Like nearly all of us during these last six months, I have been holed up at home. My husband and I have been juggling work and school for our two kids, and we have been feeling isolated from some of the connections and experiences that we most cherish in life: celebrating family milestones, meeting up with friends, and going out for “date night.” In fact, we haven’t seen more than a dozen people since mid-March.
This COVID-19 moment has reinforced how our need to connect with one another is so profoundly core to our humanity. The lack of human connection we are all enduring right now is just the latest example of the broader trends of loneliness, social isolation, and polarization that are tearing at our social fabric and challenging our health and well-being. As individuals, and as groups of individuals, when we don’t feel seen, heard, validated, or valued, we can feel an increased sense of separation, grievance, division, and stagnation – which prevents us from caring for each other and working together to address our most urgent collective challenges.
The need to reconnect – and repair our connections and relationships – has never been clearer nor more urgent. As our children and families face unprecedented compounding crises across our health, livelihoods, and equal opportunities, it’s important to ask: What can we learn from the bonding relationships between parents and their young children that can help us navigate this challenging time and help us flourish and thrive as individuals, organizations, and a society?
One of the ways our family is coping is by embracing the arts – laughing together at clips of classic comedy sketches like Who’s On First or The Carol Burnett Show, putting on dance shows for each other, and making arts and crafts to send to friends and family. These moments keep us centered, creative, and connected. I personally love going to live theatre performances, and while we’re not able to experience them in person, some of my favorite musicals are definitely helping me through – and showing why living in deeper relationship is so important.
Forging early emotional connections conditions our ability to relate to others:
A mother and baby modulate and regulate each other’s emotions beginning in utero. They experience emotional connection and co-regulation. These foundational relationships we experience as babies with parents and caregivers are integral to developing our sense of self — and our ability to trust, empathize, and build mutually supportive, nurturing relationships throughout life. It’s also in these early years that we learn the skills of repairing trust and connection that lasting, healthy relationships depend on.
In my own life, when I’m not calm, I feel it in my gut. So, I wasn’t surprised when our partners at the Nurture Science Program (NSP) at Columbia University discovered that our bodies (specifically the gut), not our brains, are the primary regulators of emotional behavior. This process occurs between two people, through their autonomic nervous systems, and is called co-regulation. Most of us know about the central nervous system which is primarily the brain and spinal cord. But, it is the autonomic nervous system that learns from stimuli and triggers responses based on them. When we say, “I had a gut instinct,” that’s our autonomic nervous system talking.
Relationships with loved ones train our autonomic nervous systems over time that the sight, sound, smell, touch, or even taste (!) of a loved one can trigger a calming effect. Perhaps there’s a family recipe or food from your youth that when you smell that food, you feel the emotions of that time and maybe even the emotional presence of family members.
The NSP team has conducted basic and clinical research over the last dozen years, with the support of Einhorn Collaborative and others, that demonstrates that connection doesn’t just make us feel better emotionally, but it boosts our immunity, reduces inflammation, regulates heart rate and blood pressure, and improves indicators of our overall health.
And while the brain and gut are connected, 80% of the communication actually goes from the gut to our brain – and only 20% in the other direction. When we are stressed, our gut gets activated, and the communication with the brain is interrupted, making us feel dazed or confused. A calm gut keeps our brain working and improves cognitive functioning.
The good news about emotional connection and co-regulation is that it is actionable. It is a state, not a trait. This is where the importance of reconnection and repair comes in. Every day, I experience periods of disconnection from my family (even if we are cooped up in the same house!). Being in the same space is not the same as being connected. After hours of Zoom calls, I need to kiss my husband and embrace my kids – and they need it, too! This reconnection calms my heartbeat, and I feel myself exhale. There’s nothing like their co-regulation.
This is the mutuality of emotional connection. And it models a world in which we understand that when someone has needs, other members of our circle and broader society can help meet those needs, and we can calm one another. This emotional connection in the early years of life conditions us to relate to others with empathy, mutuality, and reciprocity.
Nurturing relationships from birth help us practice repair:
Many of us understand the experience of the title character of Dear Evan Hansen, “on the outside, always looking in.” We all look to be found when we are “broken on the ground.” This innate desire to connect isn’t just a “nice to have.” There is no path to self-care without the loving, caring support of others.
And yet, I wake up every morning reading stories about the divides and divisions in our society. We have so many more ways to connect online, yet more and more people feel lonely and isolated. And if we keep shunning others as part of our healing, the divides will only grow.
All members of our society can learn and practice the act of repair in order to build stronger relationships, embrace our differences, and rediscover our shared humanity. Indeed, the best opportunity to condition ourselves with the tools for repair is with loving support between parents and their young children from birth.
NSP has developed a simple lens to help parent-facing professionals focus more acutely on parent-child relationships for children under the age of five, and a set of tools to be used in the moment to support parents and children in establishing, maintaining, and restoring a state of emotional connection. The lens only requires three minutes of the professional’s time. It has been validated and proven reliable in multiple studies. And, the research has shown that a low score on the lens predicts future developmental and behavioral problems when no action is taken. As the character Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, “With one look you’ll know all you need to know.”
The four elements of the lens are Attraction, Vocal Communication, Facial Expressiveness, and Sensitivity/Reciprocity. Each of these elements is observed for evidence of consistency and mutuality throughout the three minutes to help guide the clinician’s use of the tools to support the family. NSP is partnering with Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs), well-baby nurseries, pediatric clinics, and national programs to further test the lens and the tools to study how they lead to outcomes like behavior change by providers, changed experiences for families, and ultimately more parents and children experiencing emotional connection more often.
There is growing interest among many childhood sectors, particularly health care, to lift up the importance of early relational health and foundational relationships. Our collaboration with national early childhood funders through the Pediatrics Supporting Parents initiative is designed to catalyze transformation in pediatric primary care to more effectively support parents in building nurturing relationships with their babies. The COVID-19 pandemic and our country’s growing understanding of health inequities are forcing the health care sector to find ways to reimagine itself, and we hope to leverage the important learnings from parent-child bonding to shape those opportunities.
The Pediatrics Supporting Parents funder collaborative, together with our partner collaborative to test the lens and tools of emotional connection, form the foundation of our Bonding strategy.
How caring for our children primes us to heal each other and our nation:
How we care for our children says everything about who we are and who we can be. To heal and repair our world today, we can look to bonding in the early years of life for insights and solutions.
The seven activities that support emotional connection are: Holding/Touching, Eye Contact, Smelling, Singing/Talking, Crying/Upset, Listening, and Family Support. These activities facilitate heart-to-heart communication and lead to autonomic co-regulation. These are real physiological phenomena, and they are healthy ones.
So, who is it that you are missing a connection with today?
If they are part of your pandemic pod, you can reconnect and repair with them in person. Otherwise, use Zoom, get close to that camera, look, listen, share any concerns you have, talk through them, and find your path back to connection. And, if you’re like me, maybe you’ll even sing a show tune together. The science says it’s good for our souls, our bodies, and our brains.