Misattuned Parenting – Not Truly Being Present For Your Child Parental misattunement damages a child's psychological development

Parenting these days is one mad rush. And children are expected to fit in / flow with the busy schedule of the parent/parents.  Jobs, careers and other more important things have to be attended to first, much to the detriment to a child’s well-being.

What most parents fail to understand is simply taking care of a child’s physical needs is not enough. A child is thinking and feeling being. Besides food, shelter, and clothing, a child also needs an attuned parent.

child parent misattunement love good enough
Parental misattunement is common these days due to busy work schedules

What is Attunement?

Attunement is being aware of your child’s needs and feelings and responding in a timely and appropriate manner. Now many confuse attunement with attachment. Both are important, attachment makes a child feel safe, attunement makes a child feel valued. Attachment is more about holding, protection and taking care on a physical level. Attunement is mostly non‐verbal  –  that look of love, how you talk to your child (not just what you say). Genuine attunement is about being truly seen by your parents.

At birth, the only way a child can communicate is through crying. But many parents respond to their child’s cry inappropriately – irritation and neglect are the more common responses. They believe that letting a child cry it out will make him more independent.

As infants mature, their communication skills do get better and better. However,  parents must learn to decipher and appropriately respond to the cues and information their children share with them.

I remember one day when my son was around a year old, I was absent-mindedly feeding him. There were 5 items on the plate. I mixed 2 items and put them in his mouth. After a few spoons, my son refused to take anymore but he kept pointing to the items on the plate. I was confused. I picked one item and tried to feed him. But he was not having any of it  For a few moments, I just couldn’t figure out what he was trying to communicate. Then it clicked, he wanted all the items to be given together – chicken, veggie, dal, salad, and rice in one morsel. Gosh, that was one parenting misattunement.

Attunement and The Brain

According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, in the absence of responsive attunement developing brain circuits is disrupted, affecting a child’s social and intellectual development.

When a child’s needs and fears are consistently ignored, brushed aside or vehemently squashed, the child stress response system gets activated.  Too much cortisol is damaging to a child’s developing brain. Children who experience this disruption on an ongoing basis may grow physically but emotionally, the foundations for forming relationships, feeling safe and self-regulation are deeply damaged.

Sadly, busy parents don’t have the time to spare for attunement. Being a parent is more than just meeting a child’s physical needs, You do not just have to be there, you have to be mindfully present mind, body, and soul.

I must confess I wasn’t totally attuned to my son due to my mental illness. Even the best parents can become misattuned. However, it is not damaging so long as it is followed by prompt re-attunement. But don’t make it a habit – stability, and consistency very important to a child’s emotional well-being.

Most parents think that simply spending time with their kids is attunement. No, it is more than that. It is being responsive and empathetic in real-time most of the time. Parenting is not a part-time job.

Misattunement – An Invisible ACE

Chronic emotional misattunement in childhood is an invisible ACE that has devastating effects on a child’s sense of self. Children who experience this often feel unseen and really empty on the inside. They feel something is missing. They suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of emptiness, self-directed anger and self-blame, poor self-discipline, difficulty understanding and identifying emotions.

What’s more, they feel guilty because they may have their material needs taken care of but emotionally they feel empty. Psychotherapist Jonice Webb succinctly sums up misattunement:

“It is entirely possible for a parent who loves and wants the best for his child to emotionally neglect her. The truth is, to love your child is a very different thing from being in tune with your child. For healthy development, loving a child just isn’t enough. For a parent to be in tune with his child, he must be a person who is aware of and understands emotions in general. He must be observant so that he can see what his child can and can’t do as he develops. And he must be willing and able to put in the effort and energy required to truly know his child. A well-meaning parent who lacks in any one of these areas is at risk of emotionally failing his child.”

How To Fix Misattunement

1)  Practice mindful parenting:

Start from birth – respond when your child cries promptly. The first few months are critical in shaping your child’s brain. One grave error most parents do is ignoring a crying baby. Letting your child cry during his first days in this world disrupts the bonding process between the child-parent. Immediately attending to your child during this time is critical. When your child knows Mom or Dad are there it gets hardwired in the brain – the world is a safe and dependable place.

2) Listen Deeply

When a child begins to speak they usually gabble a lot. However, in our busyness, we tend to miss out on what they are really saying. After a school, he may share his day but within all that jabber he may let out how he is being bullied but is too ashamed to tell you directly. Listen to what is said and not so clearly said.

3) Stop Playing Dictator

Parenting shouldn’t be you forcing your child into submission. He may go along with your inflexible rules but will resent you. What’s worse he will be unable to stand up for himself later in life. Allow room for choices, failures and rest.  A lot of anxiety in adulthood can be linked to rigid, authoritarian parenting rules.

4) Quality Time and Quantity Time

Quality time does not happen in 5-10 minutes, relationships take time to build. When you spend time with your child you know your child’s likes and dislikes, his fears, his dreams. That means keeping out electronic distractions like phones and computers and social media when its child-time. TV watching can be a family affair like it used to earlier. Pick a family program to watch together. Staying attuned to your kids is more important than keeping abreast of the latest news.

Most importantly, make vacations an indispensable part of your child’s growing up years. Giving your child great experiences instead of things helps us attune more deeply with our kids. Even short breaks to interesting places are a great way to reconnect and re-attune, What’s more, good memories are that magic box we can open during difficult times. Give your child a boxful of great memories.

5) Be Open to Criticism

There are no perfect parents. Nonetheless, lots of parents just cannot take any criticism, particularly from their children. They keep harping how much they are doing for their kids. But don’t stop to tune into what their children actually saying they need. If your child unequivocally states he does not like how you treat when he is at social outings, don’t brush aside that criticism. Pay attention, ask questions and correct your behavior.

Being Truly Present – Understanding

Of course, parenting is a very tricky act to juggle particularly when you have other responsibilities like a job to go to.

I worked a deal with my son when he began to understand, that morning he just does what I tell him to do while evening time he decides according to his preferences – whether he does his homework before TV time or after. Choices help a child feel in control and make them more responsible.

Good Enough is Fine

No parent can be 100% attuned all the time. According to, British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott,  babies and children actually benefit when their caregivers fail them in manageable ways.  Parents need not be perfect all the time, they just need to be is good enough.

In fact, children benefit from variations in adult responsiveness.  It helps children differentiate between ‘self’ and ‘other,’ which is a necessary step in their growth, leading to greater independence and better capacity for self-care and problem-solving.

No doubt,parenting your child up the tricky slope to adulthood is a tricky balancing act. The most important thing to remember when raising a child is they are a separate and unique being. You deeply tune in to who they truly are and love them unconditionally.

Kahlil Gibran beautifully sums up parenting:

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
 Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
 For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Image Source: Pixabay

Further Reading:

Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit DisorderGabor Maté 

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect – Jonice Webb  

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