienation. Teaching our children about the value of human relationship and caring values is traditionally saved for daughters in our culture. However, an increasing number of men who write and speak about fatherhood (6) are expressing the need for human nurturing as a necessary part of men’s development as well.

Sons as well as daughters benefit from an understanding of feelings and relationship. And your feelings as a parent are no exception to the rule. Though you are the leaders as parents, does not mean you do not have feelings and needs, too. Allowing your children to appropriately give and care for you should also be a factor in the equation. One child may be easier for you to parent than another. There are no perfect parents or perfect children. As with any relationship, some of us are better or worse matches for each other. Striving for balance and learning, with humor by our side may be our best allies in walking the path of the "good enough" parent.


1. Stern, Daniel (1983) The Early Development of Schemas of Self, Other and Self with Other: in Reflections on Self-Psychology: ed. J. Lichtenberg and S. Kaplan pp. 49-84; Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press

2. Mahler, Margaret ; Pine, Fred; and Bergman, Anni: The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: (1975) Basic Books, N.Y.

3. Winnicott, D.W.(reprinted1989) The Family and Individual Development: Routledge: London and NY

4. Huntley, Rebecca (1991) The Sleep Book for Tired Parents: Parenting Press, Inc P.O. Box 75267 Seattle, WA 98125.

5. Bradshaw , John, vaious books and tapes, Houston Texas, Center for Recovering Families.

6. Linton, Bruce (1992) The Developmental Stages of Fatherhood: Unpublished dessertation: Columbia Pacific University. Dr. Linton is also the founder and developer of The FatherÕs Forum in Berkeley, California where he conducts fathering groups.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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