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blond woman playing spruce top dreadnought acoustic guitar by the seashore

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ATTUNEMENT: to bring into accord, harmony, or sympathetic relationship; adjust: He has attuned himself to living in the quiet country. Archaic. to tune or bring into harmony, as a musical instrument.

When I first heard the word “attunement” it was in relation to mother/baby connection. One of the most famous psychology experiments of all times featured the attunement  (or lack of) between mom and child. Take a look:

The importance of that attaching gaze, the call-response interaction, the mirroring of voice and expression is clear to see here, with a very young kid. Notice how the baby goes into decline when the mom’s face is unresponsive. The baby uses all his/her “social tools” beginning by being as charming as possible but ending by sending distress signals.

It’s worth our remembering that attunement does not stop with young kids.

In fact teens and tweens are arguably in the height of learning about connecting with others:

  • Who is safe to sit by on the bus?
  • What did the other person’s shift of gaze mean?
  • What warning or encouragement is that tone of voice giving me?
  • Does that pause in the other person’s reply mean something?

Like riding a bike, the attunement process is one which only gets better with practice and among humans where non-verbal communication is so nuanced, kids need a LOT of practice. And, especially in middle school, they get it wrong a lot! Parents can be gentle coaches when/if kids allow them to be. It’s one reason that too much screen time is particularly damaging to teens: it interrupts that very important learning to actually BE in relationship with other people!

But we need to look at attunement from another perspective too. That baby/parent gaze doesn’t end at the first two years of life. As parents of teens and tweens,  be mindful of needing time to genuinely connect with our kids. It seems odd to say but that includes looking at them, really listening to them, listening deeply enough to ask for clarification.

In the video of the baby, when the mom was unresponsive, the child went through a series of maneuvers trying to re-engage. Fast forward to our teen kids, what re-engagement “tools’ might a teen use? Of course, it can be confusing since while a kid might like to connect with us, they likely do NOT want us to mess with their lives!

With end-of-year and summer activities swirling around us, we can easily overlook genuine connection. Have we made note of our kid’s physical state (tired, relieved, happy, strung out); what’s their pulse on social interactions (strained, desperate, comfy); what is their general demeanor telling you? It really is NOT possible to discern these things without setting some time to tune in. Yep, “attunement” takes time and often intention. By the way, dinner time is just about perfect for attuning!

May summer days allow you the time you need for attunement,

to bring into harmony those dear relationships at home!