In couples’ therapy, I sometimes use an acronym learned from John Gottman, one of the leading American researchers in couples dynamics. Lately, I have noticed just how much the acronym pertains to bonding relationships of every kind and especially to the ones with our attachment-challenged, traumatized children.
The acronym is A.T.T.U.N.E.: Awareness, Turning toward, Tolerance, Understanding, Non-Defensive Responding, Empathy.
Gottman says, “Bonding created by turning toward any negative affect and fully processing conflict and failures to connect… has the power to create trust.”
That is exactly how parents need to build trust — by engaging their challenging children with the A.T.T.U.N.E. principles.
If you are gasping for air right now because living those principles in relation to your family would be impossibly monumental, then let me count to three and we can all collectively gasp together. There are so many days when parents of challenging children think we have climbed Mount Everest and back because we simply resisted losing our temper. Some days it is a fine line, isn’t it? Let’s be honest.
What I know is that A.T.T.U.N.E. principles, as a daily practice, will make the days easier. The challenges won’t magically disappear, but they will seem less daunting when your heart and mind focus in a concerted effort to stay in a secure state of attunement.
When your child is engaging in extreme negative emotion — also known as dysregulation — be aware that his brain is in a neuro-biological, chemical cascade and your brain is, too, in response. For a start, breathe to soothe yourself. Just breathe.
Recipe for following A.T.T.U.N.E. principles when tempers flare
- Go closer with awareness of the therapeutic moment, rather than farther away in hopelessness, hurt, anger, punishment or disgust.
- Turn toward the negativity with tolerance and understanding for your child’s feeling of upset.
- Don’t take it personally — it really isn’t about you — and you will be able to non-defensively respond with safe, calm and loving voice tones, also known as prosody.
- When you ATTUNE, empathy will be more easily accessed in yourself to give to your child, who is usually looking angry and operating out of pure, knee-jerk fear.
- When the recipe is practiced well enough — not to perfection — there will be stronger trust and a stronger bond.
- Be kind to yourself. It is hard to learn to ATTUNE to so much pain in the heart of your beautiful, wounded child.
To read more by Ce Eshelman, LMFT about parenting attachment-challenged, traumatized children, check out Wisdom for Adoptive Parents and Attach Place.