Gabor Maté

“In attunement, it is the infant who leads and the mother who follows. “Where their roles differ is in the timing of their responses,” writes John Bowlby, one of the century’s great psychiatric researchers. The infant initiates the interaction or withdraws from it according to his own rhythms, Bowlby found, while the “mother regulates her behaviour so that it meshes with his... Thus she lets him call the tune and by a skillful interweaving of her own responses with his creates a dialogue.”

The tense or depressed mothering adult will not be able to accompany the infant into relaxed, happy spaces. He may also not fully pick up signs of the infant’s emotional distress, or may not be able to respond to them as effectively as he would wish. The ADD child’s difficulty reading social cues likely originates from her relationship cues not being read by the nurturing adult, who was distracted by stress. In the attunement interaction, not only does the mother follow the child, but she also permits the child to temporarily interrupt contact.

When the interaction reaches a certain stage of intensity for the infant, he will look away to avoid an uncomfortably high level of arousal. Another interaction will then begin. A mother who is anxious may react with alarm when the infant breaks off contact, may try to stimulate him, to draw him back into the interaction. Then the infant’s nervous system is not allowed to “cool down,” and the attunement relationship is hampered. Infants whose caregivers were too stressed, for whatever reason, to give them the necessary attunement contact will grow up with a chronic tendency to feel alone with their emotions, to have a sense — rightly or wrongly — that no one can share how they feel, that no one can “understand.”

Attunement is the quintessential component of a larger process, called attachment. Attachment is simply our need to be close to somebody. It represents the absolute need of the utterly and helplessly vulnerable human infant for secure closeness with at least one nourishing, protective and constantly available parenting figure. Essential for survival, the drive for attachment is part of the very nature of warm-blooded animals in infancy, especially. of mammals. In human beings, attachment is a driving force of behavior for longer than in any other animal.

For most of us it is present throughout our lives, although we may transfer our attachment need from one person — our parent — to another — say, a spouse or even a child. We may also attempt to satisfy the lack of the human contact we crave by various other means, such as addictions, for example, or perhaps fanatical religiosity or the virtual reality of the Internet.

Much of popular culture, from novels to movies to rock or country music, expresses nothing but the joys or the sorrows flowing from satisfactions or disappointments in our attachment relationships. Most parents extend to their children some mixture of loving and hurtful behavior, of wise parenting and unskillful, clumsy parenting. The proportions vary from family to family, from parent to parent. Those ADD children whose needs for warm parental contact are most frustrated grow up to be adults with the most severe cases of ADD.

Already at only a few months of age, an infant will register by facial expression his dejection at the mother’s unconscious emotional withdrawal, despite the mother’s continued physical presence. “(The infant) takes delight in Mommy’s attention,” writes Stanley Greenspan, “and knows when that source of delight is missing. If Mom becomes preoccupied or distracted while playing with the baby, sadness or dismay settles in on the little face.”


Gabor Maté, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It
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Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Maté
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