When the three-year-old Abby Perry was babysitting erupted into a tantrum about a toy he wanted to play with, Perry’s first instinct was to discipline him and remind him to share. “Then I thought, what would the point be?” she says. “This little boy was shrieking and unsettled, in a house he’d never visited, being cared for by a family he didn’t know.”
Perry recalled a method she read about in a book called The Connected Child, which recommended drawing near to a distressed child and waiting until they calmed down enough to talk. “I slid my pregnant self down the pantry door and just sat on the floor next to him — several inches away at first, then progressively closer as he started to notice my presence and seemed to want to calm down,” she says.
The toddler’s writhing body slowly settled as Perry calmly and silently sat with him. Eventually, she says, he was willing to talk. The two worked out a plan for sharing, and the day went on.
The interaction between Perry and the child is an example of co-regulation, which is the ability to alter one’s emotional and physiological state in response to another person’s behavior. It’s also a common topic of discussion in modern parenting books. It’s the theory behind why a distressed infant without self-soothing skills immediately settles in the arms of a nurturing caretaker, and why the child Perry was babysitting benefitted from her calm and close presence.
“There’s an obvious contagious effect with our emotional and cognitive experiences; we’re constantly affected by others and their emotional states”
Humans are hardwired for connection. The brain relies on input from others — this includes unspoken input, like a gentle touch or a warm smile — to shape emotional and physical experiences. Whether people know it or not, they’re constantly borrowing from other people’s nervous systems and lending out their own.
“There’s an obvious contagious effect with our emotional and cognitive experiences; we’re constantly affected by others and their emotional states,” says Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral…