When I reflect on the process of attunement—a parent’s highly instinctive state of emotional connection with their child—the example that comes to mind is when a parent knows exactly why his or her child is crying. Admittedly it took me a few days to know what my infant Chinese daughter’s particular need was when she cried.
Compared to her brother, my oldest and biological son, she was incredibly quiet. I didn’t recognize my daughter’s mewling as crying that first night. She sounded more like a kitten. There seemed to be little urgency since her cry was so soft, so I prepared a hot bottle as instructed by her ayi (caretaker). She refused it and instead soaked me in her urine. At that moment, I was reminded that we were strangers.
Getting to know one another would take some time. I vowed to do a better job of “actively listen” to my adopted daughter, to be gently vigilant in observing her and open to what she was experiencing, with the goal of attuning and attaching. I followed these steps to create attunement with my daughter:
- I was present in my presence.
- I mirrored her verbal and nonverbal cues.
- I tried to put myself in her place. What was she experiencing from her grief, losses, confusion, and insecurity? What messages was she picking up from my verbal and nonverbal cues?
- What messages was she giving me?
- I was gentle and patient.
- I let her lead; show me the way.
I spent a lot of time holding my baby girl in China. Other than when I showered, when she took her afternoon nap, or when we slept at night, my daughter spent her time next to me, held or in an infant carrier. Proximity permitted her to feel my heartbeat and the vibrations of my voice and laughter. We became familiar with one another’s body movements, scents, and verbal and nonverbal cues. Familiarity allowed trust to germinate and take root. We played. I sang and read to her. The threads of connection surfaced and strengthened, creating a foundation for attunement. Within a few days, I could easily discern what her cries meant and responded appropriately. She began to ask for my attention, by yelling at me.
In the ensuing years attunement has helped me support my daughter and my other adopted children as they have navigated the emotions and issues that sometimes arise with being adopted.
For Discussion: Attunement can be described as understanding and responding another person’s verbal and nonverbal cues. Sometimes there is a cultural mix-up. Sometimes kids do not want to be touched, held, or hugged due to their histories or temperaments. What is your experience with attuning to your child and his or her needs?
~ Photo credit: NliveN, LLC