How Co-regulation Became the Parenting Buzzword of the Day

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On a recent evening, my children and I were watching “The Iron Giant,” the animated cult classic about a robot from outer space who, in 1957, crash-lands in the woods outside a small town in Maine, befriends a young boy, and wages battle against both a murderously stupid G-man and his own robo-programming as a sentient weapon of war. The boy, named Hogarth, and his mother, Annie, get by on her income as a diner waitress, and, late one night, she comes home from a draining double shift to find her son missing. Frantic with worry, Annie drives around until she locates Hogarth at the edge of the woods—on his own and perfectly fine—where he manically chatters at her about the big metal alien he claims to have spotted nearby. “Stop it!” Annie finally snaps. Then she catches herself and, with effort, takes on a low, steadier voice. She inhales and exhales, puffing her lips. “I’m not in the mood,” she says. Silently, they walk to the car.

For the contemporary parent beholding this magnificent fusion of Ted Hughes, Brad Bird, and Vin Diesel, there is an obvious and pressing question: Is Hogarth’s mom co-regulating? Co-regulation, a concept that has lately saturated the world of momfluencing, refers to a caregiver controlling her own emotional response when a child is agitated, and thus modelling the warm-yet-cool composure she hopes the child will eventually acquire himself. In the scene from “The Iron Giant,” Annie is exhausted by work and adrenalized by legitimate panic, but “Stop it!” is not Grade-A parenting, and she knows it. She attempts to repair the moment by stepping outside herself to observe and correct her tone. She engages her parasympathetic nervous system with a quick breathing exercise. Even “I’m not in the mood,” while suboptimal, is getting somewhere—Annie is communicating to her son that she’s dysregulated, and trying her best not to blame this on his alarming behavior. Going by the online #coregulation discourse, the ideal, Dr. Becky-worthy script would be something like “Wow, Hogarth, to be honest, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by everything that’s happened tonight. Let’s get home and, when we’ve both calmed down, we can talk about the big metal alien.”

According to today’s most prominent parenting gurus, maintaining an infectious state of calm is not only one of the utmost objectives when raising a child but perhaps the single goal from which all other family aspirations can flow. The parent coaches of Big Little Feelings, who have more than three million followers on Instagram, post frequently about how to “ride the wave” of a child’s meltdown and resist the urge to react. Chelsey Hauge-Zavaleta (more than three hundred thousand followers on TikTok), who incorporates neuroscience into her parenting advice, provides step-by-step advice for how caregivers can resist the reptile-brain urge toward co-escalation and “reset your nervous system.” The best-selling parenting expert Hunter Clarke-Fields says that a child’s ability to self-regulate is the “holy grail of parenting,” and that the quest for it can be achieved only through co-regulation with a trusted adult. The pediatric psychologist Mona Delahooke writes beautifully about co-regulation as a kind of neurophysiological substrate, a “ ‘super-food’ that nourishes children’s growing capacity to self-regulate.” And in the new book “The 5 Principles of Parenting,” the developmental psychologist Aliza Pressman describes co-regulation as the bedrock of human connection.

For Pressman, who co-founded the Mount Sinai Parenting Center and hosts the popular podcast “Raising Good Humans,” the essential principles are relationships, reflection, regulation, rules, and repair. “The Five Rs,” she writes, “lead to that elusive sixth R we’re all hoping and building toward: Resilience.” The ad-jingle alliteration jangles in the ear, but “5 Principles” otherwise lays out a clear, strong argument for co-regulation. A child who is screaming, kicking, stomping around, or stealing out in the middle of the night to spend time with a hundred-foot-tall weapon of mass destruction may be sending “false alarms about the dangers at hand,” Pressman explains. Those alarms trigger the grownup’s fight-or-flight response and raise the odds that adult and child will enter a co-escalation cycle of doom. In these situations, Pressman suggests the mantra “I’m not being chased by a bear,” because your autonomic nervous system may have begun to act as if you are. Ideally, the child’s physiological antennae will receive the placating message that her assigned adult is unfazed; the kid’s emotional data centers will start to synthesize their own blueprint for holding a person together during times of distress. “What’s extraordinary about co-regulation is that your child can literally borrow from your nervous system to help calm down,” Pressman writes, echoing a sentiment that Hauge-Zavaleta and others have emphasized. Tips and tricks abound for how a parent can self-regulate before she turns to the work of co-regulation. Hauge-Zavaleta has a litany beyond breath work and incantations: place one hand on your heart, tap a finger on your collarbone, splash cold water on your face, call a friend.

I can think of one more thing that helps a person self-regulate, and that is having lots and lots of money. What is largely missing from the co-regulation conversation is the same thing that’s missing from most mainstream parenting doctrine, which is any substantive acknowledgment of the sociocultural and socioeconomic factors that make it more difficult for stressed-out parents to follow even the most self-evidently slam-dunk advice. There is a vast library of research linking socioeconomic status with children’s well-being; it is not at all reductive to state that affluence makes you calmer, and that makes your kids calmer, and that means you have at once less need and more bandwidth for a book like “The 5 Principles of Parenting.” The collarbone-tapping magic of money may explain why so many of our most visible momfluencers are wealthy white women. Pressman, for one, is the daughter of Samuel Waksal, the founder of the pharmaceutical company ImClone Systems, which was best known for an insider-trading scandal that sent Waksal and Martha Stewart to prison, and which sold to Eli Lilly, in 2008, for six and a half billion dollars. The launch party for “5 Principles” was co-hosted by Sofia Coppola and Barbara Bush, among others, and rated a slide show in Vogue; Pressman’s celebrity endorsers include Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Alba, Jessica Seinfeld, and Drew Barrymore. I don’t mean to suggest that a rich, extraordinarily well-connected person cannot opine on co-regulation because she has never worked a double shift at a diner. But one’s entire understanding of self-regulation is altered when every governing system of your life, and your children’s lives, is smoothened and tempered by vast stores of capital. Money is its own neurophysiological substrate.

The current paeans to co-regulation are new ways of communicating well-established insights. The roots of co-regulation as a precept stretch back at least to the emergence of attachment theory, in the nineteen-sixties, which was based on observations of how mothers responded to their children’s emotional needs. Two of the most influential parenting books of the past thirty years—Ross Greene’s “The Explosive Child,” from 1998, and Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s “The Whole-Brain Child,” from 2011—foreground the ideas at the core of co-regulation. Greene asks parents to recognize their possession of a skill that many kids lack: that of “putting one’s emotions on the shelf so as to think through solutions to problems more objectively, rationally, and logically—a skill called separation of affect.” Siegel and Bryson encourage caregivers to draw on the resources of their fully developed “logical left brain” in order to dam a kid’s “big waves of right-brain emotions.” They also acknowledge the blessing and the curse of “emotional contagion,” whereby kids contract their caregivers’ joys and pains alike. “We soak other people into our own internal world,” they write—and this capillary action is the force that drives co-regulation.

There is a kind of cognitive dissonance built into the idea of co-regulation. Most competent caregivers become inured to being the scapegoat: your kid is mad at you because they fell; they’re mad at you because they’re late; they’re mad at you because the world. And it’s you who run the world. But, when a kid is in “I hate you!” mode, even some of the sunniest, sturdiest parents on earth will not be able to bring themselves to say, “Gosh! I’m noticing you’re having some big feelings right now.” Although co-regulation fosters intimacy and attunement—one nervous system enclosed in the soothing embrace of another—it can flow in only one direction; our kids mirror us, which is exactly why we shouldn’t mirror them when they’re riled up. Still, if we as human beings are hardwired to appropriate and reflect one another’s emotions, it can feel faintly sociopathic to affect a Zen state when the child you are attempting to connect to is thrashing around on a crowded city sidewalk. It can also seem, in the moment, counterproductive, because a kid might become even more outraged when they realize that their actions aren’t inspiring equivalent reactions. Lines start to blur: calmness may edge into detachment; coolheadedness might ice over.

I have my own version of “I’m not being chased by a bear”—a phrase that I recall hearing on a friend’s podcast years ago, that, if I’m lucky, streaks across my mind’s video monitor whenever I reach a parenting impasse: Unconquerable bot, unconquerable bot, unconquerable bot. Here I am, clank-clanking indefatigably through my domestic routines, rigged up for problem-solving and a mild, pleasant thereness. The bot breaks down all the time, of course; you’ll often find it in a rusty heap at the edge of the woods, yelling at somebody. But, hopefully, more often than not, the unconquerable bot promotes domestic tranquillity through its sheer predictability and unbotheredness. The title character of “The Iron Giant” is the Platonic ideal of the unconquerable bot: helpful, genial, cognizant of the flaws in his own neural networks, and capable of industrial-grade de-escalation on behalf of a child and his community. A repeated line of dialogue in the film, which emerges as its ethos, is “You are who you choose to be.” The essence, it seems, of co-regulation is that, every time a parent makes that choice, she is teaching her child how to make it, too—even if, at this particular moment in the kid’s development, he’s just not in the mood. ♦


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