Infants cry. A lot. They have no other way to communicate, and no skills to calm themselves down. When they cry, they need the soothing presence of caretakers to help them manage their feelings. They calm by experiencing their caretaker’s voice tone and warm physical contact, being stroked and gently rocked, and having their physical needs attended to. From a developmental perspective, effective parenting of young children is a process of co-regulation.
WHAT IS CO-REGULATION?
According to Dr. Arielle Schwartz, co-regulation is where one person’s nervous system interacts with another person’s nervous system in a way that makes both people calmer and healthier. Neuroscience also shows that teens and adults who did not receive reliable, comforting care as young children are far more likely to have difficulty regulating their emotions in adulthood . Simply put, the ability to calm down is a skill people learn in infancy. By rocking, singing and soothing, a caretaker or parent teaches a child how to manage times of stress.
Among the many skills the ReadyKids Healthy Families program teaches new parents, co-regulation is among them. Healthy Families Support Workers visit weekly with new moms teaching them about healthy infant development and providing resources to decrease family stress. But what if the parent or caretaker is stressed? How can they soothe a baby if they are already overwhelmed before the baby starts crying?
THE STRESS OF IMMIGRANT MOMS
Maria Lopez-Carbajal, our Spanish-speaking Family Support Worker, notes that the immigrant families she works with face multiple stressors – leaving a dangerous home, dealing with uncertain immigration status, and fear of displacement.
“One mom I was working with was living in a neighborhood in El Salvador where murders were happening every night,” said Lopez-Carbajal. “They would wake up and a body would be outside her door. Her daughters were being threatened with kidnapping. Gangs are recruiting children to fight. No one was on the streets because it was too unsafe, there was no food for long stretches.”
The family decided to walk from El Salvador, traversing all of Mexico, to cross the border into the United States to declare asylum. Asylum cases sit in “limbo” for years, sometimes decades.
“The courts are so backed up,” said Lopez-Carbajal. “Out of the families I have on my caseload who are awaiting asylum, none of them have actually had their cases heard in court. Some have been waiting five or six years. It’s expensive. Lawyer fees and paper filing fees can be thousands of dollars. Immigration lawyers are all overbooked.”
Lopez-Carbajal sees how the daily stress and fear of immigration difficulties effect a Latina mother’s parenting.
“It’s hard because I’m there for child development, but the mom is overwhelmed with fear and can’t concentrate on anything else,” she said. “Parents are so afraid, they cannot focus on what their kids need.”
CO-REGULATION DOESN’T END IN INFANCY
When this happens, Lopez-Carbajal does exactly what she’s helping the new moms learn to do with their babies. She co-regulates. She stops what she’s doing and soothes the mom’s emotions.
“I drop my plan and focus on their immediate needs,” said Lopez-Carbajal. “I provide them with resources about their rights or discuss their anxiety. We focus on what the child needs, and talk them through options to get what they need so they can help their child.”
By the time Lopez-Carbajal leaves, she has prepared the mom with resources and a sense of calm to co-regulate her own baby until the next weekly home visit.
The need for co-regulation continues throughout our lives. In times of crisis, the support and soothing presence of people who care about us help manage troublesome emotions. The small infant is totally reliant on caregivers and has many crises each day. But even adults need external soothing and support to get through periods of high stress. That’s what Family Support Workers like Maria do. Calm. Soothe. Co-regulate.