What is "Good
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 childs 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 newborns
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 childrens development. But the world is not
a perfect place and we are not perfect parents. Though we will often meet
our childrens 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 childs unique set of needs as well as your own. It also depends
on your familys 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 childs
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 childs
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.
HEALTHY ATTUNEMENT AND THE PITFALL OF
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 childs
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 childs 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 childs
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 Elias 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.
Elias 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 Sallys 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
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)
- In the present situation, do I feel overly charged
about how my child should feel?
- 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?
- Does my childs 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?
- What is the meaning of this experience to my child
and what does he or she need?
- How is my childs experience different than mine?
How is it similar? Be sure to include an assessment of your childs
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 childs 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.
EMPATHY AND REFLECTION OF FEELING
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 childs 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!
ATTUNEMENT TO OTHERS
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 mens
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
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
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.
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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