September Is Looming. How to Stay Sane?

Talking with psychologist Nanika Coor about returning to school, the needs of families of color and respectful parenting in a pandemic

Welcome to Matriarchy Report. We are two journalist moms writing about family issues from a feminist perspective. We’re big on facts, solutions, and geriatric mom pride. Click the button below to subscribe and get this newsletter in your inbox, free.

September is looming. My husband and I are headed back to work in person, and our 5-year-old is headed back to the classroom. I’m looking for guidance and reassurance from all directions.

I’ve found myself relying on Professor Emily Oster, whose newsletter, ParentData, is just a fount of hard facts, reasonable assumptions and a compassionate, “We’re-all-in-this-together-but-I’m-an-exceptionally-smart-scientist-so-listen-to-me!” kind of attitude. This recent post, “How Should I Think About School & Child Care Now?” has some useful suggestions for assessing my own risk tolerance for exposing my kid to COVID.

But in addition to all the rational decision-making, I’ve also been thinking about the emotional support we need in order to get our kids -- and ourselves -- through this period of transition. 

For that, I turned to Dr. Nanika Coor. Coor is a clinical psychologist based in Brooklyn, where her practice focuses on parents and families. She and I met on the playground several years ago, and chatted while our kids stumbled around on the slides. She’s a practitioner and a proponent of an approach called “respectful parenting.” 

“What is not in your control is who your child is personality-wise or the things that they're interested in,” she told me. “Those are things you can try to change, but that will cause a lot of conflict.”  Some extroverted people have introverted children, some very focused parents have kids with ADHD. All of these are things we can’t change, Coor said. 

Instead, Coor suggests we focus on the things we can change: our own attitudes and perspectives. “You could just be like: This is who my child is,” she said. “How do I shift my own thinking to accommodate this, so that we can all get along, so that I can be 100% myself, and they can be 100% themselves?”

Our conversation ranged from the principles of respectful parenting, to ways to re-introduce kids back into the flow of the school year, to the realities of being “geriatric moms” (we were both 42 when we had our kids). And, as a Black psychologist in a very white arena -- the parenting space -- Coor has also thought deeply about the needs of Black families, families of color, and multiracial families. Her podcast and blog go deeper into all of these issues, so our conversation below offers just a taste of what she does. We spoke via Zoom, and the following has been edited for clarity.

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So what is the respectful part of respectful parenting? Accepting who my kid is, and that I better work with it?

A big chunk of it is the acceptance piece, the radical acceptance of who your child is. And also the radical acceptance of what the situation is at any given moment. If you have a child who is lying on the sidewalk screaming, that is actually what is occurring right now. You can spend 10 minutes on the corner wishing that wasn't happening, and thinking to yourself, “This shouldn't be happening! Why is it happening!?” Or you could just manage the situation. 

Wait, did you see me this morning? 

I mean, I have been a mom on the corner with a child lying on the sidewalk. We're not going to solve this problem at the moment that it's happening. It's just a matter of surviving this moment, getting on the other side of it, and moving forward. 

Sometimes the parents I work with can see how the child and the parent are triggering one another. And then sometimes parents are just like, “I need you to tell me how to make my child a different person.” 

If your child has ADHD, that's who your child is. Your child is not going to suddenly not have it one day. It's hard, sometimes, for parents who are really super calm and really chill, and kind of introverted, and have a child with all of this energy. It sometimes takes a long time for parents to come to a place of acceptance. 

And it really does include grief and mourning, because the child you thought you were going to have, and the life you thought you were going to have: maybe that's not the life you are going to have. And that's really, really hard.

You've had a different image in your mind of what parenting would be like, and this is what it turned out to actually be. And sometimes that’s harder to wrap your mind around, and it takes more time. 

I am very interested in how our own nervous systems can affect our kids. Right now, I feel anxious and fearful about all the uncertainty with COVID and the Delta variant. You write about the nervous system in terms of co-regulation and polyvagal theory, and how these play a part in respectful parenting.

Sometimes it's easier to understand when you visualize it. At the top of the ladder is one's very socially-engaged, connected self. It’s when the nervous system is in a state of calm equilibrium. I'm able to be connected to other people.

And then there's going down one step of the ladder, that's when you're in a mobilization state. I'm in fight or flight, now. I'm feeling like there's something that is not feeling safe to me anymore.

It’s like when you're the passenger in a car, and you trust the driver, you can just chill and fall asleep. But if you're in the car with somebody who's driving erratically, you would not be able to relax enough to fall asleep. Your body would be in that heightened state, gripping the dashboard.

And then there's the bottom of the ladder, which is shutdown, when you really are more depressed and disassociated. A lot of children who are in refugee camps are in this state, where children just sleep and sleep and sleep, they're so traumatized. 

So in a general way, that's basically how our nervous system has evolved, from the bottom up to our prefrontal cortex, that allows us to be social with one another. 

So how does co-regulation connect with that? If I am the parent and I'm at my most calm, top-of-the ladder-state, then does that mean I'll be bringing my child up the ladder?

You're much more likely to be able to do that. In order to co-regulate, one’s nervous system has to be regulated. So if we go back to our child-lying-on-sidewalk having a meltdown, and I then start screaming at my child, I'm in the fight state. I am down the ladder. My child might be in fight or flight, and now I'm in fight or flight. So it's going to take us both a long time to get back to equilibrium.

If I start yelling, she's now defending herself against whatever's going on inside her, and inside me. 

I want to be as non-threatening as I can be to calm her nervous system down. I want to be really chill. I want to try to get calm. I want to talk to her softly. Sometimes my child is in a situation where talking at all is more agitating for her. So sometimes it's just literally sitting down next to her and being quiet with her until she gets back together. It's just about not leaving her alone with the big feelings. 

While she's doing that, I'm trying to get myself back together, and I'm grieving. And I'm just trying to get my heart to go slower. And I'm just trying to think pleasant thoughts, instead of, “I'm gonna murder everyone.” 

So now, with COVID, and the impending transition back to school, how can this help us as we are sending them back?

I'm definitely hearing from older children, like the middle schoolers and up, that they're having some trouble re-acclimating to being around other kids. Especially kids who benefited from being home, who really struggled socially at school. So their nervous system was calmer at home then it is at school. 

And where does co-regulation fit in?

Think about where your child is on the ladder, and what they seem to need, based on that. If they're in a really shut down place, they need some kind of mobilization, they need to move up the ladder. If your child is in a more mobilized state, they need to get more calm. If somebody is really shut down, maybe there's a slower, graduated way you can reintroduce them into the social world. Maybe inviting a friend to come over. Once that starts feeling positive, maybe see if two of your friends want to come over. Sort of slowly making your way to the school situation. 

Sometimes parents are like, “Well, my child is a little shy, I need to shove them out into the world and rip off the Band-Aid” kind of thing. And, you know, that may work for some children. But not all children. So it's really important to know who your child is, and what they respond to, because sometimes that can be more dysregulating rather than less. 

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I had mentioned that Matriarchy Report is really owning our “geriatric mom” status, and I’m curious how you’ve reflected on being an older parent yourself, or seen it come up in your practice?

You've got a lot of caregiving to do in both directions, and it's not easy. A lot of older parents are dealing with caring for one's parents, and also your own parents are not as able to be helpful to you.  A younger parent’s parents might be involved and able to take the pressure off. 

A lot of older parents that I see have grief that there isn't a grandparent-grandchild relationship that they hoped would be there, in the same way that maybe they experienced when they were kids. 

And, also, when you had a child, you had sort of done yourself for longer. So sometimes I find older parents to be less flexible, in some ways. They  are some things they are more chill about, and some things they are more over-boundaried with then maybe they need to be. The phenomenon of permissive parenting seems to exist less in the older parents than the younger parents. 

At least for me, I feel like I’ve got to get my kid on my program. I'm running down the tracks, I've got my life in order and am sort of bringing her along. Maybe in some ways that's good. And in other ways, maybe it's another reason why it's important to remember that she has her own inner life.

Now that you're saying this, I'm realizing that I have a lot of older parents.

They’re talking perimenopause, they’re talking fatigue. They’ve got a five or six-year-old who's like, “Are you having a hot flash, Mom?” You're both raising a very young child and also at a later stage of your own life.

And that can be difficult in terms of finding community. It's not always easy to find community when a lot of the other moms are 10 years younger than you, and in a different stage of their life and not as able to relate. 

So as I was preparing to have this conversation, I noticed that many of the images on your website are images of families of color. And as I was looking through parenting podcasts, it's just one white woman after the next. So I just wanted to ask you about being a Black woman, and a psychologist in this parenting space, which appears to be really overwhelmingly white. Do you want to specifically reach families of color or biracial families? Is that an interest of yours? Are there different kinds of questions or needs that you want to address in your practice? 

Absolutely, I'm coming at this from a different angle. Respectful parenting in general, as you correctly noticed, is a largely white space. Certainly there are people of color talking about parenting, but there's so many fewer, and they don't get as much exposure. 

Yes, I do see a lot of people of color in my practice. I see a lot of Black people. Say I am a parent of color, and I want to parent in a less authoritarian way, there may not be as many people of color who are advocating for that, or know that that's an option on the table. 

If they are a person who is interested in respectful parenting, conscious parenting, positive parenting, and they find me, that's very encouraging for them, because there aren't a lot of people in the space.

And then, not everybody's child can feel safe to have all their feelings and melt down in the CVS. It can be dangerous for some children. They can be seen as much more malevolent than they actually are. They're not necessarily seen as a child having feelings. It's more like some parent who is not being controlling enough, or some child is being dangerous. Somebody who you should be afraid of. 

So maybe a person of color does have to hold space in a different way. Maybe they have to shield their child and protect their child in a different way than potentially a white parent with a white child might have to do. 

I also see a lot of white parents who have adopted children of color, and lots and lots of multiracial families. That is important to me, because I do feel it’s a different life experience. There's so many different things that you're experiencing as a multiracial family, or as a family of color that a white family is not going to experience. 

You know, the science of attachment is very Western, and very white. We've taken all that science, and we generalize it to the entire world, all the cultures, all of everybody. But maybe there are some nuances there. 

I'm really trying to figure out ways to really look back toward ancestral parenting practices that may not be valued, because we take Western views and decide that that's what's important. There were practices that were valuable to people before someone came and said, “None of that has any value and you do our thing,” which is exactly what authoritarian parenting is. That's where one learns it from, “I will just colonize you, child. I will just superimpose myself and my beliefs and my life onto you, child.” That's where we learn it from. 

So, I'm doing a lot of connecting those dots right now and trying to put more of that information out, in my podcast, and my writing. I think those connections are important to make. 

For parents who grew up with trauma or grew up with abuse: How can that experience make parents better parents?

I think trauma is absolutely playing a part in every person's parenting, whether they know it or not. We think a lot about trauma as being a big car accident or sexual abuse or physical abuse. But it's not always that overt. Really just being left with any big emotions all by yourself is traumatic for a small child. It can be just an everyday occurrence of somebody misattuning to you over and over and over again. That can be traumatic in and of itself, when your parents just don't see you for who you are.

For every parent who makes those decisions to consciously not do a hurtful thing that was hurtful for them when they were growing up, that is literally changing not only your child's experience, but your children's children's experience. You're really healing something generationally. You're saying, “This stops here.” So it's really important, and it can absolutely be positive, when you have knowledge of what that trauma was and how it affected you.

That's a very encouraging perspective and also so sad, you know, to not see who your child is. The time I walked away from my screaming child, was that a little trauma for her?

They're not traumas if they are repaired. We are not actually cognizant of what our kids need a hundred percent of the time. So, as long as we are able to go back and say, “You know what, that didn't go down the way I hoped. And I can see that that was hurtful to you, and I'm sorry about that,” that is not a trauma, that is a repair. 

That is how children learn that relationships can withstand some bumps and bruises and can still be connected. That's how they become less afraid of being their real self in a relationship when they're an adult. They don't suppress all their feelings because they're worried that the relationship can't withstand it.

They can assert themselves because they know that even if we disconnect for a moment, we'll come back together again.