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“Why do some children become sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry, whereas others become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident?”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.

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“Why do some children become sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry, whereas others become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident?”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 birth

As 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 important

No 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
This may sound difficult. In practice, it’s even harder, first, because it takes time and second, because even as infants, children and parents affect and reflect each other’s emotions.

Example

To illustrate the importance of emotional attunement, Tronick asks us to imagine two infant-mother pairs playing the game of peek-a-boo.

Scenario 1

The infant abruptly turns away from his mother, as the game became too stimulating. He sucks his thumb and stares into space with a dull facial expression. The mother stops playing and sits back watching her infant. After a few seconds, the infant turns back to her with an interested and inviting expression. The mother moves closer, smiles, and says in a high-pitched exaggerated voice, “Oh, now you’re back!” They smile and coo in response to each other. Once again, the infant reinserts his thumb and looks away. The mother waits again. After a few seconds, the infant turns back to her, and they greet each other with big smiles.

Scenario 2

The infant turns away, but the mother doesn’t wait for the infant to come back on his own. She leans into the infant’s line of vision while clicking her tongue to attract his attention. The infant, however, ignores her and continues to look away (he is trying to calm himself by breaking eye contact). Not picking up on his need, the mother persists and moves her head closer. The infant frowns, fusses, and pushes at the mother’s face. Within seconds he turns even further away from his mother while continuing to suck his thumb.

Lesson

Without focusing on blame or responsibility, let’s simply notice how the emotions and behaviors of the mothers affect those of their children. In both scenarios, the infant’s behavior sends a message to the mother that the infant needs to calm his nervous system. Just by virtue of being another person, the mother is inherently stimulating. Even as babies, we instinctually know when we need to lower our “stimulation.” Each mother respects this communication from her infant by waiting—at first. The relaxed patience of the first mother conveys safety to the infant. He is free to come and go from the connection as he needs. The second mother, however, did not pick up the cue that her infant was not ready to connect again. She likely felt angryanxioussad, longing, or had some other emotion that interfered with her infant’s need for distance in that moment. This mis-attuned reaction leads to a break in their connection that was prolonged by the mother’s “intrusions.” This made it harder for the baby’s nervous system to calm down.

Attunement and attachment

Mis-attunement happens to all parents. Problems arise when interactions leading to ruptures become the norm. This is the genesis of attachment trauma. The infant grows into a child who expects to be infringed upon and/or emotionally abandoned and develops protective defenses to cope. Tronick found that infants who chronically experienced mis-attunements disengaged more from their mothers and the rest of their environment and distorted their interactions with other people. A parent’s determination to repair ruptures soon after they have occurred, on the other hand, builds emotional security. Parents can do this by being mindful of how emotions organize their infant’s and their own behavior. Basic education in emotions and childhood trauma provides tools so a parent can proactively strive for positive connections, while at the same time learn to tolerate their own feelings of rejection, disappointment, anger, sadness, and longing. When we ignore a child’s emotional cues because we don’t understand them or we can’t tolerate our own responses, we leave them to cope on their own. But when we respond to those cues appropriately, the child’s authentic self will emerge and thrive.  

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, is author of the book, It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self (Random House, Feb. 2018). She received her BA in biochemistry from Wesleyan University and an MSW from Fordham University. She is a certified psychoanalyst and AEDP psychotherapist and supervisor. She has published articles in The New York Times and professional journals. Hendel also consulted on the psychological development of characters on AMC’s Mad Men. She lives in New York City. For more information and free resources for mental health visit: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/ Twitter: @HilaryJHendel Instagram: thechangetriangle YouTube Channel: The Change Triangle

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