Special guest post by Dr. Rebecca Hubbard
Humans need each other throughout their lives. Children need connection with others to thrive. They need adults to hold them, snuggle them, comfort them, talk to them, and assist them in calming their bodies when they are distressed. Connection is vital to being a healthy, happy human.
Since humans are born defenseless and dependent, our nervous systems seek out connections with others to help us survive by getting others to care for and protect us until we can care for and protect ourselves. When a baby cries, the cries activate the neural network of nearby adults to elicit help from them. When the parent or another adult picks up the baby and soothes it, the baby’s and adult’s bodies sync, and the adult’s body assists the baby’s body in calming down (regulating). The baby’s and adult’s bodies release hormones that produce intense positive emotions and sensations. These hormones reinforce the baby for reaching out, and the adult for responding.
As we grow and care for ourselves, we don’t stop needing connection. Connection remains a basic need just like food, water, and shelter for all of our lives. Even as adults, our nervous systems are connecting with those around us. When human hearts are near one another, they begin to beat together. Healthy connection with others soothes our nervous systems and helps us feel safe. When someone around us is in emotional or physical pain, we feel a pull to help. This pull is our neurobiology reminding us that we need each other.
For a long time, people thought that boys and girls needed different treatment so that boys would grow up to be strong and capable, and girls would grow up to be kind and nurturing. Boys and girls need the same amount of connection from their parents. Fathers often express a concern that if they are too touchy-feely with their sons that their sons will be weak. Giving male children connection and nurture does not make them less male or weak. It gives them what their bodies need.
Learning to manage intense emotions is a part of being a human. Children need assistance from the calm, connected adults around them to learn how to manage overwhelming emotions. When children are very young and experience distress, we hold them close and provide a predictable, repetitive rhythm to help soothe their bodies (co-regulation). The baby feels our heart beating and the pulsing of our nervous system when we hold them close. The input from the adult’s body and the additional neural information from the adult swaying, patting, or rocking assists the baby’s body in calming.
Just because we grow up doesn’t mean we no longer need this type of assistance. The way that we receive help co-regulating when we are older children, teens, and adults is different than when we are infants, but it is still necessary for our health. For example, a person’s voice can be soothing and have a predictable, repetitive rhythm, just like sitting in a swing with someone and gently moving back and forth produces a predictable, repetitive rhythm. Throwing a baseball or kicking a soccer ball together also provides the same rhythmic neural input that humans need to regulate.