Fishing for a Calmer State: Mothers’ Ability to Soothe Children Following Inoculation
As humans, our nature compels us to modify our behavior to tackle incipient challenges. But we differ in how those modifications emerge. For example, children exhibit a wide array of behaviors following a standard inoculation; indicating that each child returns to a calm state through a unique process. In our self-regulation project we are trying to understand those processes, and we have in mind that some of the return to calm is driven by the child’s internal (endogenous) process, and that some of the return is driven by their mother’s (exogenous) influence – moms’ soothing behaviors. Can we find a mathematical model that matches this dual-process conceptualization?
After casting our nets into a sea of possible approaches, we found that fishery and farm populations are regulated using multi-process models that accommodate both endogenous and exogenous influences. Specifically, changes in population size emerge as a combination of animals’ natural reproduction (endogenous process) and farmers’ harvesting (exogenous influence). Drawing an analogy between farmers’ management of their animal crops and mothers’ management of their infants’ distress, we adapted a harvesting model to represent the endogenous and exogenous forces as driving the observed changes in children’s crying behavior after inoculation. A first set of results are depicted in the figure below.
Here we see crying behavior (y-axis) over time (x-axis) for 141 children (one line per child). Generally, we see that crying decreases across repeated measures, indicating that children tend to calm down after inoculation. The color gradient indicates the child’s sensitivity to their mother’s touching behavior. Deep blue corresponds to a strong soothing effect because mother’s touching behavior tends to ‘harvest’ crying behavior out of the child. Brighter red indicates a distressing effect because mom’s touching behavior ‘plants’ more crying behavior into the child. Whiter coloring suggests an absent effect because mother’s touching behavior doesn’t impact the child’s crying behavior.
The multi-process models used for regulation of animal populations offered a nuanced insight into children’s endogenous and exogenous forms of regulation. Those using mostly endogenous forms tended to move toward a calm state regardless of the mother’s behavior, whereas those with exogenous forms showed much stronger influences by the mother. Interestingly, exogenous forms of regulation could serve to soothe or overstimulate the child, emphasizing that children not only follow different paths to calm states but also need different forms of support to get there.
As we dive deeper into these data we hope to include other variables to further understand these differences in regulation. Do boys tend to rely on exogenous regulation more than girls? Do children with secure attachments tend to receive a harvesting effect compared to those with insecure attachments?
Standing at the bow of our ship and looking ahead, we also want to use these models to understand the development of emotion regulation. Do children that require exogenous forms of regulation tend to become autonomous later in life? If so, do certain mother behaviors promote this shift more than others?
Navigating this relatively uncharted territory has provided interesting insight into children’s emotion regulation, and we feel optimistic as the wind seems to be pushing our sails toward a direction that may have answers along its horizon!