Before I tell you what I think attunement is, I want to tell you about attachment. Attachment Theory gives us one way to look at human behavior and emotions. Before we are born, we get everything we need without asking, really. We are in a warm, nutrient rich, quiet, muffled, weightless, dream. As our body and mind develop, without knowing the words to describe feelings, we have them. Later we might describe these feelings as calm, connected, alert, present, peaceful, and joyful.
Our birth gives us a feeling we have not yet been accustomed to. We can't simply exist anymore to survive. We don't know the words to describe this fight to survive, but we start to know what it feels like. The feeling makes our bodies or our minds want to freeze sometimes. Other times we try to flee or we learn ways to fight. This feeling is fear, or anxiety. This feeling is different than the dream we became accustomed to when all our needs were being met...
...Our bodies produce certain chemicals as we learn fear and anxiety. We become agitated when we experience fear and anxiety. This discomfort can protect us from danger, but it can also limit us when we have nothing to fear.
Do you remember what it feels like to have deep comfort and happiness? Remember the feelings of calm, connectedness, alertness, presence, peace, and joy? Although we can never go back into the womb, literally, we recall some of these feelings at certain times with certain people. When we feel these feelings with someone else consistently over time, we develop a secure attachment to them. We feel safe with them.
Attunement is when two people are feeling those comfortable and happy feelings together at the same time. When people are attuned there is a harmony resonating like notes through both of them. There are no words to accurately describe it because the feelings come from a place we knew before words.
"But even if I'm standing right there?"
One of the things Kim talked to me about is how Seth reacts to people he doesn't know. She used the example of when they are in the store and people try to talk to him, like people sometimes like to talk to children. She said he scowls and growls at them. We talked about emotions, and how he is learning ways to keep himself safe when he feels anxious or afraid. Then Kim said, "But even if I'm standing right there?"
It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? It doesn't make any sense! She is right there, why is he afraid? But when have emotions ever been logical? Emotions come from a part of our brains that is non-verbal. Memories are stored there, too. Words are not. Logic is not. In fact, this "primitive brain," or central brain, that is crucial to our survival as a species can easily over-ride our "executive functioning" part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. So, if Seth feels afraid, he feels afraid. And it doesn't matter that it doesn't make any sense to us. The only thing that will matter is that Kim provides a "space" where Seth consistently, over time, feels safe and warm. I believe that she is creating that environment.
Children want an emotional connection
Obvious: Children want an emotional connection with their parents. But did you know that they don't care what emotion it is? Children don't really care about the difference between anger responses and loving responses from their parents. All they care about is that they feel a connection to their parents. Just the emotional connection is more important than whatever the emotion is. When a mother has a pattern of arguing angrily with her child, she doesn't realize that she may be creating an a pattern of emotional connection by arguing. It is really okay to have disagreements. But connecting the disagreement to an emotion like anger can unintentionally teach a child that one way to have a connection with their parent is to argue.
Sometimes the only emotion a child gets from their parent is anger. That is why I hate it when parents say "Look at me when I'm talking to you!" only when they are angry. This does two things: 1) It makes the child feel uncomfortable with the window to their parent's soul. And, 2) The child learns that if they want an emotional connection with their parent, all they need to do is make them angry. And boy do they learn how. Please, if you do this, make them look at you when you are feeling happy, too.
"I don't want him to experience the pain and hurt that I have experienced."
This is something else that Kim said, and it is very common. Watching your child feel pain is a really difficult thing. Emotions are painful! Love is no different. We "break our hearts" over those we love so much, and oh, it hurts! Some people would rather not love and not feel--but haven't we all been there before, too? We wish we didn't have to feel the pain, but eventually we learn that we don't want to live without the joy. And we have to take them both, or not at all. In the movie Shadowlands based on the life of C. S. Lewis, his cancer stricken wife says, "our sadness now is part of our happiness then." We need both to truly be human.
Protecting our children from emotions because we don't want them to feel pain robs them of a real, full, authentic life. When you let them experience emotions, you teach them that it is okay "to feel." Teach them good ways to cope. Create the "space" where they can feel unconditional love when they are feeling emotions--both the happy ones as well as the uncomfortable ones. That does not mean accepting inappropriate behaviors, it does mean validating the human experience of feeling. Let them know that whatever they feel is temporary, it does not define them, and that feeling is okay. They can learn from experiencing emotions what it means to be fully human. Teach them to live authentically.
Teach them that you are a real person, with failures and loss and weakness, and you will become their hero.
One problem we often have is that we think children are little adults, but they are not. We try to explain things logically to them like an adult, and although it is important to model communication, and it is very important to talk to our children, sometimes the communication becomes a way for children to "hook" a parent into an argument, or push the "emotional limit" button. Again, children will find a way to connect with their parents emotionally, and they don't care if it is an argument if that is what they have discovered works.
Imagine living in a world of giants with no ears. That is what it is like for children. Do you remember how big your teachers looked? Do you remember what it was like to go back to your elementary school and have to kneel down to take a drink out of the drinking fountain? Do you remember listening to the clomping sound of a parent's heavy walking and then fitting both of your feet in only one of their shoes?
Of course, we are not earless, but we may have turned into earless giants to children because playing is no longer how we communicate anymore. Playing is not how we learn anymore. Children sense this.
But there are two things we do have in common with children that can help us get "unhooked." It is the simple desire to be 1) recognized, and 2) understood.
Rewarding through recognition
You probably already know that when a child feels recognized for doing something, they will likely repeat the behavior. Has a child ever shown you a picture they have colored and you reply, "Wow, those yellow clouds look so nice in that beautiful purple sky. My that sky is purple like the sunset!" Even if the picture was of a house and a tree, you'll get more yellow clouds in your next picture. And they might even take the time to draw you an entire page of yellow clouds in a purple sky.
The opposite is also true. Consistently start recognizing more negative things, and what do you think you'll start getting? My favorite quote about this comes from Thomas W. Phelan who wrote the book 1-2-3 Magic, Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. He said, "If you have a child who is doing something you don't like, get real upset about it on a regular basis and, sure enough, she'll repeat it for you!"
Parents easily slip into rewarding bad behaviors because it takes too much energy to run into the other room, smiling, and exclaim: "Wow! I haven't heard you guys for 4 whole minutes! You must be having a fun time! That makes me want to play with you more, maybe after work, but thank you for being so respectful to each other!" And it is easier to repeat to a questioning child: "You can't because, like I told you four times already ... (insert answer here)," than it is to to pause and recognize the positive, "Wow. You asked that by saying please. Thank you for being so polite!" And then after a pause, so that the reward really sets in, reflecting something like, "You can keep asking, but it won't change my answer." (Ignore the future questions about it and the temporary whining.) They will eventually learn that badgering doesn't get you to talk and politeness does. Recognizing pro-social behaviors has to happen immediately after a behavior you want repeated, consistently, with emotion, and very often--much more often than recognizing negative behaviors.
More rewarding tips:
Say "yes" more often than you say "no." If you have to, make up some things that you can say "yes" to, like, "Yes, you can... roll on the ground now if you want." This might keep your children asking for your permission before they figure out that they don't have to.
Try giving them a replacement behavior. Believe it or not, most children would like to please their parents if they really knew how, or if they really had the choice. Take advantage of this and say things to help them replace a behavior like, "Instead of ... hitting my arm like that ... I'd rather you ... use your muscles to rub my shoulder really hard like this--oh yeah! Boy, oh, boy, I really like that, wow!"
Look at them eye to eye and say their name. Then say, "I'm going to speak to you like an adult because what I'm going to say is very important." (These words may be like a game to them, but that's okay, and kind of the point.) Pause a little. This lets them look at your eyes when you are not angry. Then say, "I love you. You are perfect and beautiful in my eyes. Or, I'm proud of you." You don't have to say this word for word, but you get the idea. You can add a hug, or a grapple, or a tickle. Think of other ways to get this message across, but this is the most direct.
Think about what it would be like if "the giants of your life" were to look at you, call you by name, and say something like that. These kinds of statements consistently over time will do more for your relationship than any time out chair.
In order to use this skill effectively, a parent needs to completely accept the child as she is. The emotions your child is having is not who your child is. The behavior your child is showing is not who your child is. Before your child becomes a teenager, you can give them a head start with their identity by completely accepting the child, and becoming a mirror for them to begin to understand themselves.
The first time I saw the power of reflection, I was working with a group of very aggressive children somewhere around the ages of 8 or 9. They were in a play room and one of them who was very aggressive looked at me, sort of sideways, while he held a toy as if he were going to smash it into another kid's face. He knew the rule of respect in my group and the consequences. I looked back at him very calmly and reflected, "You want to hit him right now, even though you know that's against the rules." He looked at me for a few seconds longer, noticing that I was not jumping to the rescue as he had hoped, and dropped the toy. He looked across the room. I guessed, reflecting "Now you'd rather do something else." He went to the other side of the room to play. I didn't ask questions, I didn't make demands. Then I saw the other boy crying. "You're crying because you feel sad that he did that to you." It didn't matter to me that the boy was crying. And it didn't matter to me that he was feeling sad. We were connected in another way. What mattered to the boy was that I accepted him as he was and I was trying to understand him. It still delights me how this alone can dissolve some issues.
Play is how children communicate. You can learn about a child's emotions through watching them play. This makes play time a great time to practice reflecting their behaviors. It can get annoying to only speak by reflecting, but it can be fun, too. So, try it out. Be prepared to bite your lip! And don't assume you will be right or that you completely understand--reflecting gives them a chance to correct you. Just reflect until you "get it right." Forget about explaining things or answering questions or jumping in. You can show them that you care by being more attached to being with and understanding your child than by being concerned about their emotions or behaviors. Here are some reflection-starters that I've finished to give you some examples:
-"You want to... have that toy but they are using it right now.
-"You feel... angry... because we have to leave.
-"You don't like... when I help you follow the rules sometimes.
-"You wanted... to make a friend, but they didn't.
-"You don't think... it's fair.
-"You think... that I know the answer to that question, but I think you already know.
-"You are... happy... with your drawing."
-"You... spit at them and they left you. You wanted them to leave you.
-"You... "You... "You... "You... can see how these reflections help children begin to understand themselves)
Labels let parents quickly get the message to their kids without arguing and without getting "hooked" in an argument. I like to calmly state a label before I start "counting" (see 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan) or before time-out or discipline so that they quickly get the message that "[label]" is not appropriate. This is specifically for behaviors you want them to stop doing, not for behaviors you want them to start doing. Getting a child to do their regular chores is different than getting them to stop "not being fair," or being "disrespectful," or "yelling," or "whining." These are all examples of useful labels.
One small note that I don't even think that I have to make, but I will: "Whining" is different than crying. Crying rips your heart out, whining makes you want to rip your hair out. I hope that there is a space for children to appropriately express their sadness or grief in your relationship through a little crying.
Remember to have no emotional expression or emotional tone at all when you state the label or do any discipline. Getting you to express emotions may be the secondary reward that they are looking for. (But, you say, you have to yell so your kids will listen? Boy have they trained you well. Let's talk about how that happens another time.)
And, remember to separate your child from the behavior. The kiddo is not the "demon of aggression" themselves, but when they choose to behave aggressively there are consequences. When you follow through with a consequence, they will pull at your heart strings to the point of you giving in if you don't separate your love for them and their behaviors. If you give in, they know your breaking point and will go there again, sooner next time.
Some more tips: Make sure your discipline matches the offense, is age appropriate, is not secretly rewarding them, and is something you really can and will follow through with.
One Thing at a Time
Find one thing you want to work on. Parents often talk to me about a whole list of things that they would like to change about their kids. If you try to focus on everything, you might end up with nothing. Now, there are many ways to start improving behavior with your children. This is only one way. I like to take things one step at a time. I like to think of the top three behaviors that need to be addressed, measure their frequency to establish a "baseline," Then pick only one of them to work on at a time.
To make a baseline, daily measure for one week the frequency of three behaviors (without telling your children you are tracking these). You will either notice 1) "hmmm, it isn't really as often as I remember," or 2) "Wow, that's a lot, but now I will know when things get better because I have something to measure with." After making a baseline, pick only one behavior to work on at a time.
There is a reason to focus on only one of the behaviors at a time: Many behaviors are connected. Imagine that I chose 1) Temper Tantrums 2) Lying, and 3) Stealing as my top three behaviors to improve. When I focus only on one, let's say I focus on lying, what often happens is that as the lying decreases, the stealing and temper tantrum behaviors decrease as well. This is an easy example because perhaps the child was lying to get out of trouble from stealing and when he's caught stealing he has a temper tantrum. All of them decreasing isn't always the case. But will you complain when one behavior is completely under control? No, when this happens, just move to the next behavior to work on. One at a time.
Then the idea is to decrease inappropriate behaviors one at a time while increasing pro-social behaviors as much as possible.
"...I pray that he will give me some good ideas, some insight and will help me find my sweet boy again."
Kim said that the most helpful things we talked about were "reflecting," "labeling," and "working on one thing at a time." She asked me to write about them for her interested readers. I hope what I have written has been helpful.
Today I have just read what Kim wrote about in her blog about about "finding her sweet boy again," I try to read thoughts daily before dinner prayer from a book called The Parent's Tao Te Ching by William Martin. Is it a coincidence that today's thought is perfect for this? So I conclude:
They look so small and frail
but they are so great and magnificent.
They are born of the same womb that birthed the cosmos
and knitted together the galaxies.
If you could see them as they truly are,
you would be astounded.
You would see not little children,
but dancing clouds of light,
energy in motion,
swimming in an ocean of love.
They are so much more
than what you see.
As are you.
Thank you so much to Joe for this post. I would love to discuss this with you, so go on over to my Blog Frog community and let's share ideas.
Joe has offered a special to my readers for personal coaching, activity-assisted coaching, guided visualizations/affirmations, or personalized couples retreats. Most of the coaching is over the phone and all of the initial consultations are free, so we can find out if coaching is right for you. Visit Joe at Core Voyage today!!