Skipping the Content : How to emotionally attune and avoid power-struggles with your kids
Posted on January 4, 2011

What kids (of all ages) want most from their parents is to be seen and heard for who they are.  Not new jeans, a cell phone, a twenty dollar bill, or even getting their way.  Yet most, if not all parents, still get pulled into the daily storms; the ups and downs of children’s wants, likes and dislikes.  I call all of this content.  So often, parents are at a loss as to how to deal with all the small episodes that fill most households, every day.  From: “I am not going to wear that coat today,” “You never listen,” to slammed doors, yells or stares.
Parenting is really an eighteen-plus year practice of decoding verbal and non-verbal communication from your children.  Kids desperately want their parents to understand what they are feeling, yet they lack the vocabulary or emotional insight to really communicate. In their attempt to feel heard, kids often engage their parents in content – focusing on the superficial, instead of sharing underlying feelings.  For example when a child feels terrible for being teased at school, he or she might demand a new cell phone in attempt to feel better.  Parents frequently think they have two options: hold a boundary and say “no” which may elicit a power-struggle or acquiesce to the child’s demands or wants. 
There is a third option called emotional attunement.  Underlying most upsets from kids in the parent-child relationship is the child’s desire for their parents to really know and understand their internal struggles.  Yet, how does a parent attune emotionally and meet these deeper needs?  How do parents side-step the power-struggles?
Emotional attunement requires skipping the content (cell phone) and mirroring back to your child that you see what they are feeling.  When a child is angry, sad, frustrated, scared, excited or worried, a parent can first attune, mirror, and validate the emotion.  Stay with the emotion.  Tuning-in requires identifying your child’s emotion and mirroring it back so she feels seen and heard. “You sound upset, can you tell me what you are feeling,” “You seem so frustrated, I think I understand, can you tell me more?” Or, “I can see that you really want that phone, can you tell me about it.”  In saying yes or no, both can miss emotional attunement.   
Furthermore, validating an emotion means allowing your child to feel it, even disappointment and discomfort.  For example, “It is scary to start a new school, how do you think you will cope with this?”  “It is uncomfortable to have fights with friends, how are you feeling about it?”  Although parents might think it is their job to “make it better,” often attempting to fix things undermines their child’s own internal resources to problem-solve, adapt and self-soothe.  It is such a critical skill for kids to learn to be with their feelings and self-regulate.
In attuned communication, parents are not only validating the child’s emotions, but also the child’s internal reality and sense of self.  When parents attune to, mirror, and validate, it assures kids that feeling emotions is safe.   Moreover, attuned communication is a fundamental component in parent-child attachment, which establishes a secure base for the child and a template for emotional reciprocity in future relationships.  Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal writes, “Relating on the level of primary emotions allows us to integrate our experiences within ourselves and with others.  Attuning to each other’s internal state links us in a state of emotional resonance that enables each person to “feel felt” by the other.”[1]
It is remarkable how acknowledging and validating emotions can so often satisfy needs, diffuse situations and promptly allow the child to move away from content: needing a new phone, hating school, fighting about dinner, negotiating homework and so on.  Parents can hear the deeper  internal struggle and reframe the crisis by validating and showing empathy (rather than fixing).  Sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, hurt, rejection: these are all important feelings that we all have the capacity to feel every day.  The more parents can validate children’s underlying feelings, the quicker parents can move away from fixing and power-struggles and move towards understanding your child at a deeper level.  Additionally, when parents validate without rescuing, it allows children to learn the essential skills of emotional regulation and problem-solving.


[1] Siegal, D. and Hartzell, M. (2003) Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Tarcher/Penguin. 60

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