Holding a Loving Space through Attunement and Self-Regulation
Holding a Loving Space through Attunement and Self-Regulation
Through the practice of Mindfulness we learn to bring our attention to ourselves, to acknowledge our experiences in the moment and see our thoughts, feelings and sensations in a more spacious way. We are in touch with this ever present awareness as we navigate our internal states and our relationships.
While we are concerned with how to help our children on a variety of issues and those are valid concerns, the focus also needs to be on our own selves.
Now why might that be important? We are so `other’ focused that we forget to look at where are we coming from and our own state of being.
Who we are in the moment and from what state of being we meet our children is a very important facet in parenting. It’s a subtle and not so obvious one, but anyway influencing what is going on in the interaction. There is much work in the field of neuroscience and modern attachment theory that highlights its importance.
Come to think of it, we are always in interaction. We are always influencing each other. And I’d like to highlight two important processes here – attunement and resonance.
Our brains, bodies, minds connect and `tune in’ to each other. This process is called `attunement’. Attunement is the process by which we are receptive and responsive to each other’s feelings and moods. Resonance is a process through which someone has an internal mapping of the other’s emotions and reflects it back to the other. One can describe attunement as a `tuning in’ to another or within oneself and resonance is that sweet spot when both people come fully `in sync’ at the body-mind-heart-soul. A `being’ to `being’ interaction.
Our brains through mirror neurons provide a doorway into each other’s experiences. The research from interpersonal neurobiology has found to be vital in the development of emotional regulation, and this research is especially pertinent when it comes to children.
The way we learn to `regulate’ our emotions is through another. When a mother/father or caregiver responds to the emotional cues of the baby, interpersonal neurobiology has found that the mother matches her tone of voice, facial expressions and has eye contact with her baby both for so called negative emotions and positive emotions. So, if a child is distressed, the mother’s attuned presence helps to calm the baby through this mechanism. The baby `picks up’ this calm affect and his or her physiology regulates.
If the child is playful or joyful, the mother’s attuned presence amplifies the baby’s response of joy. Thus, a child through this attuned presence can have a variety of emotions and the physiology comes into regulation through this process of attunement and resonance. Mindfulness helps us to bring that necessary attention to the other and to ourselves and attunement and resonance can then very easily follow.
What the research points out is vital. It is only through us as parents or the adults in a child’s life that children really learn internally how to take care of themselves. It’s when we `have’ our emotions, acknowledge and allow for it as well as and our ability to attune and resonate that children can have their emotions in a healthy way and more fully. It shows that we as parents need to be present to the feelings of our children and our own. We also need to learn to come into self-regulation if we are feeling overwhelmed by emotions. And to learn to recognize and sense emotions within ourselves especially the feeling-sensation or our `felt sense’. As children grow up, they develop their own process through this internalization of being able to recognize their own emotions and come into self-regulation. They need us to feel and to feel with them from a ground of steadiness and inherent well-being.
How we are with them in this process forms the template for children to learn vital beliefs about themselves, others and the world. These beliefs start to take shape at a very fundamental level. These belief structures start to get formed at an implicit level that is, at a more bodily felt sense level rather than at a cognitive level), especially in the early years of life. This process of attunement and resonance happens at a more subcortical level of the brain. It is a more right brain to right brain response (areas of the brain more engaged with non-verbal aspects and stored at a bodily level).
These `templates’ so to speak are stored very deeply. There are vital messages that children can receive at a sub-conscious level. Some of the critical ones that shape our lives are `You are seen’, `You are heard’, `You matter’, `You are important’, `You are valuable’, `How you feel is important’ `I’m here for you’ `What you say is important’, `You are welcome’, `You are capable’, `You can do this’.
Mindfulness helps us to attune
However, we can give these messages if we ourselves are feeling regulated with our emotions. As we practice Mindfulness, we learn to take a pause. In that pause there is huge possibility. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom,” said the psychologist Viktor Frankl. This space, this gap between what happens and our reaction is a vital one. Mindfulness practice helps us to tune in to this space. If we stay long enough in this space without too much of the thinking, discursive mind coming in, there is great potential for an inner wisdom to show up, new insights and new directions to emerge.
So, our first step is `pause’ and to notice and acknowledge. Our next step is to `tune in’ to our child’s emotional mood or feeling. To sense it. Remember, it is not the left brain that has to do with language that is involved in this process. It is the right brain. The left brain can get involved later with meaning making and putting something into words. But first it is the `sensing into’ that is vital. Children feel and have an internal sense of being understood this way. This is the way those vital messages get stored. This is not a phenomenon that gets established through a single engagement but these responses are engaged in over and over again.
If we however are not feeling very regulated within ourselves, it is also critical to have some mechanisms and practices of how can we come into self-regulation so that we can be there for our children. So, first a recognition needs to emerge that we are being reactive or on the brink of reactivity and not responsive. This recognition can come through pausing and taking some time to attune to ourselves. Asking ourselves simply, “What’s going on now for me in this moment? What are my thoughts, feelings and sensations here?” Then taking that time to come into grounded awareness by simply feeling our feet on the ground, feeling ourselves in our bodies, noticing those thoughts, feelings and sensations here now and then perhaps breathing with it as a way of being with or supporting ourselves through self-touch and acknowledging that this is what is going on for me now. Acknowledging that it is okay to have this feeling, this thought that passes through in this moment now or this sensation. And then asking ourselves in this moment what might be needed to take care of ourselves.
As we learn to do this for ourselves, we learn to do this for our children. We learn a certain gentleness in attitude towards ourselves and our feelings. Grounding, self-touch, breathing slowly or breathing from the belly and then blowing out slowly through the mouth are also good ways in which our physiology can come into self-regulation.
This also offers an understanding of how we can support our children to come into self-regulation. First, through our own self-regulation, children can come into a co-regulated state because we are always influencing each other. Second an understanding of how the `triune’ brain works is important.
Coming into Safety and Attunement Before Problem Solving
The reptilian brain that is more around the brainstem is involved in more autonomous functioning like regulating our heart-rate or digestion – stuff that we don’t need to think about but is critical for our functioning. It also governs the threat response of fight, flight or freeze when there is real or `perceived’ threat. This `perceived’ threat can even be a lack of inclusion in groups (a threat to our sense of belonging) or a threat to our perceived sense of self (for example, when we haven’t achieved something) or a threat that is experienced due to a lack of approval by others. Even when there are these socio-psychological situations, it can evoke a threat response if we don’t feel safe or don’t find access to a sense of resilience within or in the environment.
The middle part of the brain (the mammalian brain) that involves the hippocampus, amygdala and other areas that are very much involved in our emotional responses. If the stress or emotional response is high without a feeling of safety or holding then it sends signals to the lower parts of the brain that activate the survival response against threat.
The prefrontal cortex in terms of evolution is the latest development of the brain. This part is involved in decision-making. What is highlighted in interpersonal neurobiology and how the brain functions is that if the emotional reaction or perceived threat is high it’s like the prefrontal cortex goes offline. This means that the decision-making part of the brain, the part that can rationalize and see other aspects of the situation is not engaged.
Hence telling a child how they need to perceive the situation or giving explanations do not work when there is a high level of emotional arousal. What is first required is to calm the child or sooth the child. We do this again in a variety of ways: touch (if the child is receptive to it), just sitting with the child, attuning to the child’s feelings and reflecting it back can also help for the child to come into a self-regulated state. Once the amygdala is calmed down, the prefrontal cortex can come into action and is available to make meaning of the whole situation and take decisions. It is only then that the child will be able to listen to your explanations or better still think through the situation himself or herself and possibly come up with solutions.
When we name, label or reflect the feeling, this too calms down the emotional centres of the brain. Touch is another vital element and the social engagement theory suggests that tone of voice too is a vital factor and what is important is to come into a sense of safety. Once there is a feeling of safety the threat response is deactivated. It is through the social engagement system (the presence of another – through the kindness and understanding that is perceived in the eyes, the tone of voice and just a sense of someone being there is when we can come into a feeling of `okayness’.