All parents do their best to love their children, given their own family history and life circumstances. And, children have uncanny ways of understanding who they need to be in their family to get the care they need. If necessary, children will focus exclusively on the emotional needs of their parents in order to survive.
When I was a young mom, I had much inner work to do. Attuning to children requires that we know who we are. As a mother, I had the best of intentions. I read reams of parenting books. I studied attachment parenting. I wrote journals filled with inspiring parenting quotes.
For those of us who are parents, we know we love our children but understanding how to attune to our children is a different matter.
Gabor Mate MD writes:
"Attunement is the real language of love, the conduit by which the pre-verbal child can realize she is loved. Attunement is a subtle process. It is deeply instinctive and is easily subverted when the parent is stressed, depressed or distracted.
A parent can be fully attached to the infant - fully "in love" - but not attuned. Children in poorly attuned relationships may feel loved, or be aware that love is there, but on a deeper and essential level they do not experience themselves as seen or appreciated for who they really are."
Attuning to Yourself
Until we learn how to love who we really are, we will feel compelled to express ourselves in ways that were approved of in childhood. Our authentic self is vulnerable to outside influences. Born to lose ourselves in a world that only loves us conditionally, we learn how to look for where love isn't instead of where love is.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I felt the deepest urge to attune to myself. I cried a lot during my pregnancy. I started writing poetry when my baby was little in an effort to know myself. I still remember my daughter in her highchair, contemplatively eating her banana, as I wrote poem after poem on an old typewriter that I bought for five dollars at a garage sale.
The Parentified Child
Alice Miller, author of "Drama of the Gifted Child" shares what happens when a child takes care of the parent:
"There was a parent who at the core emotionally depended on their child to behave or act in a certain way. The child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively to the need of the mother. This role secured "love" for the child. She could sense that she was needed and this, she felt, guarantees a measure of security.
The ability is then extended and perfected. Later these children not only become mothers (confidants, comforters, advisors and supporters of their own mothers, but eventually develop a special sensitivity to the unconscious signals manifesting in the needs of others."
Attuning to Your Own Inner Child
I was still trying to attune to my own inner child during my parenting years. My mandate as a parent was to promote freedom of self-expression. Well-meaning, I gave my daughter what I wished for when I was growing up.
When my daughter was little, I set up a shared art studio for the two of us. We spent lots of time painting and drawing together in our little attic studio. At age three, she asserted her difference from me. She said, "Mommy I don't like painting! It makes my hands dirty!" She then firmly pronounced, "Write this down" and proceeded to dictate her first of many short stories to me.
When we do not attune to our young parts inside, we often insist that people constellate around our emotional needs - even our own children. Back then, I was surprised by my daughter; asserting her difference from me at age three. I did not expect that she would be so different from me.
Attunement is not Fusion
When my daughter young, I studied Family Systems Therapy. I learned that while my mom and I had an extremely close relationship while I was growing up, there was no differentiation. I did not know where she ended and I began.
My mother and I were emotionally enmeshed. I often changed myself to fit her moods. I noticed a similar pattern of fusion with my own daughter. Fusing (enmeshment) feels like leaving our own center of consciousness to more comfortably "get along" with another.
For a long time (until I was 30) I did not want to assert my authentic self. There was a "milky comfort" in the enmeshment with others. Fusion is intense closeness but there is no individuality within it. If you are used to fusion in your relationships - joining in the heart as two differentiated people - often feels less close at first.
Unfusing involves accepting the pain of expressing difference. Being authentic involves expressing ourselves in ways that feel difficult and uncomfortable. It often involves speaking personal truths that upset other people.
Enmeshed with others, we confuse getting our emotional needs met by other people with healthy self-love. When we are enmeshed with others we lose ourselves. When we do not "self-attune" we will insist that other people love us in the places where we refuse to love ourselves.
Cultivating self-love is the primary journey to unfusing from others. As an adult, it takes great dedication to attune to the parts of ourselves that feel unloved, unsupported, unseen and misunderstood.