A child adapts to living, with the constant flow of love, wonder, and struggle. They internalize concepts with the accompanying rewards and punishments. A baby exits the womb and begins the magical journey of living. The child, vulnerable to dangers, helplessly relies on caregivers for survival, utilizing innate behaviors to attach. They watch, learn and adapt. The young brain develops, creating the connections and networks that follow the child throughout life. The child’s brain isn’t frozen with fixed traits, experience continues to mold and adapt but the massive mapping of infancy quickly closes doors and forms the quality of life. One of the greatest gifts a parent can offer to the developing child is emotional attunement.
What is Attunement?
When two people experience attunement. they are in a state of resonation. They experience validation. They feel felt. The opposite of attunement is a disrupted or disorganized connection. Diana Fosha wrote, “If attunement is the state in which self and other naturally resonate, to the delight of both, disruption is the realm of being on disturbingly different wavelengths” (2009). Francesca Forlè describes emotional attunement as “a condition in which two or more individuals are in the same affective state with respect to a given situation” (2021).
Attunement validates our experience. We know we are not travelling alone. I must point out that attunement cannot be maintained indefinitely. People always have moments of disrupted and disorganized connection, no matter how close they are to each other. However, in healthy relationships, as I pointed out in the Still Face Experiments article, misattunement is quickly addressed through repair.
Emotional Attunement is the state of validating and resonating with another person’s emotions. Attunement is a foundational state for healthy relationships.
Emotional Attunement and Parenting
When we expertly greet our child’s emotions by validating with empathy, acceptance and reciprocation, the child develops a positive relationship with their own feelings—a major contribution to healthy living. Conversely, when we consistently devalue a child’s feelings, expressing rejection or indifference, our lack of attunement projects onto the child, the child disconnects from their experience—becoming emotionally impoverished and defensively detached. The feelings of experience (affect) and the complex integration of those feelings, and a conceptual foundation for understanding, is essential for appropriate response. When a child must navigate this path alone, or worse, taught chaotic and destructive responses from emotionally immature parents, the child’s integration of feeling staggers, battling with confusion. A bewildering experience with feeling affect rules behavior and the child becomes overly rigid or excessively chaotic.
A child needs healthy examples to provide adequate resources to decipher feelings and act appropriately within the context of those feelings. If a child’s feelings are ignored, reprimanded or discounted, the youngster misses valuable opportunities to artfully connect feeling to healthy living.
Emotional Development as Adults
For most, if not all, reading this article, our childhood naiveite has vanished. We now face life as adults. The large window of exposure to new experience that forms the connections in the brain, mapping strategies to adapt to living, are established. Learning is never completely over. For adults experiencing impoverished emotions from childhood neglect or trauma, the game is not over; a healthy, rich emotional life is still possible.
The plasticity of the brain continues. Brain science continues to discover breathtaking horizons in the inner-universe of the Brain. The window of learning doesn’t close after childhood. New studies in epigenetics are unraveling mysteries of changes in gene expressions throughout life.
Changing Emotional Patterns
Change, however, requires time, effort, and patience. Patterns are stubborn. We slowly improve emotional poverty through mindful attentiveness. Perhaps, emotional poverty has existed in our family lines for generations, passed from parent to child to grandchild—a vicious cycle. Breaking this hand-me-down deficiency is one of the greatest gifts we can offer our children and our children’s children, giving them an opportunity to experience the richness of life.
Breaking Behavioral Chains
To break the chain, we must gain awareness of our stirring emotions that proceed action, being reacquainted with the bodily responses to feeling, kindly coddling the feeling, allowing deeper concepts of emotion to materialize, and then make constructive choices that build a healthier environment. Our emotional maturity can then be transmitted to our child’s emotions, through attuning to their experience, expertly soothing the hurt without rejecting their feeling. We help them understand the feelings with a wealth of descriptive words and then assist them with a constructive response.
The child’s angry outburst in the grocery store, met by a parent’s frustrated response, serves little purpose, displaying the harmful cycle we wish to interrupt—an outburst met with an outburst. A lesson of emotional poverty is taught—demonstrating that feelings give license for thoughtlessness.
The work to change battered and persistent patterns often require professional assistance. We may lack a detailed road map to guide us through the dark alleys of change. But the reward is healthier relationships and increased sensitivity to our emotions and the emotions of others. We must start at home.
Emotional Attunement to Our Own Emotions
For some, internal pushes are loud and obnoxious. Once ignited, they explode taking over the stage forcing other actors out of focus. These individuals cower to the frightening thunder of feeling, drawn to and from at the internal beckoning of pleasure and displeasure.
Others developed the opposite reaction, a callous denial of feeling, banning emotion, while stoically appealing to logic (what they believe to be logic). Sadly, the façade of an emotionless logic is a farce. The emotions continue to bubble underneath, motivating action. The actor then summons logic to justify. We must identify our relationship with feeling before we can constructively begin change.
We must be an active participant in the feeling-emotion-action chain, attuning to the feeling, giving appropriate description to what we feel, evaluating possible responses and then constructively moving forward. For some, the gentle attention to underlying body states is sufficient to move in a new direction. For others, sensing the rise in blood pressure, soothing the upset, and avoiding the catastrophic melt-down is a significant challenge. We accomplish either path through mindfully listening to our body—focusing on feeling.
If caregivers rejected our emotional expressions in childhood, we often have internalized this same approach to our own emotions as adults. Feelings frighten the undeveloped soul; Body states that venture beyond comfortable limits, signal danger, demanding action; but unaccepted feelings, instead of helpfully labelled, are rejected.
Emotion and Behavior
We may ask, “How do I get rid of fear, anxiety, or guilt,” referring to the emotional experience and not the behaviors or environment causing the discomforting feelings. I recently read a question posted by reader on a help network. The question, “how do I get rid of guilt over my spending habits?” The body of his post then detailed a very unhealthy spending pattern, consisting of indulgence and debt. He never questioned the legitimacy of his guilt. His hidden wisdom was trying to warn him of his maladaptive behavior. His spending habits are the problem, not his guilt.
An improved relationship with feelings may require a somatic coach, meditation guide or a therapist. Feelings simply experienced without denying or serving them may be foreign to us; we often need help to navigate through the explosive minefield of anger, sadness, fear and disgust (to name a few)—and delve into the novel experience of attentive feeling. With practice and guidance, we feel the changes in our bodies, without imploding into catastrophe or blind servitude. This is emotional attunement.
Emotions and Flourishing
The emotions connect the self to experience; we feel the richness of living. The feelings previously unconsciously buried or served still remain but our relationship with them has changed. When we are enemies with inner states, feelings create a widening gulf between experience and self. When we build life on explosive emotions, we damages trust and belittle others; when we build life on buried emotions, we limit connections because we can’t understand others.
From Attunement of Self to Attunement of Others
Those terrified of emotion employ a variety of defenses to avoid the disruption of feeling. The maladaptive responses serve a function; but at a cost, dodging personal emotion damages skills necessary for connection.
Emotions create a foundation for connection. If our emotions go unfelt, we certainly can’t process a partner’s emotions. The absence of emotion—the underlying energy of life—creates hollow relationships. We may establish functional connections that serve a purpose. But the glorious connection of intimacy cannot exist when our bodily states continue to disrupt.
Surrounding Ourselves with Other that Attune
By attuning to and sharing emotions, we connect. The openness creates new vulnerabilities, exposing the feelings we still fear. Our sensitivities need time and support. Just as the developing child needs acceptance so does the adult newly acquainted with underlying feeling states. When others ridicule our emotional openness, we relive our childhood dilemma. Partners matter. Friends matter. Emotional attunement is the gateway to expressing our belonging needs and attending to the needs of others.
We must surround ourselves with those who empathize, not harshly judge or retreat. If in childhood, expressions of emotions were cruelly punished, In adulthood we will struggle to emotionally open up. Before we can heal, we need to established healthy relationships that gently reconfigure our souls, providing nourishment, acceptance, and openness.
The vicious cycle of apathy slowly transforms into cycles of empathy. The more emotional attunement received, the more attunement that can be given, and the more we give, the more we receive—a beautiful new cycle. A cycle we should graciously give to our children.
Be Patient for Emotional Attunement to Improve
Like most personal work, transformations require time, slowly— almost imperceptibly—over a lifetime of vigilance, we become something more. Our inherited blunders, confusing felt emotions, formed through tens-of-thousands of interactions. Although our brains remain malleable throughout life, and change is possible, childhood learning runs deep. We have unconsciously reacted to feeling affects for decades, changes to these habitual approaches requires serious attentive work.
Be patient; get the help needed, and then you can work towards change. We must compassionately empathize with our self, while we simultaneously attend to our children’s expressions of emotion. Attunement can challenge our strength; but the gift of emotional attunement will enormously bless their young lives. Finally, with practice, we can discard the baggage of unmanaged emotions, a practice our ancestors passed on for untold generations. Our children will naturally pass the gift to their child, blessing numerous lives for many generations to come.
Forlè, F. (2021). The sense of we-agency and vitality attunement: between rhythmic alignment and emotional attunement. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, OnlineFirst, 1-21.
Fosha, Diana (2009). Emotion and Recognition at Work Energy, Vitality, Pleasure, Truth, Desire & The Emergent Phenomenology of Transformational Experience. The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice. Editors by Diana Fosha PhD , Daniel J. Siegel M.D., and Marion F. Solomon Ph.D. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.