I was in Hobby Lobby with my husband yesterday, picking up a picture we had framed. My attention was drawn to the sound of a crying baby. This baby wasn’t just fussing, but clearly very distressed. The parents were making every effort to ignore their infant’s cries as they pushed it in the pram. My heart was broken hearing this infant’s cries and no one responding.
You may think I’m just a softy, but I know too much to not be deeply affected by this scene. As a therapist, I spend most of my time helping people learn how to regulate their emotions. People come to see me with depression, anger, anxiety, OCD, addictive behaviors, marital conflict or distance, PTSD, and the effects of childhood trauma. As adults, they haven’t learned how to regulate their emotions. They have difficulty in relationships and they have no idea why they can’t fix it. While therapy is a good place to learn this, the best place to learn how to regulate your emotions is in infancy.
I’m still feeling the deep sadness today of hearing that desperate infant’s cry, and being ignored. As a therapist, I know that if these parents continue to ignore their baby’s cries, he will have difficulty regulating his emotions, and will likely have some challenging behaviors. Neither parent nor child will have any explanation for the child’s behaviors and he will probably be labeled “a difficult child,” and may even be diagnosed with ADD. He will likely have difficulty in relationships as an adult, and at a very deep level, will find it difficult to trust.
When an infant cries, he is not able to calm himself. This is a neurobiological fact. Many parents of previous generations were told to let the child cry it out. If you comforted your baby they were told, he would never learn to manage his emotions. You might even spoil him! The reality, as we now know from science, is that the exact opposite is true.
A baby’s brain develops in a sequential way. A baby is aware of discomfort, and he is only able to cry out. But he has no way to comfort himself. He needs his mommy or daddy to comfort him. The baby’s brain doesn’t develop the ability to use self-soothing, or regulate his emotions until much later. God designed our brains this way–to be comforted by another caring adult. He made us relational. But if no one comes to soothe and comfort the baby, the neural circuitry in the brain is never developed. The infant is dependent on an outside source to co-regulate his distress. It’s only with this co-regulation from a caring person that these neural circuits develop. With consistent, responsive parenting, the baby eventually learns how to regulate his own emotions. These neural circuits are essential to be an emotionally healthy adult.
Without this co-regulation of a baby’s emotions by a loving caregiver, babies become adults who have to depend on outside sources to feel comforted. As adults, we become masters of finding outside sources to comfort, without being aware of what is really going on inside us. We use all kinds of external things to make us feel calm: alcohol, tobacco, drugs, pornography, workaholism, co-dependent relationships, obsessive-compulsive behaviors…The list goes on and on.
But it’s never too late! God can be that external source when we are feeling emotionally unstable. He tells us, “Call on Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you…” (Psalm 50:15) As adults, He can be that co-regulation for us that we all so desperately need. What’s even more amazing is found in the next part of that verse, “…and you will honor Me.” God is the ultimate, loving caregiver. He is longing to comfort you in your distress. And He’s honored when we cry out to Him and allow Him to be that source of comfort.
My prayer for you today is that you would be able to say, with King David: “Behold, God is my helper; The Lord is the sustainer of my soul.” (Psalm 54:4)