Attunement: Foundations for a Lifetime

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A mother and child sit face-to-face, each giving their full attention to the other. As the infant gleefully interacts with her mother through cooing, pointing, and the like, the mother responds by appropriately mirroring the child’s facial expressions, repeating the cooing sound, looking to where she points, and responding verbally. They are in a synchronous dance of mutually delighting in one another—the child leading; the mother responding. Then, for a brief moment, the mother turns her face away. As she turns toward her daughter once again, something has changed—something immediately evident to the child. Where the mother was once smiling and responding to her, the child now sees a stoic, unresponsive face. Could this be another game? The child smiles, knowing this always bring a smile to her mother’s face. Nothing. She coos happily and reaches for her mother’s face—surely this will get mom’s attention! Again, nothing. The mother sits in the presence of the child, staring at her, and yet, nothing is the same. Uncomfortable with this situation, the child writhes in her seat, and opens her mouth to produce a loud screech of frustration. No response. Frustrated and confused, the child begins to sob. Finally, the mother responds. She calls to her daughter, looks her in the eyes, and reassures her that, at long last—though only minutes have passed—she is truly there for her, fully present. She is, once again, attuned.

Now, imagine the same scene, but instead of merely staring at the child with a stoic face, the mother takes out a cellphone…can you see it?

The above is known as The Still Face Experiment (I encourage you to visit the YouTube link below for a fuller experience), which was first conducted in 1978 to demonstrate the importance of a mother’s responsiveness to her child for emotional regulation. This responsiveness by the caregiver is known as attunement, and is foundational in the development of healthy attachment, the psychological basis for empathy, and, as noted above, it is the means by which a child learns to regulate their emotions. Attunement is the caregiver’s awareness of their child’s needs and the emotional responsiveness to meet those needs. It is an intimate connection and bond, the ability of the caregiver to meet the needs of the child regardless of what the caregiver is experiencing themselves. As the child ebbs and flows, the caregiver moves in tandem to the rhythm.

While a full discussion on attachment theory is beyond the scope of a single blog post—and is not the primary focus here—a brief introduction is warranted to demonstrate the importance of attunement. There are two primary forms of attachment (secure and insecure), along with 3 subcategories of insecure attachment (anxious, avoidant, and disorganized). Research has demonstrated that the foundation of one’s attachment style—which typically remains consistent over the lifetime—is developed within the infant’s first year and is based on the interactions that child has with their primary caregiver. The following are characteristic generally found in those belonging to each category and how they may have developed. Securely attached people are capable of regulating their emotions, are comfortable with and able to appropriately express their feelings, and they often develop deep, safe, and long-lasting relationships. The securely attached person had a primary caregiver who was not only present but was also attuned. When they were sad and wanted to be hugged, their caregiver hugged and comforted them; when they wanted to get down and play again, their caregiver sent them off. The caregiver was a safe haven to whom they could always turn to and receive warmth, comfort, safety. They knew this to be true; it was expected, consistent.

The anxiously attached individual often has low self-esteem, may come off as clingy due to an immense fear of rejection or abandonment, seeks out constant reassurance, and are often highly attuned to the needs of other while simultaneously having a posture of self-blame and unworthiness to be loved and receive care. Those with this attachment style often had caregivers who were inconsistent: one moment the caregiver is attuned to their needs and provides the love, comfort, and care they so desperately desire; the next moment the caregiver lacks attunement and dismisses the child’s needs. The caregiver may struggle to care for their own needs and regulate their own emotions, incapacitating their ability to attune to their child.

The avoidantly attached individual will often appear confident and independent. Their self-sufficient attitude may at first give off the appearance of a healthy inner psyche—they may even believe it themselves. However, within the context of relationships, they may feel distant and unapproachable emotionally. They struggle to express their psychological struggle—if they are even aware of them. When faced with stress, the avoidant individual will retreat into themselves behind walls of safety that were built in childhood and reinforced over a lifetime. Their ability to build deep, long-term relationships is compromised due to the challenges they face in being emotionally expressive and vulnerable. The pain of experiencing their emotions and inviting another into that pain is unbearable; therefore, they avoid it. As children, they lived with parents who were often emotionally distant and lacking in attunement. When the child undoubtedly sought out their parents to fulfill their emotional needs—as all children do—they were either met with misattunement (not receiving what they truly needed) or outright dismissal. The parents may have been strict and insensitive,“toughening” their children up. As a result of a consistent lack of attunement, the child learned that others could not be trusted to meet their emotional needs. Therefore, they learned to meet their own needs. However, in doing so, they had to deaden the part of themselves that is necessary for the development of healthy relationships.

The final insecure attachment style-- disorganized attachment-- is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking of all. When faced with immense stress, to whom do children turn to for care? The answer should be clear. However, a dilemma of immense inner turmoil is experienced when the source of that stress is the very person, or people, to whom they would turn to for safety! What then? There have been innumerable studies on the effects of complex trauma—trauma experienced at the hand of a caregiver—with frightening results. The most famous study conducted, the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACEs), linked complex trauma to adulthood mental and physical health concerns, along with addictions, and relationship struggles. People who fall into this category are often distrustful and may bounce between extremes of idealization and devaluation of others. The inconsistencies are marked by a combination of both anxious and avoidant styles.

Okay, I admit, that was a lot. But I hope the insight it provided is helpful in understand how foundational attunement is in the development of emotionally healthy individuals. I want to share a couple words of encouragement before discussing the way forward. First, if you are a parent and are currently feeling guilty—as I did when first learning this stuff—take heart. Perfection is not required. No one will get this right every time; getting it right most of the time is good enough! The goal is intentionality, striving to be attuned to your children. When they come to you sharing feelings of anxiety and fear—though the source may seem ridiculous to you—will you meet them where they’re at and comfort them? Or will you tell them to stop worrying about little things. Their feelings are real, no matter how ridiculous they may seem to you, and they even trusted you enough to come to you for comfort. Meet them there; attune to them; comfort them. Second, you probably noticed above that attachment styles tend to be built early and last a lifetime. While true, there is hope. You can learn to develop and interact as a securely attached individual. Let’s talk about how.

The first step is coming to the awareness that a change is needed. As you read the above, how did it make you feel? Who did you turn to as a child when you needed safety? How did they respond? How did things remain consistent or change as you got older? Be honest. This isn’t about blaming your parents; this is about awareness and naming where you were met with misattunement. As an adult, how do you handle your emotions? Are you even aware of them? For help with this journey of awareness, you can go to to learn more and take a free quiz. Additionally, see a recent blog post on our site called “Mind Control” to learn more about the practice of mindfulness. This incredibly useful skill will help you develop a greater level of self-awareness. In this way, you learn to attune to yourself! This will allow you to seek the comfort and safety you needed as a child. Which bring us to the next step…

Just as your attachment style was developed experientially, so, too, must experience pave the way toward secure attachment. You can learn to develop healthy habits within the context of healthy relationships. My suggestion is to begin this journey within a counseling relationship. There you will be met by someone who is trained to be attuned to the other. There you will be met by someone who can hold your pain and journey through it with you, without fear of abandonment or dismissal. There you can face the immense heartache of a traumatic childhood and process through those painful memories with someone safe. You are worth investing in! I implore you to believe that to be true!

One final plea before ending: be kind to yourself. Life is a journey; there will always be ups and downs. Rejoice in the ups, be kind to yourself in the downs.


Tony Vandenhoek | Counseling Intern