Maurice via CompfightAndy McKee playing his harp guitar Maurice via Compfight

Emotional presence is the second underpinning of our connection to our children. Little ones come into this world with a melody in their hearts and a song in their souls. If we are to be emotionally present for them we must learn that song. We might not know all the words, and in the beginning there actually won’t even be any words. But we must at least be able to hum the tune if we are to be in harmony with them. It isn’t always easy. First we have to tune our own instrument. Then we have to help our children tune theirs.

It takes effort to be “in tune” with one another. This is how we communicate emotional presence. We can be physically present, but if we are preoccupied or emotionally unaware, it can seem as though we are absent. Or we may appear bungling or pushy, which can be just as bad. We can be doing all the “right” things as far as appearances go, but it’s as though we are on different wavelengths. Our children tune us out, and we don’t know why. We’re making that muted trumpet sound from the Peanuts cartoon but no one is listening.

Being emotionally present for our children doesn’t mean that we stop being human. We will make mistakes—big ones. We can’t always worry about whether or not we are crushing their little psyches. That would be incredibly self-conscious and cumbersome for everyone. Sometimes we tell our kids to stop horsing around even if we don’t have an accurate emotional “read” on them. But if everyone is out of sorts and the kids are unruly it’s a good time to stop and assess the emotional climate of the family. We may all need to sit down and tune our emotional instruments to get back in harmony once again.

Some parents are naturally in tune with their children emotionally. Others are not. Researchers took notice of this and started observing mothers and babies very closely to see what was actually going on. They began to assess exactly what behaviors characterized the mothers who were able to comfort and soothe their babies. They also looked closely at the actions of mothers whose babies were chronically fretful and unhappy. They began to tease out the behaviors of the more successful mothers and describe them in specific ways. I am going to talk about three of those behaviors that I think are very important: matching emotion, regulating emotion, and securing boundaries.