Much in the same way as musical groups and orchestras ensure their instruments are in tune before beginning their performance, infants, toddlers, and preschoolers rely upon a process called emotional attunement with their parents.
Emotional attunement is how parents and caregivers show that they are paying attention to their baby’s needs. And this helps the child reach optimal levels of development and growth.
All humans crave connection, love, and knowing that they can trust those closest to them. But for children, these things are absolutely vital during their earliest years. When these biological needs aren’t met, a child has the potential to develop early childhood or developmental trauma.
A Closer Look at Emotional Attunement
Watch parents and babies carefully. You’ve no doubt seen the ways in which they mirror expressions and sounds to each other. When the baby coos and babbles, the parent coos back. It is a beautiful give and take, a soothing and easy back and forth between parent and child.
Likewise, when a baby or toddler cries, you probably have noticed how the caregiver will try to comfort them. Cries are a sign that the baby needs something: food, a clean diaper, interaction, or attention.
When caregivers respond fully and lovingly to these needs, babies receive valuable messages. They are learning that they are important and loved, and that they can trust other people. And they also begin to understand that it can move other people to respond to them by expressing themselves.
Consistent emotional attunement sets the stage for many important developmental milestones to occur. Here are 6 components of healthy attunement that helps kids to thrive, build resilience and feel regulated:
- Presence – being fully with and available for the child. Getting their world and allowing them to explore and express themselves. Not necessarily always needing to fix, rescue or problem solve for them and supporting their overall “being-ness.” Accepting kids for all of who they are vs. who parents want or need them to be.
- Prosody involves patterns of rhythm and sound used in interacting with a little one. How you use your voice AND the words or sounds you are expressing greatly impact a young and developing nervous system.
- “X-ray” vision” – knowing what your little one needs even if they can’t express it, and then acknowledging and/or meeting their needs with care and patience.
- Consistent physical touch and affection that places no demands on the child and is used for soothing, reassurance, expression of love and care and to keep a child safe from harm.
- Meaningful reflection of the child about themselves. Kids have a biological need to feel understood and reflections from parents go a long way in helping kids feel “gotten.” Additionally, reflections by the caregivers shared with the child help write the child’s story of who they are.
- Healthy boundaries help kids know what’s ok and what’s not ok. Healthy boundaries can be a powerful and loving way to guide, mentor and teach children about themselves and the world. They also teach kids how to take good care of themselves and get their needs met.
Healthy attunement helps build a solid nervous system which in turn helps kids grow into adults who feel more solid in themselves and their place in the world. And, it isn’t just for little ones, either. Adults need relationships where these six components are the foundation for meaningful connection and a sense of belonging.
Early Childhood Trauma
Babies are hardwired to need attunement. It sets the groundwork for emotional, behavioral, and neurological development. When they don’t get this attention, the developmental process is interrupted.
Think back to your observations of babies. Have you ever noticed what happens when a caregiver stops responding and mirroring back?
In a well-known experiment called the Still Face experiment, a baby becomes upset, or dysregulated, when their parent stops exhibiting “coo behaviors.” Check out the video.
As you can see, the baby gets distressed if Mama doesn’t exhibit attunement or co-regulating behaviors. If infants grow up without a consistent experience of attunement, they tend to develop low self-esteem and have troubles maintaining healthy relationships. The early messages they received from their parents’ lack of response was that their needs didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, these messages carry on into adulthood. They ripple out and express themselves in different ways. Low self-esteem, poor impulse control, emotional flooding, and feeling disconnected are all natural outcomes. This can be experienced somatically as well—a person may feel fatigued often, struggle with poor immune responses, and feel out of touch with what’s happening in their body.
Attunement and Co-Regulating Touch
Fortunately, if you’ve experienced early childhood trauma, you can find healing through therapy. It allows you to establish the type of responsive, caring relationship with a therapist that you didn’t have with your parents. With time, you can learn to trust other people while learning to trust yourself too. In a healthy give-and-take with a therapist, you learn that your needs can be met.
Co-Regulating Touch is an especially powerful way to help you with finding the emotional attunement that you didn’t receive as an infant. Just as calming touch is vital to helping young children learn to self-regulate, it plays an important role in the healing process for adults.
If you’d like to find out more about how trauma therapy with Somatic Therapy Partners can help you find healing from early childhood trauma, I encourage you to reach out.