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When your young child starts regressing

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Not acting their age

What should you do if your child starts regressing to baby-like behaviors? A month or so ago, after completing Kindergarten registration, Sunshine started showing some regressive behaviors. All of a sudden she started using baby talk, saying she couldn't do things herself that she had been doing for months -- even years. She even asked to be held like a baby several times.

Not acting their age

I didn't think much of it really (as my last child, she is kind of my baby), and when I did I figured I should wait until later to really think about it. It wasn't too onerous, and we had plenty of other things going on in the house.

But then a friend called me and told me about how her three year old had been regressing on some toileting issues. In her case, she asked her son outright why he was suddenly refusing to use the potty. Her son flat out told her that he knew that using the potty all the time meant he was going to change schools to the preschool his brothers had used, and he really liked his school and his friends where they changed his diaper, so he was just going to keep using diapers so he could stay at his school. Well, then.

Transitions and stressors

This, of course, got me thinking about Sunshine's regression. In thinking about the timing of it all, the Kindergarten registration process came to mind. I asked her straight out if she was nervous about Kindergarten, and she said yes - then she elaborated without prompting. She was nervous about the school bus and the new school and will she see her friends, and things like that.

Silly me. In my excitement for Sunshine's imminent Kindergarten experience -- with two older brothers I know about many of the great things that are going to happen -- I plain forgot to acknowledge that this is a big transition for her, and there are many emotions that go with it.

Younger children may show regressive behaviors over any number of issues. Usually, they are having a difficult time of verbalizing something that is causing them anxiety -- even if that same something is something they are excited and happy about. Anything from a school transition to a new sibling to a loved neighbor moving away can trigger regressions. Kids literally are trying to go back to a less stressful, safer time. Sometimes, regressions are a sign of something deeper -- but often the root issue is a simple one and some love and reassurance goes a long way to resolving the issue.

Keep it simple

After my Duh! moment with my daughter, I made sure we spent some extra time together talking about the transition. I made the effort to validate her feelings, letting her know that feeling some anxiety was completely natural, while trying to reassure her. I reminded her that her brothers had had the same kind of transition -- down to the same bus driver -- and although they had been nervous, too, it had all be fine. Her friends will still be her friends, and she's likely to make more, and, most importantly, no matter what, Mommy and Daddy would help her figure it all out.

She won't be doing all this alone. Sunshine seemed much relieved. Sunshine's regressive behaviors didn't disappear overnight, but they did start to ease pretty quickly. She has good days and bad days with these nerves -- and we reassure as appropriate. I suspect we'll have some of this to deal with right through the start of Kindergarten.

My friend, similarly, kept her approach to her son simple, offering reassurance and validation. Similarly, the regression eased, though it was not instantaneously resolved. Again, it will take some time. As with so many issues, often the simplest solution is the right one. If your young child is regressing, think about what kind of transitions he or she might be experiencing - and ask them what is going on. You might be surprised what it is!

When it's not so simple

Sometimes regressions are not so simple. If the simple approach does not work, and there are not obvious transitions or stressors, it might be time to talk to your pediatrician and check for any developing health issues. If a regression is the sign of something bigger (such as autism), the earlier you intervene -- or at least know what is going on -- the better.

Everyone deals with change differently. The youngest among us may not have the same repertoire of words to use to describe their feelings about change, so they show their feelings differently. No matter what the transition or how the feeling is conveyed, reassurance and validation go a long way.

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