Trauma can be healed, and attunement is one of the foundational qualities necessary within a relationship, which will make it a therapeutic relationship. Attunement is a requirement for healing anyone with a history of attachment trauma, and thus a key skill for any therapeutic parent or provider.
All trauma results in a disruption of relationships and connections with others. Therefore, for all people who have histories of trauma, repairing that connection with others is essential for the healing process to occur. Attunement is the process of repairing the connection with others.
When speaking of a disruption of relationships or connections with others, attachment trauma is different from other forms of trauma. In attachment trauma, there was no primary secure relationship or connection with others, forcing completely new brain patterns to be created rather than just restoring prior brain patterns.
Thus, in working with someone with a history of attachment trauma, attunement is required to establish a secure relationship and connection for the first time, no matter what the individual’s age. In order to establish a healthy connection when there was no secure relationship to begin with requires a therapeutic parent or provider to supercharge the attunement!
Attunement in Attachment Trauma
Attunement is the key ingredient in relationships that facilitates an infant to bond with their primary caregiver. Attunement by the parent is the necessary dynamic for an infant to form a secure attachment and avoid the long-term psychological and physical effects of trauma on the brain and body.
It’s precisely the lack of attunement that causes an infant to experience attachment trauma; it’s the lack of attunement that results in a child developing an insecure attachment style of Attachment Disorder.
The Role of Attunement in Healing From Trauma
Just as attunement was the secret puzzle piece in relationships, connection, and preventing attachment trauma, attunement is also the vital element needed to heal trauma. Attunement is the process by which relationships are both made and repaired… at least healthy relationships that are secure and stable.
A therapeutic relationship is described as a relationship whose purpose is to heal someone. In this context, a therapeutic relationship is one in which a person becomes a base for attachment for someone else, allowing them to heal from trauma.
Who can learn how to attune and create a therapeutic relationship and heal someone from trauma?
Foster and Adopted Children Need Attunement
Foster and adoptive parents are working with children who need to heal from trauma. Most foster and adopted children, if not all, experienced attachment trauma in their first year of life compounded by other traumatic events in their young childhood.
The purpose of foster and adoptive families is to heal the children they bring into their families, and thus have the purpose and capacity to become therapeutic. However, while the capacity and the intentions are there, many foster and adoptive parents don’t have the knowledge on how to attune and provide a secure base of attachment.
As of today, this knowledge and these skills of attunement and attachment still aren’t taught prior to the foster or adoptive placement.
If you’re a foster parent, you may have heard the term “Therapeutic Parent.” Foster therapeutic parents can be used for placements of foster children who are displaying more severe emotional and behavioral problems.
However, every foster and adoptive parent needs to have the correct knowledge and skills to be able to create a therapeutic relationship, and thus become a therapeutic parent that can help heal their children, and help them gain the necessary foundation to have successful relationships, careers, and health in their child’s future.
Substance Use and Other Addictive Behaviors
Individuals with a substance use problem, and all addictive behaviors, have very similar brain chemistry and patterns as those with histories of attachment trauma.
Professional, partners, or parents of those with addictive tendencies have the potential to provide the emotional attunement and the secure base of attachment for healing from the trauma aspect of their life experience.
Because of the substantial amount of face to face time that is required to form a secure base for someone, it’s harder for professionals to be able to fully heal someone from trauma. More often than not, they provide the first experience of attunement that their client has experienced. This can change the pattern of relationships the client now creates with others, and they align themselves with a partner who can create a more encompassing therapeutic relationship.
Children and Adults with Insecure Attachment Styles or Attachment Disorder
All children and adults with insecure attachment styles of Attachment Disorder need to have a therapeutic relationship in their life to be able to heal from the attachment trauma. Healing is possible. Once they have“earned a secure attachment” they no longer have the psychological effects of an insecure attachment style.
Their biology also changes as evidenced by brain imaging, neurofeedback, and direct measures of their nervous system like heart rate variability. Therefore, while I can extrapolate that the long-term negative health effects of childhood attachment trauma are also reduced, those studies have not been done.
Either way, if you have a child or an adult that shows evidence of an insecure attachment style or Attachment Disorder in your life, learning the skills of attunement will allow you to create a therapeutic relationship that has the capacity to heal them from attachment trauma and earn that secure attachment.
What Is Attunement
Let’s look at what exactly attunement is so that we can have the knowledge and skills to create a therapeutic relationship with someone in our lives who needs healing from trauma.
Simply put, attunement is joining someone in their emotional state.
Let’s break that down so we can understand how to attune!
Reading Emotional States
Joining someone in their emotional state requires us first to be able to recognize their emotional state.
While this sounds relatively easy, this is the step that usually breaks down between a parent and their infant that creates a dynamic of misattunement, and results in attachment trauma.
Not to say that these parents are bad, but just to recognize that reading emotional states can be hard! A person needs to be in the right emotional state themselves in order to be able to recognize someone else’s emotional state.
How do we read other people’s emotional states?
Sometimes, individuals make it really easy to know their emotional state, because they tell us!
“I am sad today because my friend’s dog died.”
“Oh my gosh! I’m so excited that I won the award!”
“I’m so stressed out – I have this exam coming up and work is really busy. It just feels overwhelming.”
Social Cues to Emotional States
People don’t always use their words to communicate their emotional state. In these instances, we use the social cues we have instinctively learned since birth to read another person’s emotional states.
Some people on the Autism or Asperger Disorder Spectrum are not as good at reading subtleties of body language, and go objectively by what people say regardless of body language – for example, “They told me they were good, so they’re good,” despite their downcast eyes and shuffling feet.
For most of us, our systems are really good at reading subtleties of body language. The body language that our brain and nervous system picks up subconsciously includes eye contact, facial expressions, muscle tension, and posture.
Animals are known to use a person’s smell to subconsciously know someone’s emotional state!
Reading social cues can be a conscious process if we bring our attention to look for specific social cues, but most of the time, it’s a subconscious process that’s part of our highly efficient survival system. Our subconscious is continually scanning the environment to assess for signs of safety and threat, including the social cues from other people.
Reading Emotional States Takes Time and Attention
Regardless, reading another’s emotional state requires us to be physically and emotionally present with that person in the moment.
Being physically present with someone means that our paths have crossed and somehow we’ve come into contact. While this contact could be over the phone, in order for a relationship to become therapeutic, a lot of face to face time is a requirement. There’s a bonding quality to time and space shared physically by two people that is never quite the same when it’s shared over the phone.
Reading someone’s emotional state also requires us to be emotionally present with them in that current moment.
This means that we can’t be anxious, worried about the future, or ruminating over the conversation we just had. We can’t do those things and still be emotionally attuned with someone else in the present moment.
Distraction is the most common disruption of emotional presence with another, and thus of attunement. If we’re having a conversation with someone, but our thoughts are really elsewhere, we won’t be attuned to their emotional state nor be able to join them in their emotional state.
Joining an Emotional State
Attunement is not only being able to read their emotional state, but also being able to join them in that state!
If they’re excited, we’re going to share and match their excitement!
If they’re sad, we’re going to share their sadness and grief.
The natural flow of our systems is that once someone joins and matches our emotional states, we regulate and come back closer to center on our own. The person attuning watches for, and follows, their flow back to center rather than trying to counteract their emotional state in order to try to bring them back to center prematurely.
This is easier when we are interacting with someone who has relatively stable emotions, but those with histories of trauma are known for emotions that can be all over the place.
This is why attunement has to be supercharged in a therapeutic relationship, because the reading of and matching of emotional states can change very quickly, and we have to follow those states to match each one as they come up.
Attunement Requires Our Own Emotional Health
After distraction, our own emotional imbalance is the main reason for misattunement in relationships, whether in parenting, friendship, workplace, or romantic relationships.
If we don’t have a healthy nervous system that can have a balanced flow of ups and downs with a natural return back to center, we won’t be able to match another’s emotional state or follow their flow.
Let’s break that down. If I still have a strong default emotional freeze response when I’m triggered in a certain way, my nervous system will go down this default freeze pathway. Similarly, if I have unresolved PTSD, such that I go sympathetic with too much arousal, I won’t be able to follow someone else’s emotional state once my nervous system goes sympathetic or dorsal vagal freeze response.
If there is imbalance or dysregulation in my nervous system, and thus emotional states, I may keep some emotional distance from someone, because of the effects that their emotional states may have on mine.
If there is imbalance or dysregulation in my nervous system, and thus emotional states, I may initially be able to read and join them in their emotional state, but my nervous system will be triggered and get stuck in its patterns of response.
Generational Transmission of Attachment Trauma Due to MisAttunement
Unfortunately, for many adults this relational attachment trauma is becoming more and more prevalent within our modern society. This is one way in which relational attachment trauma gets passed on to the next generation.
As a parent becomes unable to attune (read, join, and follow their infant’s emotional states), because of their own distractions or unhealed imbalances in their own nervous system, the young child picks up that rather than having their parent regulate their emotions. The child must then learn to read and regulate their parent’s emotional states.
Thus, the child not only develops an insecure attachment style and their own nervous system dysregulation, but also learns to constantly assess how others are feeling and decide how to feel based on the emotional states of their parents, or later in life, friends, coworkers, and partners.
How many times have I seen a young child discover something, have an instinctual response of joy, but then quickly look to their parent to see if it’s ok for them to feel that happiness, or if they need to shut that emotion down because their parent isn’t in the emotional state to allow them to enjoy their happiness.
From early on, many children with insecure attachment styles learn to first ask, “Is it ok for me to feel sad, happy, angry, or scared” before showing or communicating any of those emotions.
Becoming a Therapeutic Parent or Partner
Because of this, the importance of a parent or a partner working on their own nervous system and emotional health before and during having a therapeutic relationship cannot be underestimated.
How different our world would be if all parents underwent some form of education and therapy on emotional health, attachment trauma, and attunement prior to having children, especially in the case of relational attachment trauma, prevention is much better than treatment!
My hope for this blog was that we could start to understand the terms that we use in the world of attachment and trauma recovery.
Because of the increased number of people struggling to live with these chronic effects of trauma, we need to start getting out of just theory and get into the real practice skills of healing people from trauma, especially when relational attachment trauma is at the root of all their other traumas.
Healing is possible, as I have seen it happen many times now! I think there’s a lot of hope, and hopefully with the knowledge and skills of how to really attune to people, we can work to heal ourselves and others.
For all of you parents reading this, I send a warm hug as I know that this level of super-charged attunement to a child who has Attachment Disorder can be exhausting.
To health and healing,
Schore, Allan. Effects of a Secure Attachment Relationship on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 2001. 22(1-2), 7-66.
Stephen Hoskinson. Foundation for Human Enrichment, Somatic Experiencing Beginning 3 Training Lecture, San Diego