Emotional Attunement and Children in Survival Mode

By Alex Biddell, Clinical Intern | January 12, 2024 

With kids that are in “Survival Mode”, connection is a vital asset in their healing. The last post demonstrated that play is a big part of building connection between parents and their children. Playtime can help parents and their children strengthen their relationship using imagination, working on leadership skills, and creating fun memories together. But playtime is just one part of the day. What about other times when something happens to trigger the child? What happens when they begin to dysregulate and act out using maladaptive behaviors? This is when emotional attunement comes into play.

Firstly, what is emotional attunement? Essentially, it is a mindful state for parents to enter into when a child in “Survival Mode” is dysregulated. Mindfulness is about being purposefully aware of one’s own physical and emotional state (Wesselmann et al., 2014). With emotional attunement, however, a parent takes stock of his or her own state and checks on the state of the child at the same time (Wesselmann et al., 2014). The goal here is to identify what the child is feeling that led to acting out. There is a reason for the behavior, after all. However, children do not always have the words to express their feelings outright and this can be especially true for children in “Survival Mode.” It might take a little time and “detective work” to see what’s truly bothering them, but once the reason is discovered, that is when attunement can begin to do its work.

The first thing to do when working on emotionally attuning with a child in “Survival Mode” is to actively listen. This may seem obvious, but it is too important not to mention. Actively listening to anyone shows that the person matters, and children are no different. To actively listen, though, means taking in more than words, and taking in the tone and emotion too. This helps provide more clues to identify the emotions underneath the behaviors, so it is the best place to start (Wesselmann et al., 2014). Next, emotionally reassure the child in that moment. A parent telling their child “I love you” or “I’m here for you” reminds them that the parents’ job is to be a child’s support in a difficult time. That reminder can do so much to relieve the emotion they are experiencing in that moment of dysregulation. Lastly, reflect and empathize with them at that moment saying things like “I remember feeling angry in a situation like this,” or “Everyone feels that way sometimes. What can I do to help you?”  Empathy has so much power with children in cases like this. It helps them know that everyone experiences feelings just like they do, including the people they know the most: their parents.

When parents follow these three steps with a calm mind and calm body language, they can attune to their child’s feelings, help them feel heard, and lessen the big feelings that lead to those maladaptive behaviors. No matter whether it’s fun times or hard times, a positive connection between parents and their children is what helps children grow in a healthy way, especially for children who are in “Survival Mode.”  Also, it is emotional attunement that plays a major part in fostering those positive connections when kids are experiencing their most difficult emotions. 

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With kids that are in “Survival Mode”, connection is a vital asset in their healing. The last post demonstrated that play is a big part of building connection between parents and their children. Playtime can help parents and their children strengthen their relationship using imagination, working on leadership skills, and creating fun memories together. But playtime is just one part of the day. What about other times when something happens to trigger the child? What happens when they begin to dysregulate and act out using maladaptive behaviors? This is when emotional attunement comes into play.

Firstly, what is emotional attunement? Essentially, it is a mindful state for parents to enter into when a child in “Survival Mode” is dysregulated. Mindfulness is about being purposefully aware of one’s own physical and emotional state (Wesselmann et al., 2014). With emotional attunement, however, a parent takes stock of his or her own state and checks on the state of the child at the same time (Wesselmann et al., 2014). The goal here is to identify what the child is feeling that led to acting out. There is a reason for the behavior, after all. However, children do not always have the words to express their feelings outright and this can be especially true for children in “Survival Mode.” It might take a little time and “detective work” to see what’s truly bothering them, but once the reason is discovered, that is when attunement can begin to do its work.

The first thing to do when working on emotionally attuning with a child in “Survival Mode” is to actively listen. This may seem obvious, but it is too important not to mention. Actively listening to anyone shows that the person matters, and children are no different. To actively listen, though, means taking in more than words, and taking in the tone and emotion too. This helps provide more clues to identify the emotions underneath the behaviors, so it is the best place to start (Wesselmann et al., 2014). Next, emotionally reassure the child in that moment. A parent telling their child “I love you” or “I’m here for you” reminds them that the parents’ job is to be a child’s support in a difficult time. That reminder can do so much to relieve the emotion they are experiencing in that moment of dysregulation. Lastly, reflect and empathize with them at that moment saying things like “I remember feeling angry in a situation like this,” or “Everyone feels that way sometimes. What can I do to help you?”  Empathy has so much power with children in cases like this. It helps them know that everyone experiences feelings just like they do, including the people they know the most: their parents.

When parents follow these three steps with a calm mind and calm body language, they can attune to their child’s feelings, help them feel heard, and lessen the big feelings that lead to those maladaptive behaviors. No matter whether it’s fun times or hard times, a positive connection between parents and their children is what helps children grow in a healthy way, especially for children who are in “Survival Mode.”  Also, it is emotional attunement that plays a major part in fostering those positive connections when kids are experiencing their most difficult emotions. 

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References

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014). Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma. W.W. Norton, New York.

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014). Integrative Team Treatment for Attachment Trauma in Children: Family Therapy and EMDR. W.W. Norton, New York.

References

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014). Integrative Parenting: Strategies for Raising Children Affected by Attachment Trauma. W.W. Norton, New York.

Wesselman, D., Schweitzer, C., & Armstrong, S. (2014). Integrative Team Treatment for Attachment Trauma in Children: Family Therapy and EMDR. W.W. Norton, New York.