Imagine the following interaction that took place in my office earlier this week between 17-year-old Shondi, her mother. and me.
Mom (angrily): Tell Dr. Sayers what you and your friends did.
Shondi: [says nothing, sinks lower into the sofa, shrugs her shoulders]
Mom (raising her voice): You’re going to have to tell her. If you don’t, I will!
Shondi: [tearfully gives mother an angry look, says nothing]
Mom (angrily, to me): I told her we were going to have to talk about this, so I don’t know why she’s acting this way.
Shondi: Why can’t you ever listen to me? I said I didn’t want to talk about this! Why do you have to be such a bitch?!
Mom: Don’t you dare speak to me that way! You can forget going sledding with your friends this weekend!
This is a good example of poorly attuned responding on the mother’s part. Attunement refers to a parent-child interaction in which the parent helps the child regulate his/her emotions. It is a somewhat subtle process that involves reflecting the child’s emotions rather than responding to his/her behavior or words. Poorly attuned responses often result in an escalation and poorer control of negative emotions whereas well attuned responses do just the opposite; they help de-escalate strong emotions and improve self-control.
Once it was clear that the interaction was moving in the wrong direction, I stepped in.
Me: Mom, let me talk to Shondi for a minute. Shondi, it seems pretty clear that you are upset about whatever your mother is referring to. Am I right about that?
Shondi (turning her body towards me): I guess.
Me: You don’t want to talk about it and maybe you’re even mad at your mom for bringing it up.
Shondi: Yes. And I told her I didn’t want to talk about it on the way here.
Me: You’re angry that your mom didn’t respect your wishes.
Shondi: Yes, but that’s nothing new.
Me: You’re not only upset about what happened just now; you’re also unhappy because it feels like Mom has a habit of not listening to you.
Me: Whatever happened with you and your friends, it seems important to your mother that we talk about it. Do you have any idea why?
Shondi: Because she thinks I’m going to get in trouble and embarrass her in front of all of her friends. We took four beers from the refrigerator in the garage. What’s the big deal?
There was a lot more to this session, but these excerpts are enough to illustrate the power of attunement. Mom came into the session angry. She was still upset about the incident with Shondi and her friends, who had been caught by a friend’s mother drinking beer. She was disappointed by Shondi’s lack of remorse and seeming lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the behavior. And, she was angry about the argument in the car on the way to the session. To her credit, Mom is generally a very reasonable and good-natured parent. In this instance, she was too worried about the implications of the misbehavior to keep her cool.
Similarly, Shondi was embarrassed about being caught drinking beer. She deservedly prides herself on being a good, level-headed kid. Such a major rule violation is very unusual for her. Shondi values our relationship, so she was likely also worried about my reaction. Her worry and embarrassment made it difficult for her to control her emotions and therefore her behavior and her mouth.
After only a few interchanges between Shondi and me, in which I focused exclusively on her thoughts and feelings rather than on her behavior and words, I was able to facilitate a good conversation between Shondi and Mom. Shondi listened to her mother’s concerns: Shondi is too young to drink, there are legal risks, there is a family history of addiction, a different parent may not have been so calm as the one that caught the girls with the beer. Mom listened to Shondi’s point of view: everybody drinks, she hardly ever does it because beer tastes awful and is loaded with carbs, getting caught taught her a lesson. By thinking together about the problem of underage drinking, Shondi and Mom were able to agree that they have a shared goal – that Shondi stays safe and out of trouble. Because Shondi and Mom had both calmed down and were in good control of their emotions and therefore, their behavior and their words, we were able to have a productive and very important conversation.
There is no magic formula to help parents respond to children’s strong emotions, negative behavior, and inappropriate words in an attuned way. What I often encourage parents to try during these tense moments in which the relationship stakes are often very high is to do the opposite of what their impulses are telling them to do. So, if you want to lecture, listen instead. If you feel like yelling, speak more softly and slowly. If you want to say something critical (How could you do something so stupid?), say something complimentary (You usually have such good judgment.). If you feel like imposing a purely punitive consequence (e.g. no sledding), find a logical or natural consequence instead (e.g. calling the mother to apologize and to offer to help shovel snow). You can find more on using negative consequences effectively here.
Near the end of the session, when Mom and Shondi were back on good terms, I had to make a tactical decision. I hated to risk the tenuous harmony by bringing up a sore subject, but I also wanted to model for the dyad how to address a negative behavior that has been deferred for the sake of attunement. Here’s how the session ended:
Me: I am so pleased with how well you were able to turn a very negative interaction into a productive and respectful discussion, and I think it’s important we talk about what happened earlier in the session. Shondi, remember that you called your mother a pretty harsh name? Mom, remember that you told Shondi no sledding this weekend?
Shondi: I did, didn’t I? I didn’t mean it; I was just in a bad mood about this whole situation. I shouldn’t take it out on Mom.
Mom: Me too. If you are willing to call Mrs. Smith and apologize and offer to help her shovel snow, then I’m fine with you and your friends going sledding.
Me: Any final thoughts, Shondi?
Shondi (to Mom): I’m sorry I called you the b-word and I’m sorry I stole the beers.
Me: Great, what a perfect note to end on.
[Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]