Dr. Sarah (00:02):

Ever wonder what psychologists moms talk about when we get together, whether we’re consulting one another about a challenging case or one of our own kids, or just leaning on each other when parenting feels hard, because trust me, even when we do this for a living, it’s still hard. Joining me each week in these special Thursday shows are two of my closest friends, both moms, both psychologists, they’re the people I call when I need a sounding board. These are our unfiltered answers to your parenting questions. We’re letting you in on the conversations the three of us usually have behind closed doors. This is Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions.


Hi, welcome back to another segment of Beyond the Sessions here on the Securely Attached podcast. We’ve got Dr. Emily Upshur here. Hello, how are you?

Dr. Emily (00:52):

Hi. Good to be here.

Dr. Sarah (00:55):

We are going to be answering a question from a listener, so she writes in, hi, Dr. Sarah. I’m trying to be attuned in parent really getting what my daughter is feeling and needing, but lately I’ve been second guessing myself a lot. I worry that maybe I’m not picking up on all her cues or that I’m not responding in the best way. It’s tough to know if I’m doing things right. Could you offer some tips or strategies for becoming more attuned to my child? I want to be the best support system I can for her, and I’d love some guidance on how to do that. Thanks. What a lovely email to get. I just feel like this also makes me just want to say out loud to parents the thought that goes into these emails and the questions you guys ask for the show.


It warms my heart to see just how much these parents care and yeah, it is hard to always feel like you’re attuned to your child, and I also think we should probably spend a bit of a minute or two just talking about the fact that we don’t really have to be totally attuned to our child. There’s actually not a way, it’s not optimal to be attuned to our child all of the time. So maybe we could talk a little bit about setting the range of what are we hoping to get to what’s optimal, and then if you feel like you’re outside of that range, how can we give you some practical strategies that work in real life to help you increase that attunement? What to look for, where to put your energy. I think a lot of it can be noise, but there are certain things that you could do. Emily, what are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Emily (02:35):

I mean, my first thought as you were saying that is exactly what you’re saying. You’re not supposed to be looking at your child the entire time being attuned to them. I think it’s a little bit like what you might think of meditation. You drift a little bit away and then you attune right back. The cues that I look for personally as a mom when I’m doing that is am I sitting there at the dinner table and I’m spacing out about work or something else and my kid asks me a question and then I make sure to look at them and focus on the question instead of being a little distracted. Again, I bring my attention back to being really aware of what the question is, what’s going on and how can I answer it. Those are little ways that I think you can continuously bring yourself back with littler kids that are maybe not as verbal.


I think there are other ways to do that as well in terms of physical contact, making sure that you can, if you’re talking to your child, maybe you’re down on their level or you’re touching them ways to cue your own self into slowing down and making sure you’re really just really listening and really seeing them is, it doesn’t have to be the whole time, but I think when you have external cues to redirect yourself back there, they’re asking you, mommy, you’re not listening. Mommy, you’re not listening. That’s a good one. That happens in my house a lot, or Did you hear me or Can you look at this? Can you come with me? That you can take a beat and say yes. Right. That’s sort of one of the things that I’ve noticed is I’m often saying, no, no, no in a minute or this. So going back to like, yes I can and let me do what I’m doing right now with you at that moment.

Dr. Sarah (04:18):

So that makes me too, what you’re talking about brings up this other thought for me, which is what type of misattunement are we talking about? The ones you’re describing is a bid for connection or attention that we maybe aren’t meeting in the moment because busy or we’re distracted or we’re in our own head or we’re a million other reasons, but that’s one type of misattunement, right? My kid wants me and I can’t give them me. There are other types of misattunements where it’s like a misread, right? My kid is communicating, I’m paying attention, but I am missing it. They’re getting increasingly more frustrated. They’re not feeling like I’m understanding even though I’m giving them my full attention. That’s like a misattunement versus I missed the bid for the attunement. And those are hard when you have a kid who’s harder to read, right? Because I mean, I know personally, and I know you do too, Emily, different kids in our own family are easier to read than others.


If you have a kid who’s a little bit murkier in terms of how much they wear, what they’re feeling on their external, how verbal they are, how capable they are of explaining to you what they are frustrated by or what they’re needing, my daughter will often struggle sometimes with, she’s getting a lot better now, but for a long time she really struggled with helping me know what made her mad. She was just mad, and so I felt so misattuned to her and I know she felt misattuned by me because it was just hard for me to read the cues, and that was a process of us kind of figuring out what are her cues? They’re more subtle aren’t, whereas my son was just always a little bit more capable of saying, I really didn’t like this thing that happened, and now he could sequence stuff a little bit better. He could say, this happened and this happened, and then this happened and I didn’t like that, and I could say, oh, I can respond to that. Does that make sense? Kind of thinking about it in terms too of what is the type of misattunement that you’re noticing is happening?


I imagine what you were talking about, Emily, they’re asking for our attunement and we’re not able to give it to them. That’s life that happens and it’s very unavoidable. The other one happens too, but they look different.

Dr. Emily (06:47):

I mean, I think what you’re talking about, what I’m hearing is what if you’re different too? What if you as a personality are different from your kid and you don’t really get them, or your kid is different from you and they feel like you don’t really get me, but I imagine as you were talking about your daughter, I imagine that you probably at some point were like, oh, this is so frustrating. I don’t get it right, and you just mirror that back. Literally what I just said is attunement, right? So I think that that’s also just sort of a concrete tool. You can meta talk about how frustrating this is and how I’m missing it and how that’s really tough and it can feel icky and you haven’t solved the problem, but you have been attuned in that moment to what’s happening between the two of you.


And I think as your child gets older and personalities and sort of differences, I have kids that are very different from me, and I think the more you sort of learn about them and label those differences and sort of try to adapt a little bit of your strategies or your attunement for connecting with them to who they are. I also think that’s part of this process of becoming more and more attuned. It’s like developmental. I now know that my middle son, there are times when you just shouldn’t talk to him. The attunement is okay, this is a time when you really need to be left alone. We can reconnect. But I’ve learned over time to not push it. Lots of parents are like, oh, I should be there. I can’t leave. It’s that abandoning. I’m confident and comfortable with my atunement to him that that’s okay right now, not for long periods of time, but that that’s the difference, and I’m not like that.


So it was really hard for me to come along with him on that journey and give him that attunement because it conflicted with my personality and how I resolve things. So I think you learn that, and I think that the thing I would say to this listener is, you’re going to learn and grow, right? And you’re going to have to, again, we say this all the time, throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks. But you’re going to have to try different things and you’re going to have to not try the same. Maybe the misattunement pieces that you’re talking about, Sarah is maybe not try the same thing over and over and over again if it keeps not working.


If you find yourself in that loop, which you might, and that’s totally fine to say, oh, this is not, how can I change this up a little bit? How can I change my approach so it doesn’t feel like that?

Dr. Sarah (09:29):

Yeah. Another thing that just popped into my head that can help a lot with attunement is the zoom out because I think sometimes we’ll get really hyper fixated on what our child is showing us in the moment. I’m frustrated, I don’t want to do this thing you’re making me do or I don’t that icky, I’m not feeling good about something feeling, and we’re like, I am trying and it’s not working. We’re not on the same page, and we can get kind of sucked into a very granular moment with them. But then sometimes if we have the capacity to zoom out, we might be like, oh, you know what? It’s getting kind of late and you might actually just be really tired. Or, oh, we just had a really busy dinner at a loud restaurant and you had to sit for a while, and now I’m asking you to kind of come with me to this other sort of headspace or task or cooperation level, and you just don’t overstimulated and you don’t have the bandwidth right now.


You’ve had to kind of hold it together at this noisy space for a while. Sometimes attunement is also zooming out and looking at our kids, kind of where our kids are on the map. They might not be at all aware, and so they’re getting increasingly frustrated by whatever it is that’s happening in a particular moment. And if we get sucked into that zoomed in space with them, we might feel like we’re attuned to them, but our ability to zoom out and be more objective and look at the landscape of where they’re at and then help them kind of move and lower our expectations in that moment, not maybe forever obviously, but okay, we’re going to move into survival mode right now for a little bit. We’re just going to triage a little bit here. That’s attunement. We’re at tuning to maybe not their mood in that moment or their frustration in that moment or their need for a support in that moment, but we’re tuning into their bandwidth in that moment or their sensory load in that moment.

Dr. Emily (11:34):

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I think what you’re saying is, which we talk about a lot, is you don’t have to respond to what’s happening in the moment, literally like your kid is tantruming or if you can zoom out, you can try to respond to what you is going on behind the curtain, exactly what you’re saying, oh, they must be tired. Maybe they’re getting a little sick. Oh, they might’ve had a bad day. And so I’m not even going to address what’s happening over right in the front of me sort of with the literal behavior, but I’m going to look behind the scenes and I’m going to respond to that. That might not feel attuned to your kid at the moment. It might not be obvious to you. Your kid’s not going to give you a, oh, yeah, that’s totally what’s happening with me necessarily. So I don’t want to give the false pretense that you’re going to get validated for that, but you’re still attuned when you do that, even if you’re ignoring the noise that they’re putting out with some of that. And again, that has to be fine tuned and you’ll learn that over time and your kid will get more articulate about responding and telling you if that’s right or wrong or not what they’re feeling. But I definitely like the idea of you’re saying of taking a step back and that is also attunement, circling back.

Dr. Sarah (12:51):

Yeah, and you’re talking about all these ways that we can increase our attunement or even not even increase our attunement, just be more aware of the different types of attunement we might categorize it as, or the different ways that attunement can gets pulled into the front of mind for parenting. But I do think I want to circle back to what we were saying at the beginning of the session, which is this idea of good enough is not like a, oh, well you can’t be perfect, so I guess we’ll settle for good enough. It’s this consolation prize. We just have to kind of lower our expectations. The concept of the good enough parent, it’s like a scientific thing. It is actually based in research, and I’ll just preview it a little bit. I think it is really, really important for parents to hear, and it’s so validating to hear it, the idea behind the good enough parent.


It was sort of proposed by Winnicott who is a pediatrician, and I think a psychoanalyst a while back in the fifties or sixties, but he was basically pointing out this idea that if one were to attune perfectly to a child, it would be suboptimal. It doesn’t flow with the way our natural development happens with children. So if you think about in terms of when a child is born, an infant is completely merged with the mother or whoever their primary attachment figure is, they don’t really know where they end. And the other begins, it’s this blurry mess of touch and sensory and sound and all this stuff, and it’s wonderful, but over time, as the mother or whomever is raising this baby naturally, inevitably mis attunes to the needs of this child because we can’t read minds, and we are humans who only have so much capacity to meet accurately the needs of a child. If our kid is crying because they need to be burped, but we change their diaper, that’s misattunement. All of these moments of misattunement, we separate from them. They want us and we’re not in the room.


Those moments of mis atunement are actually a developmental necessity for helping that child to develop the awareness that I am me, and we are two separate beings, we’re not merged. And that growing awareness, which evolves more in more depth as child gets older is the beginning of one sense of self, one sense of other, and a relationship between two people. That relationship is the attachment relationship. So this is how attachment unfolds, right? In the beginning there, yes, we’re hardwired to attach to our caregivers from the beginning, but in the very beginning, there’s no conscious awareness of that relationship. It’s just a blur. And as we mis attune to our child, naturally our child starts to understand, oh, we’re different people and I’m attached to this person and I want to be with this person and become more aware of the relationship. That’s really important. And the idea of the good enough parent is there’s sort of this optimal level of misattunement that happens just naturally in development. We are not supposed to be perfectly attuned to our child. We are supposed to miss attune to our child a good amount, and we don’t need to seek out those moments, but they happen all by themselves, and we shouldn’t be beating ourselves up for the presence of them because they’re actually a hugely important part of development. So I just think that’s important to put out there whenever we’re talking about attunement, because the goal is not actually perfect attunement that would be kind of codependency and merger. It’s not healthy.

Dr. Emily (16:54):

I think that’s all a hundred percent aligned. And I think I would just add that to take it to out of the beginning of attachment relationships being misattuned is sort of building tolerance to discomfort in relationships which will happen as your child gets older and as your child forays into the world. So knowing that people aren’t perfect, essentially tolerating imperfections in others, tolerating the discomfort that you might feel in yourself or in people you care about who might not totally get it all the time is also a really important life skill. So again, back to your perfection, not being the goal, building into your interpersonal relationships, this idea that there will be a good enough. Of course, as parents, we want to do good enough, but being perfectly attuned to our child isn’t actually the answer. We want them to build that tolerance and that ability to still have rewarding relationships that can sometimes be disappointing.

Dr. Sarah (18:00):

Yes, I love that. I love how that just, it’s a natural progression of this idea from infancy all the way through development into real life grownup relationships. And I do think naming that process out loud for our kids is helpful to say, Ugh, you wish I understood this better and I’m not getting it, and it stinks, and I’m sorry. I know that’s so frustrating. I wish I could. I could get this right, but in this moment I’m not. I know that doesn’t feel good or whatever. Say it in fewer words. Always say it in fewer words, but even just that, ugh, I know this is hard. Sometimes I’ll say to my kids, nothing feels good right now. Nothing. And sometimes that pisses them off and sometimes they kind of melt. They’re like, I know nothing feels good. And sometimes it’s not about fixing it. And I think that’s another thing is don’t conflate attunement with fixing attunement is seeing and reflecting back to our child that we see them. It doesn’t mean that we’re solving the discomfort or the frustration or making the difficult thing go away necessarily or coming back if they don’t want us to separate being like, I’m going to get that coffee. I will be back. I’m going to go get myself a cup of coffee. I really need to take care of me right now. Or I’m going to go to the bathroom or I’m going to say goodbye and I’ll pick you up at the end of the day.


These are misattunements in that we’re not giving our child what they want in that moment and are communicating both either verbally or in our affect or our confidence in their ability to cope with this. Distress is also kind of a meta much larger attunement, maybe not to their need in the moment, but to what we understand as parents as like, this is how I am this container for you and all of your distress. And that’s a larger attunement to bigger developmental need that they may have. So sometimes we can get kind of stuck in this moment like this mom is saying, I’ve been second guessing myself a lot, or I’m worrying that I’m not picking up on all her cues, or I’m not responding in the best way. And sometimes you won’t in the moment feel like you’re responding in the best way if your goal is for them to be happy or appeased or stop feeling frustrated or upset, or stop feeling like you are attuning to them, when in fact you’re kind of attuning to a larger picture, developmental need of tolerating distress or tolerating separation or just being seen and not solved.


So I think I just want to give this mom a real encouragement to say, on the one hand, I trust you. If you feel like you’re not attuning to your kid in the best possible way, try some of these strategies. But also, don’t be too quick to doubt yourself either. You may be doing more than you realize. Yeah. Yeah. All right. Well, thanks for writing in this question. Let us know if this helps, and we’ll see you guys soon.

Dr. Emily (21:25):


Dr. Sarah (21:29):Thank you so much for listening. As you can hear, parenting is not one size fits all. It’s nuanced and it’s complicated. So I really hope that this series where we’re answering your questions really helps you to cut through some of the noise and find out what works best for you and your unique child. If you have a burning parenting question, something you’re struggling to navigate or a topic you really want us to shed light on or share research about, we want to know, go to drsarahbren.com/question to send in anything that you want, Rebecca, Emily, and me to answer in Securely Attached: Beyond the Sessions. That’s drsarahbren.com/question. And check back for a brand new securely attached next Tuesday. And until then, don’t be a stranger.

✨We want to hear from you! Go to https://drsarahbren.com/question to send us a question or a topic you want to hear us answer on Securely Attached – Beyond the Sessions! ✨

203. BTS: What strategies can help me be more attuned to my child?