Attunement is probably the best gift you could ever give your child.
Attunement is the foundation upon which we build healthy, strong, and enduring relationships.
A fault in attunement is also the single most common reason we see discord in relationships, whether with our kids, our partners – or even ourselves.
So how do you ensure strong attunement when raising tweens and teens?
Put simply, attunement means how responsive you are to someone else. It is also the process by which we form bonds with other people.
When you “tune-in” to someone, you are showing that you are interested in, and able to, respond to their needs. This helps people feel safe, understood, and that they matter.
When someone feels safe, understood and that they matter, they are more likely to associate you with good feelings and to feel that it is a strong relationship that they wish to continue in their life.
As you can imagine, when you are out of tune, you will both experience miscommunications, unhelpful or unsolicited advice, arguments, resentment, fights and likely many many tears.
Parents are the secure base from which teens are able to explore and experience the world. And therefore they require a tuned in relationship in order to feel safe and supported in doing so.
Lately you may have noticed that with your tween or teen you are feeling out of tune – like you are both completely misunderstanding each other at every turn. It can be frustrating to put in so much effort to love them and have it backfire or feel like it is not being received.
Here’s how you can tune back in:
1. Know the difference between reactiveness and responsiveness
2. Find balance between under-helping and over-helping
Reactiveness is behaving with a “knee-jerk” reaction to a behaviour instead of taking time to be curious about the behaviour and what inspired it. Reactiveness is usually based on emotion. For example, your tween makes a snide comment about supper. Your reaction is to be hurt (rightfully so). And so you say (defensively) “well if you don’t like it feel free to make your own meals from now on”.
(and haven’t we all wanted to say that from time to time!!)
The outcome, however, can cause a slight rift in attunement because it is a mildly “rejecting” statement. A tween or teen who accumulates too many of these statements over time may feel unsupported or unwanted. They may think,”my parent isn’t there for me.”
The reality is their behaviour is testing you; they are seeing if you will accept them even if they aren’t “perfect”. They need to know you will respond well.
What is a responsive way to get your message across then?
Responsiveness is not impulsive. It means you have thought about the situation, what message you want to send, where the other person is coming from, and are putting the “relationship health” as the priority. Responsiveness is about connecting with someone.
For example when they make a comment about the food, you pause before you answer and may say something like, “I hear this isn’t your favourite dish. It’s OK to not like everything on the table. I’d love to have you join me to create your favourite dish sometime. Sound fun?”
This shows them that they are allowed to have an opinion and it invites them to connect better with you. You may use this opportunity to then share that you would love it if when they don’t like a dish they say so respectfully as it is totally OK to be displeased, but hurtful when it comes across so harshly. This teaches them their feelings are valid, but also encourages them to similarly be responsive and not reactive and to put the relationship first.
The second most important part of attunement is knowing when to help or guide them and when to give them space to learn on their own. Most parents tend to err on the side of over-helping (you may have heard the term “helicoptering”). This is because no parent wants to let their child feel abandoned and without support, but also because sometimes it’s just time-efficient; we all lead such busy lives and it can be painful to watch a child struggle through something when we could just do it for them.
But teens and tweens need space to fumble through life if they are going to develop confidence and resilience. The greatest way for your tween or teen to develop a sense that they can do something (aka competency) is to make sure they actually do it themselves. That feeling of “wow I figured that out on my own or just with some guidance” is powerful.
It’s the difference between a teen that says “I got this” and one that whines, “can you just call the doctor and make the appointment for me?”
The key to not over-helping is to let your teen know that you are there for them if needed, but that you fully believe in them. Saying something as simple as “I fully trust you can do this. However I am here to help you get over the bumps. I won’t do the task for you, but are there areas you are nervous about? We can work through them together. What strategies have you thought of? And then I’ll share my ideas”.
The ability to be present, but not take over, is one marker of a very tuned-in parent because it shows that you are noticing exactly when your child needs you and when they are ready to grow.This attunement helps build that foundation of connection that will last you a lifetime.