There was a scene in Inside Out, an animated movie about how our emotions shape us, where the personified characters of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger help a girl named Riley navigate her first day of school in a new city.
Joy gives a list of tasks to the other emotions inside the control center in Riley’s mind: Fear to provide a list of the worst possible outcomes; Disgust to ensure that Riley both stands out and blends in among her classmates; Anger to generate daydreams in case boredom strikes; Joy, herself, to keep Riley happy all day long; and Sadness to stand inside a circle and make sure that no melancholy can seep into Riley’s day.
I’ve been thinking about this scene a lot as I struggle with school drop-offs for my little one. I imagine the range of emotions my daughter must be cycling through at five years old when we say our goodbyes. Recently, what started as a long, sweet hug would end in me holding back my tears as I listened to her whimpers from the staircase after sending her into the arms of her loving Kindergarten teacher. Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness all make an appearance in this short morning routine, leaving both of us feeling unmoored in the aftermath. It’s not until I get a reassuring email from her teacher that my capacity to breathe normally returns to my body.
In moments like this, I’m grateful to be a student of the parenting work we have been supporting for nearly two decades. Maybe the old adage of life imitating art applies here, but rather it’s life imitating research. Our decade-plus work with the Nurture Science Program at Columbia University and our more recent partnerships with the Center for the Study of Social Policy and Reach Out and Read on early relational health have taught me to recognize and practice the power of co-regulation: how much our bodies are wired for connection and interdependence. Pausing and reflecting on difficult parenting moments allows me to nurture the bond between my daughter and me, so we can each have what we need to be our best selves.
Disconnection and rupture are part of life. Our work in the science of connection demonstrates that the key to feeling calm and secure is to repair and reconnect, over and over again. That’s my task every evening as I put my daughter to bed — to return to each other’s arms and process all the Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness however they have shown up in our day.
If this approach resonates with you, join us in Nurture Connection, an effort launched earlier this month to ensure that every family is supported in fostering strong and enduring emotional connection from birth. I’m grateful for the tireless work and years of collaboration among parent leaders, researchers, practitioners, policy experts, health systems leaders, and funders, including our very own Bonding Strategy Lead Ira Hillman, who have worked collaboratively to make these tools and resources on early relational health a reality.
With spring fast approaching, I wish you all the presence of Joy that often emerges with the season. And when Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness make themselves known, I hope you find comfort in knowing that all emotions are welcome as you turn toward a loved one to nurture connection.