Sunday, September 10, 2023

Why is attunement so essential when parenting a gifted or twice-exceptional child?

We all make mistakes.

Most of the time, our parenting mistakes are unintentional. We love our kids and strive to do our best. But sometimes, we misinterpret and misunderstand their needs. We might rely on advice from friends, neighbors, and social media, or enlist child-raising strategies learned from our families, despite evidence that this doesn't work for our gifted or twice-exceptional child.

Even the most well-intentioned parenting practices fall flat when we are not attuned to our child.

The parent-child bond rests on a secure attachment. Children need to feel they are understood, as well as loved, and that you are attuned to their needs. Parental attunement requires an understanding of our child's unique temperament, developmental level, sensitivities, and response to complex situations. It involves empathy for what our child is feeling - even when their reactions, behaviors, or emotional outbursts seem excessive. It also asks that we reflect upon our personal beliefs, attitudes, worries, and expectations so that our needs (conscious or unconscious) do not contribute to misattunement. Not an easy task. Here is one example:

Kayla's daughter Anna (whose names are changed to protect confidentiality) landed the lead role in the school play. But you would never know that from her mood. She tearfully bemoaned her close friend Nicole's anger toward her. Nicole auditioned as well, but was awarded a minor part. Nicole had stormed off and wouldn't speak with Anna, who now worried that the friendship was over.

Kayla found herself feeling frustrated. Her emotions translated into the following thoughts. Why is everything so darn complicated? Why does she have to be so sensitive? She should be excited. I would have been ecstatic if I landed that role when I was her age. Why can't she just feel happy for a change? She deserved that lead role and boy am I disgusted that her friend had to ruin it for her. Maybe it's time that she stop being friends with that girl.

Kayla's emotions and thoughts were understandable. However, she took a deep breath and considered instead what was going on right in front of her and how to best respond to her child. 
"Honey, I know this must be so hard for you - it is so exciting that you got the lead role, but at the same time, upsetting that Nicole reacted like she did. I know your friendship with her is really important. Let's give her some time to lick her wounds. She will probably come around and be your friend again. I hope that with some time, you can also feel excited and proud about this great opportunity with the play."

Self-awareness is key. Attunement requires an overriding understanding of what your child needs at any given moment. Like Kayla, sometimes that means swallowing your own anger or disappointment and helping your child navigate difficult emotions. Kayla acknowledged Anna's distress and mixed feelings - and did not disparage her daughter's friend. She conveyed that it is okay to have conflicting emotions, and trusted that over time, Anna would have the strength to move beyond this impasse with her friend.

(**For information about an upcoming workshop geared toward attaining greater self-awareness as a parent, please see below or click on this link.**)

What is parental attunement?

Decades ago, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described the importance of the parent's healthy “mirroring” of their infant's reactions, where their response accurately reflected back what the child was experiencing. Infants feel safe when they gaze at their parent and see their own emotional state reflected back to them (think cooing when they smile, or a frowny face when they are upset). Most infants can overlook the parent’s occasional distracted mood if they feel understood and "mirrored" most of the time. However, disruptions can arise when a parent is chronically distracted, depressed, anxious, or angry, and unable to respond in an attuned manner. 

Attunement does not mean you must always agree with your child, offer them a constant stream of candy and toys, or rescue them from challenging situations. Children recognize that you are not going to cave in or necessarily agree with them, and reluctantly admit that certain expectations and demands are developmentally appropriate. As children mature, they more easily weather occasional misattunement. They recognize that you get distracted and stressed – and sometimes even realize that you have a life of your own separate from theirs! However, the sense that you still “get them” and understand their feelings is essential. Gifted children, in particular, are often highly sensitive, appreciate the complexity inherent in most situations, and hold high standards about fairness and justice. They crave your understanding and will be distraught if their emotions are shamed, criticized, or disparaged. 


What about "parenting style?" 

Studies of parenting styles (a concept initially proposed by Diana Baumrind) support using an authoritative parenting style, especially with gifted children. In contrast to an authoritarian style (e.g., my way or the highway) or permissive parenting (e.g., anything goes), an authoritative style combines warmth and communication along with limit-setting and structure. 

It makes sense that gifted children would resist an authoritarian style. Eager to debate and parse through every demand, yet longing for your loving warmth and understanding, gifted children balk at authoritarian directives. It just doesn’t make sense to them. In one study, an authoritative parental style was positively correlated with both gifted and nongifted adolescents' mental health, but gifted adolescents, in particular, exhibited worse mental health when they were the recipients of an authoritarian parenting style. 

Academic achievement also has been linked to parenting style. One study reported a correlation between authoritative parenting and a gifted child’s level of achievement and good grades, and that both authoritarian and permissive parenting styles were negatively associated with grades. In another study, early college entrants from families with an authoritative parenting style had higher grades.

Although not specifically a study of parenting style, Paula Olszewski-Kubilius and colleagues assessed family patterns and social development among 1,500 gifted students and their parents. They summarized their findings as “consistent with previous research in that affectionate, supportive, and respectful family environments appear to be important to the development of interpersonal skills and competency and peer relationships for gifted individuals” (p. 199).

What we must consider going forward

Children crave your attuned understanding. However, most teens and older children recognize that you can be distracted, angry, or forgetful, and that your reactions sometimes miss the mark. Cultivating a caring, consistently respectful relationship can offset those times when misattunements occur. As I commented in my book, The Gifted Parenting Journey, 

"What buffers children from these momentary lapses in attuned attention is the stability inherent in a mutually respectful, caring, flexible, and well-intentioned family environment. Frequent, enthusiastic, and affectionate expressions of love for your child – just for being who they are – are essential. Letting them know you love them, enjoy time with them, appreciate their unique, adorable, and amazing traits, and relish watching them grow and flourish, will create a sense of security they will carry into adulthood" (p. 148).

The importance of parental attunement has received more widespread attention and has even hit mainstream media. In a recent Time Magazine article, journalist Jenny Anderson highlighted the importance of attuned parenting in healthy parent-child relationships: "Being attuned to kids' emotional states is a crucial way parents support healthy development... A child's sense of self grows stronger and matures by being known, attended to, and by feeling they matter, first and foremost, to their parents or caregivers."

Basic tools for parental attunement include paying attention to a child’s verbal and non-verbal cues, commiserating (although not lingering too long) with their disappointments, and sharing in their joy. When your child shows excitement, join in. When they are sad, let them know you understand their sadness, but assume they will rebound (and are there to help them). And ultimately, take care of your own emotions (through healthy adult relationships and emotional outlets) so they have less impact on your child. Psychiatrist and author Dan Siegel has emphasized the importance of understanding your own childhood influences so you can parent at your best:

"If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to recreate the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself, as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations" (p. 15). 

 Attunement and empathy demand an awareness of our child's unique needs, as well as our own wishes, expectations, fears, longings, and how our own childhood baggage affects us. It does not require perfection, however. Parenting is an education for all of us. Life interferes and we all screw up at times. But we can make a commitment to become more aware of our feelings and motivations - and then make the best decision possible based on our child's needs in the moment.  We cannot prevent some of life’s mishaps and tragedies; however, we can provide a safety net through our loving, consistent, flexible, and attuned presence.

**For more insight into your gifted parenting journey as you navigate an attuned relationship with your gifted or twice-exceptional child, please join us for a "Beyond the Basics" Gifted Parenting Journey Workshop Series. The series is designed to provide an experience where parents can take that next step beyond merely gathering factual information – a place where group participants are guided to learn more about their parenting attitudes, emotions, and expectations, and where they can share their own wisdom with others as well.

For more information about the workshop series, and to become part of a community of like-minded families through the Gifted Parenting Journey Community, please click here.**


  1. A well-written, authoritative and helpful read for parents!

  2. So eloquently summarized and stated! I am honored to co-facilitate this workshop series with you Gail.

    1. Thank you, Heidi! I feel the same - it is a privilege (and great fun!) to offer this workshop series with you.

  3. Such an important topic, Gail. Your workshop with Heidi will be so beneficial!