Rupture and Repair: Emotions, Attunement, and Attachment
“Why do some children become sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry, whereas others become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident?” developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, Ph.D. asked in a 1989 paper called “Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants.” The answer lies in large part with the quality of emotional communication, or attunement, between parent and child. We don’t get this important education in emotions in our formal schooling, yet we really need it to do right by our children.
Attunement and emotional communication start at birthAs soon as an infant is born, emotional communication begins with the mother or mother-figure. Historically, infants were thought of as not having emotions and not being sensitive to their surroundings, since they can’t speak. Luckily, we now know that the opposite is true. Like the interconnecting roots of adjacent trees, adults and infants are inextricably connected and in constant communication through their emotions. How a parent responds to their baby determines what emotions that baby will experience. Moreover, the way these interactions play out greatly influences how an infant will behave toward others as they grow into childhood and adulthood. Most of this communication is actually non-verbal. Even as adults, humans communicate primarily without words. The deepest levels of our brain evaluate tone of voice, facial expressions, gaze, and body posture. Words matter less.
Being gentle is importantNo matter our age, when non-verbal and verbal communication is positive and respectful, the human body responds with calm and wellbeing. In that state, we are able to connect positively with others. However, when communication is harsh, tense, hurtful, threatening, dismissive, or humiliating, the nervous system jolts into fight/flight/freeze. In these states, the ability to connect with others becomes compromised. While children of all ages are like sponges soaking up the environment with their five senses, an infant’s nervous system is most sensitive. The brain-mind-body emotionally responds with two basic messages: you are SAFE or you are in DANGER. Everything the infant sees, hears, feels, tastes, and touches will affect the baby. This requires parents to monitor their emotions and reactions in the best interest of their infant’s development. To work on one’s emotional responses is to care about creating a future adult with the best possible emotional health. This is not always easy, especially in busy families with hectic lives.
Parents need to do two things:
- Maintain an attuned and accepting emotional connection with their child, regardless of the child’s behavior. Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another’s emotional needs and moods. A person who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state.
- When ruptures in the connection occur, which they will, it is equally important that caregivers work to repair the rupture and restore an emotional connection that feels safe and soothing to the child. We do this by being empathic, warm, loving, accepting, curious, and playful.