Attunement is the Language of Love

Attunement is the conduit by which a preverbal child can realize that she is loved.

BOOK REVIEWIn the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction, by Gabor Mate, M.D.:  According to Dr. Mate, “Attunement is a subtle process. It is deeply instinctive and is easily subverted when the parent is stressed, depressed, or distracted. A parent can be fully attached to the infant, and in love, but not attuned. The infant of distressed parents experience severe psychological stress not because they are not loved, but because their parents are not attuned with them. Attunement is likely to be lacking if parents missed out on it in their own childhoods.”

My parents were never in tune with themselves. As a result, they were not really able to attune to each other or their children. From early infancy, it appears that our ability to regulate emotional states depends upon the experience of feeling that a significant person in our life is simultaneously experiencing a similar state of mind. If we are not attuned to our parents then it is difficult for us to attune to others as adults. I was a problem child who became a troubled teen. Then I became an immature adult and angry middle-aged man. Finally when I became a messed-up senior citizen, I found my way out.


My own parents were very inconsistent in their ability to be present for their children. They did not model mature emotional self-regulation. An individual with good self-regulation will not experience rapidly shifting extremes of emotional ups and down. Rather, she will be stable in the face of life’s challenges, difficulties, disappointments, and satisfactions. He does not depend on other people’s responses or external activities or substances in order to feel okay. An individual with poor self-regulation is more likely to look outside herself for emotional soothing, which is why the lack of attunement in infancy increases addiction risk.

My mother exhibited inconsistent and erratic, sometimes dismissive child rearing behavior. As a result my siblings and I grew up to be anxious, less social, and highly reactive as adults. These traits are known to increase the risk of addiction. My siblings and I are all addicts mostly due to negligent child rearing by my parents.

I was so out of tune, I didn’t realize how out of tune I was

Parents who did not have attuned caring as small children may not notice their difficulty attuning to their own infants. People stressed from an early age may not realize just how stressed they often are. This is exactly what happened in my life. My whole life well meaning recovery professionals would try to tell me how sick I was. Once an addiction medicine technician at Kaiser said to me over the phone: “Dean, you’re so sick, you don’t even know how sick you are.” But I just couldn’t see it until very recently.. It took eye movement desensitizing and reprogramming to finally snap me out of it.

The overt hostility between my mom and dad damaged me enough. Then they also taught me lessons in repressed anger, passive aggressiveness and self-created unhappiness. According to Step Eight of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Children sometimes receive violent emotional twists below the level of consciousness” and become alcoholics like me. Children swim in their parents’ unconscious like fish swim in the sea.

The greater the void within, the more urgent the drive to be noticed and to be “important”

The bigger the hole, the more compulsive the need for status. In contrast, genuine self-esteem needs nothing from the outside. It does not say, “I’m worthwhile because I’ve done this, that, or the other.” It says. “I’m worthwhile whether or not I’ve done this that, or that or the other. I don’t need to be right or to wield power, to amass wealth or achievements. I am enough. I AM.


Self-esteem is not what the individual consciously things about himself. It is the quality of self-respect manifested in his emotional life and behaviors.

emotional attunement

By Dean McAdams

Born a poor peckerwood in a Tujunga holler, Dean over educated himself beyond his social station to end up a retired paralegal in the coastal paradise of West L.A.