Monday, February 25, 2013

Attunement with your Teenager

Suki Marotta, TDI certified
We could all learn some new tricks from an old dog. Suki is not only my pet, she is my co-therapist on Wednesday afternoons. The teenagers in my practice love the fur off of her. Suki's secret to connecting with teens? She is a master at attunement.

What is attunement? Attunement is a deep form of empathy. It begins with observing the nonverbal clues of another's emotional state and progresses to matching their internal experience. Attunement is an internal and external emotional connection that creates a reciprocal emotional experience between two beings. You become "in synch."

Attunement comes easily to most parents with infants. The baby cries and scrunches up its little face, and the parent listens to the pitch and intensity of the cry- and then either leans in closer to connect or puts the child down to match the emotional need.. As exhausting as babies can be this natural process of connection by attending and emotional matching gets more and more complicated once the child becomes less dependent.

 When a teenager is in my office, Suki pads out of her crate with her head bowed and tail wagging. She doesn't make eye contact right away. She lets the teenager warm up to her first. Then she blasts them with a full dose of intense eye contact and closeness. She leans her head on their lap. She assesses their mood and responds accordingly:

            Anxious: Leans gently or glides down to show them her belly to rub.
            Happy: Wags her tail and sits patiently for them to pat her as they share their story.
            Depressed: Gentle licks and stillness. She has moaned a few times.
            Mad: Returns to her crate to give them some space.

Because Suki cannot rely on verbal communication, she maximizes her observation of nonverbal communication. She is not thrown off by bravado, or fake happiness. Suki watches and decides for herself and responds accordingly. She is perfectly attuned.

 In order to build trust, increase a positive relationship, and establish a collaborative culture in our teen . . . we have to make room to practice attunement.

Six steps to attunement with your teenager:
1.      Observe body language and level of energy.
2.      Listen to the tone of language.
3.      Interpret the message of how your teenager is really feeling.
4.      Feel the emotion in your own body.
5.      Respond by moving closer or giving space.
6.      Decide if this is the right timing to discuss how the day went, or how the evening needs to go, or just be quiet and present- based on 1-5.

There is an ebb and flow of emotional energy that runs like a current through the normal teenager. We parents typically have terrible timing. Admit it, there are times when you are less responsive to what your teenager wants from you- that is how it feels to them when we rush in with our list when they are not receptive. Attunement is a welcome alighnment of emotional energy. It will over time improve your communication (consider the difference between monologue and dialogue) and your relationship.

So, think like an old dog when your teenager comes in from school. There is a treat in it for you!
Please share about your attunement practice.


  1. I've been "in synch" with Sukie several times and would love to wrap my arms around her furry neck right now. A champion cuddler!

  2. I really wish I'd had more training like this before I started teaching teens!

    (And I could use some Suki snuggling myself.)

  3. Glad you have enjoyed Suki time- hope her wisdom rubs off on all of us in our dealings with the important 2 legged people in our lives.

  4. As usual, your advice surpasses your intended audience - practicing attunement with one's spouse could result in better communication. Wouldn't spouses be pleased not to be hit with a barrage of info/requests/demands when they are not poised to receive it? Hmmm - maybe if I go first. . .

  5. Dan Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) is quoted as saying: "Motivation aside, if people get better at these life skills, everyone benefits: The brain doesn't distinguish between being a more empathic manager and a more empathic father." Or as you point out, a more empathic spouse.

  6. Aww, sweet Suki! If only more people were as "attuned" as she!

  7. Suki the Wonder Dog was my therapist one night--and I didn't even realize it until a year or so later when I was thinking of how much better I felt after she'd tended to me. She acted like she needed me to pet her, but it was sooo the other way around.

    1. Thanks for the unsolicited testimonials regarding the master of attunement! Suki is wagging her tail.