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The ABC’s of Children’s Counseling: A is for Attunement

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

Photo by Alexander Andrews via Unsplash

Greetings friends! As I sat and thought about our topic for this month, I kept coming up with the many ways that parents can help their children throughout the counseling process. However, as I started to pull at the string, the topic grew well beyond any single blog, so I’ve decided to launch the The ABC’s of Children’s Counseling blog series. This series will provide a new topic each month to help give parents insight into what to expect during the counseling process and the many ways they can help their children, the process, and themselves.

During my time as a child therapist, I have been consistently asked what ways parents can help in the counseling process. Just like in school, having a parent or loved one’s help to continue the work at home is critical for success. After all, I only get to spend a single precious hour with your child each week and while I wish that I had my magic wand to help you in between sessions, I can only hope to offer you the next best thing. By learning the counseling tools found in this series, you will feel empowered to help your little one through his or her day to day struggles and maybe feel a little better yourself.

What is Attunement and Where can I get it?

This month we will start with A for attunement, as I can think of no better place to start than at the beginning. Attunement is a concept that is shared by many treatment modalities and I view it as central to any successful therapeutic relationship. Simply put, attunement is your ability to react to another’s emotional needs and moods in an effective manner that leads to harmony instead of discord. This may seem like a daunting clinical concept but once you’ve learned to recognize your child’s emotional needs in the moment, you will have won half the battle. Being attuned with another person provides you with specific contextual clues about what reaction may be appropriate for a situation. For instance, how many of us have become frustrated at our child’s frustration, only to see it develop into a full-blown meltdown? We are only human after all and our anger and frustration sometimes comes out to play and compounds already tenuous situations. However, what if we take a moment to read the emotional energy our child is putting off and consider what he or she needs to help them feel better? A simple trick that is helpful to all relationships is learning to meet the other where they are, not where they should be or where we want them to be. I’m sure most of you would like a well-behaved child who doesn’t throw a temper tantrum in the middle of a Target checkout line, or one who simply does what they are told to do when asked by their parent, however how many of us have achieved this? Just like you, your child is only human, he or she is full of emotions, both positive and negative, and sometimes the response you get isn’t always what you were hoping for.

Practicing Your Response

As you might guess, mastering attunement is no easy measure, however taking a few moments to practice may make you feel more prepared when you are called upon to offer your child empathy when they need it the most.

First, consider what are some appropriate behaviors and language that you can use when faced with an emotional child. Remember that you are your child’s first teacher, and it is up to you to model a healthy emotional response. I believe that many children will seek to match your energy, so if you become angry and yell you may notice a similar reaction. Be mindful of the type of responses you are hoping to get out of your child and try to use a similar energy.

Next, how would you want to be treated if you were feeling similarly? The last thing we want is to be yelled at when we are feeling sad and vulnerable. Whether you feel your child’s actions are warranted or not, remember that does not change the genuineness of their feelings. By thinking about your child as a tiny adult in training, you may be more likely to offer understanding and empathy instead of the anger and frustration that often accompanies the unrealized shoulds of children’s behaviors.

Finally, think about your presence in the room and your own affect. How does your face look, it is open and inviting a conversation or closed and angry? Are you standing tall over your child, or meeting them down on their level where you can offer eye contact and a warm embrace? How are you feeling? Do you need to take a minute to calm yourself down before you tackle the situation? These are just a few quick ways that we can be mindful of how we will be perceived by others.

When utilized, attunement can offer you peace and harmony in your home and in your relationships. By considering your child’s mood and emotional needs, you are leaving space for your child to experience his or her feelings and helping them to move forward. You may have bad days where attunement seems impossible, but honestly, who better to relate to your child on this deep emotional level than a loving parent?

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