The Key to Healthy Child Development
Proper attunement serves as a protective barrier for youth.
How parents or caregivers feel and what they think are just as important to children as the food they eat.
Introjection is a common defense mechanism that occurs unconsciously between children and caregivers.
One of the most important things we can offer a young person is attunement. “Parents who are insufficiently attuned produce children who grow up with a sense of inner emptiness,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler.
To attune to a child is to say, “I see you, and I am a witness to your life.” It requires engagement, both verbal and nonverbal.
Something else important to offer a young person is the space for them to become who they are. Proper attunement is important for any child, but for LGBTQ youth, attunement is especially important as a means of proactive prevention. When parents and caregivers are attuned to LGBTQ youths’ natural development, they can prevent them from introjecting disaffirming messages about their identity.
Introjection is one of Sigmund Freud’s many defense mechanisms studied in psychotherapy. Introjection occurs when we internalize the outside ideas and voices of other people. “Introjection is about taking inside something that’s outside. So, making it one’s own, really. Taking in qualities, feelings, emotions, and so on, that come from outside oneself,” says Ann Phoenix, psychologist and professor of psychosocial studies at the Institute of Education, University College London. Introjection is considered normal and common between children and caregivers, occurring when children internalize the beliefs of the people around them.
Some parents might ask, “Well, why doesn’t my child introject eating more vegetables and less candy?” According to Freud, in order for us to experience introjection or any defense mechanism, it has to be unconscious. We can’t be consciously aware of its occurrence. Besides, even if we raise children to like vegetables, the primary external messages they receive promote sugar and sweets. article continues after advertisement In the groundbreaking book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., shares a study by Karlen Lyons-Ruth, a Harvard attachment researcher, that concludes that children who are not truly seen and known by their mothers are at high risk of growing into adolescents who are “unable to know and to see” (in this context she’s referring to dissociation). Her research shows that what cannot be communicated to the mother (i.e., needs, wants, feelings, etc.) cannot be communicated to the self. She says, “If you cannot tolerate what you know or feel what you feel, the only option is denial and dissociation.” This dissociation, per Lyons-Ruth, “is manifested in feelings of being lost, overwhelmed, abandoned, and disconnected from the world and in seeing oneself as unloved, empty, helpless, trapped, and weighed down.” Attunement serves as a protective barrier against disaffirming societal biases. Attunement also helps LGBTQ youth form a positive self-concept from an early age. Through proper attunement, we can help a child integrate their identity. Without attunement, however, we may misread who our child is.
The best way for parents and caregivers to learn how to attune to their child is by letting go of expectations and beginning from a “blank page.” Blank Page I once had a work meeting with a pregnant woman. She was due to give birth any day, and when she began to speak about her baby, she complained that it was a boy. As she sat there rubbing her belly, she remarked on how much she wished it were a girl. I thought about the child inside and how horrible it must be to feel its parent’s disappointment. Our thoughts and feelings are just as important as the food we eat. I understand getting excited over the gender of a child, especially if a parent has always wanted a little girl or boy. However, complaining about the child’s gender and preferring it to be different is harmful. Beginning with a blank page, and celebrating the gender our child tells us they are, helps to prevent gender oppression and gender policing. We also create space for children to be themselves fully.
Proactive Prevention Unfortunately, it’s not possible to be socialized in a dominant patriarchal and heterosexist society and not pick up heteronormative, homophobic, or transphobic beliefs. As such, most parents and caregivers automatically, whether conscious or unconscious, assume their children are heterosexual and cisgender.
In a study referenced by Spivey & Edwards-Leeper (2019), the results show that while parents’ reactions become more positive over time, “44–50 percent of parents continued to react very negatively toward their child several years after they first learned of their identity.”
When parents and caregivers attune to their children and consider the possibility that they might be LGBTQ, it helps disrupt heteronormative thinking. Parents also have the ability to challenge gender biases and prevent anti-LGBTQ biases from being passed down generationally. In addition to parents, it’s important for clinicians to have LGBTQ-specialized training to be able to offer attunement in a therapeutic context for their LGBTQ clients.
I often speak on panels with parents of LGBTQ youth, and even the most affirming and accepting parents share their fears and concerns about having children who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming.
All children will face challenges. It’s our job as parents, caregivers, teachers, or clinicians to attune to children, affirm their identity, help them know their own inherent worth and strengths, and support them in whatever challenges they might face in life.
Each of us has the ability to bring so much goodness to a young person’s life. It starts with our ability to offer attunement and read our children’s lives.
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