Secure Attachment: How Often Should Parents Attune To Kids’ Emotions?

Boy with mother and father sitting at a table, all in sync with each other and showing attunement.

One of the most powerful myths in parenting started in the 1990s and has been dominant ever since. This myth starts with the truth: that when children form a secure attachment to their parents they have better mental health as adults. But then it goes to far by telling parents to attune to their children’s emotions all the time. Only by staying in sync with their children at all times can parents guarantee their kids’ will turn out okay, says the myth. New research I covered for Forbes finds that this is simply not true. Instead, more parental attunement happens when something is not working in the relationship. Higher parent-child synchrony may reflect interaction problems between parent and child.

Yes, our kids need us to care about their emotions and needs. They need us to attune our attention to them frequently. But if we do it ALL the time, or even 80-90% of the time, we actually disrupt that healthy relationship we want. We risk them developing an insecure attachment to us. Too much “parent-child synchony” or attunement both smothers a child emotionally. It gives them no space to practice their own skills for managing life.

Parents and children solve puzzles together

The study recruited 140 families from Eastern Germany. The children were all five or six years old and were paired with either their mother or father. The parent-child pairs were placed on either side of a table with a plastic barrier between them. Then each parent and child were asked to solve a puzzle cooperatively. They used tangrams, a puzzle with seven wooden pieces that requires problem-solving. As a control, other parent-child pairs were told to just sit back, relax and close their eyes. 

The team observed the parent-child pairs (or dyads) for both behavioral and brain synchrony. Functional near infrared spectroscopy (FNIRS) measured brain activity from both parents and children. “We measured from two brain areas: the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is usually related to effortful attention regulation, and then bilateral temporal parietal junction, which is more related to mentalizing perspective taking,” says study author Pascal Vrtička, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Essex.

The team scored the pairs on their behavior by how well they took turns. “Turn-taking reflects how well the parents take their children’s perspective into consideration,” says Vrtička.

The parents’ attachment style

What is attachment style? It has to do with how we connect with people in relationships. Our attachment style also influences how comfortable we are getting close to others. Finally, our attachment defines how we react when the people we care about are not around. While there are different terminologies, attachment styles can generally be classified as secure or insecure. Attachment style is something we form in childhood based on our relationship with our own parents. Insecure attachments are correlated with mental health problems throughout adult life. 

The researchers wanted to understand how the parents’ own attachment style affected their puzzle-solving time with their children. To measure that style, the team administered the adult attachment interview. “This asks them quite extensively about their child experience childhood experiences, how they relate to different people, for example, their own parents. It also asks about traumatic experiences or things that remain unresolved,” says Vrtička.

The child’s attachment to their parent 

Next, the researchers assessed the children’s attachment representation with the story stem procedure. The children were presented with a picture illustrating a scenario. Then they were asked to show how the story continues with Lego Duplos. “For example, the child is laying in bed, it’s dark at night, and they hear scratching sound out the window, and then the question is, what do you do next?” says Vrtička. Based on what the child does next, the researchers could assess their expectations of their parents. Does the parent come and scold them for not sleeping? Or Does the parent come and comfort them? Is that comfort helpful or smothering? This gave the researchers a sense of whether the child had a secure or insecure attachment representation.

By attachment representation, Vrtička explains that he means children’s thinking about the availability and responsiveness of others, and their own capacity to elicit help when needed. These stories also show whether the children have positive or negative views of their parents being available and of responding sensitively and appropriately to their needs.

How attachment styles impacted attunement

Attachment style did not seem to have any effect on the behaviors of the parent-child pairs. Parents and their children were able to take turns while solving the puzzle together just as well if their attachments were secure or insecure.

But there was a difference in the brain. When mothers had an insecure attachment style, which would have been formed based on their own childhood experiences, the FNIRS found that their brains were more in sync with their children, and vice versa. They also did just as well with the behavioral turn-taking. The team concluded that the mothers and their children were actually working harder to mentally attune to each other in order to make up for the mother’s own insecure attachment style.

“We think that where mothers are insecurely attached, their brains, together with their children’s brains might need to work harder to get to the same level of behavioral synchrony, especially in the regulatory attention area,” says Vrtička. “It required more attention, effort and regulatory effort from both of them.”

Fathers had higher attunement

The team also found that father-child pairs did not do as well with turn-taking or behavioral reciprocity. “With fathers there was less of a give and take. We saw more of one of them taking the lead for extended amounts of time or being rather disengaged,” says Vrtička.

The FNIRS showed higher brain synchrony in father-child pairs. This supported the conclusion that higher attunement between parent and child is a way to compensate for something not working well. So when father and children were solving the puzzles together their brains had to work harder to get in sync with each other. And even with the higher attunement, they did not do as well with working together.

“Overall, there is an optimum amount of synchrony that enables the interaction to to actually happen and to function efficiently,” says Vrtička.

Image from Vrtička's Instagram page, from his series of parent child attachment myth-busting.
Vrtička has an Instagram series of myth-busters on attachment.

The Right Amount of Attunement

“Optimum synchrony needs to be context dependent, and tailor to the relationship and to the interaction,” says Vrtička. “What really contributes to positive child development and a secure attachment is when the parent can take the needs of the child into perspective and act upon that.”

For example, it’s currently very popular to wear your baby. Parents are told that baby-wearing is important to creating a secure attachment. But Vrtička explains that baby wearing can backfire. When parents follow advice to be super close to their baby all the time, in some cases even co-sleeping, they become very highly attuned to and synchronized with their baby. In that sense, it works.

Where baby-wearing doesn’t work is in the desired outcome: creating a secure attachment. The very high level of parent-baby attunement may actually be inappropriate for the baby developmentally. “To have high synchrony all the time, regardless of the circumstances, might be detrimental and actually lead to insecure attachment and relationship problems,” he says.

How can parents feel confident about attunement?

So what is the right amount of synchrony with our child? How much time in tune with them works best? As I described in the book Sigh, See, Start, the research has shown that when parents are in sync with their child one third of the time, their child gets what they need. That’s about 30%, not 90% or 100%. The other two thirds of the time, the kids get space to practice their own relationship and emotional management skills.

The danger of parenting styles that emphasize high attunement and synchrony at all times is that they leave no space for one of the most important developmental experiences a child can have: rupture and repair. “No interaction is perfect, right? Many interactions consist of rupture and repair cycles. And that’s exactly where children learn the most because that’s when they need the parent as an external co-regulator, which has been shown to be very important for the development of a secure attachment,” says Vrtička.

During rupture-repair cycles, the child actually feels either distinctly out of sync with their parents. Sometimes these cycles happen when the parent has hurt the child’s feelings. Sigh, See, Start includes a section on how to apologize well to our children. It’s important to acknowledge our child’s feelings and take full responsibility for our own actions when we apologize. This type of repair actually strengthens our relationship with them. Knowing how to truly seek repair with our children is a key parenting skill.

Use Sigh, See, Start to form Secure Attachment

Still, it can be hard to feel confident than we are hitting that balance with our kids when we are constantly pestered by the ShouldStorm. This is one of the key scenarios I had in mind when I developed the Sigh, See, Start method. The book, Sigh, See, Start: How To Be the Parent Your Child Needs in a World That Won’t Stop Pushing is your instruction manual for honing your own parenting skills and building that healthy secure attachment we all want with our kids.

Spread the love

Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

Verified by ExactMetrics