The title of this blog is aptly named because these concepts (relational circuits, validation, and attunement) were foreign to me, even as recently as a couple of years ago. While I may have done one or all of them at a given time, I did not have the vocabulary for what I was doing. And I’m not sure I was doing any of it intentionally – until the past few years.
As I was preparing to write this blog post about attunement and children, a question popped into my head. Why do validation and comfort feel somewhat normal to me, but Jen’s description of attunement feels scary? In particular the line, “In order to attune with our infant, we have to be able to handle the level of emotion they are feeling in order to join them in it.”
It’s the handling of someone else’s negative emotions and joining them in it that feels daunting. This is a scary (and painfully vulnerable) place for me, as I feel that my own attunement needs were not met in my childhood. It’s as though my brain is saying, “I don’t know how to do this!”
Thankfully, I have friends like Jen (and her husband, Chris) that can share their stories with me to better understand what this looks like. Chris has a fantastic story about sharing sadness with their son and a derby car race in his book, The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids. At the end of his story (p. 84), he describes attunement with children like this, “Parents attune with their children by giving their full attention to them when they are in need. We do this through facial expressions, tone of voice, appropriate touch, and the words we use. Attunement is generally the first step in problem-solving and engaging in teaching moments.”
Reading this passage prompted another question in me: That sounds like validation. Aren’t attunement and validation the same thing? I had to know and texted Jen my question right away. Her insightful response was, “Validation starts attunement and opens the door. Attunement takes it to the next step of joining in the emotion, but validation sets the stage for attunement.”
A light bulb went on when I read that. Validation was a smaller hill for me to climb, as I could do it even when my relational circuits were off or going dim. But attunement requires my relational circuits to be fully on. And large negative emotions in others are, at times, a trigger for me to become overwhelmed and turn my relational circuits down or off. I’d grown up being accustomed to living without my relational circuits on and it felt like a form of protection.
When my children had their moments of anger, despair, fear, etc. I couldn’t quite understand why I could say, “I see how hard this is for you,” and validate that feeling. But sometimes I felt unable to draw in closer – like I needed to keep those emotions at arm’s length to prevent them from taking me under. It’s that attunement piece that feels tricky, and now I know why. I can’t attune without my relational circuits on. At the end of The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids, Chris and Marcus review the importance of relational circuits, aka The Joy Switch. This one quote sums it up, “You cannot be your best self unless your relational circuits are on and running properly.” To leave them off and try to attune, or even validate, will end up making the interaction disingenuous (and potentially damaging!)
Children are smart; they pick up on the sincerity of what you are saying. My husband and eldest child had a small argument and my husband validated my son with, “I can see how much that upsets you and I’m sorry.” But my son answered, “You don’t mean that.” And the truth was, my husband, didn’t. He was tired and his relational circuits had gone off. Thankfully, he saw that my son was pointing out the truth, and took a deep breath and said, “You’re right. Let’s finish this discussion later when my RC’s are back on.”
That interaction taught me another valuable lesson – it’s okay to validate and let our kids know: this may not be the best time for us to attune with them. I have had a handful of moments where I am able to say, “I know how big this feeling is for you. It’s big for me right now too. Let’s take some deep breaths together. I’d like to hug you and be quiet for a minute before we continue talking about this.” I’ve also had plenty of moments where I shut down and say, “I can’t talk about this right now,” and walk away. The important thing is I go back to my children, apologize, and try again.
Attunement isn’t always easy or natural, just like any new exercise routine isn’t easy or natural at first either. And just like when we don’t get the move right when we’re working out, we don’t give up and stop trying. We go back and do it again. If you haven’t been able to always attune with your children, that’s okay. We’re learning how to do this together and we don’t give up just because we don’t always get it right. We can go back, apologize, and try again.