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Regression Is Real: If Your Child Is Acting Younger Right Now, Here’s What to Do

Maybe this has been happening for you since the moment quarantine began. Maybe it just started once school (or what has been passing as school) let out for the summer. Maybe it’s looming around the corner. Regression, the behavioral backslide to younger days, can happen to kids any time, but is especially prevalent during times of stress.

You may not even know it by name, only that being a parent now feels like running in quicksand. Your toddler wants a bottle or a pacifier at all times. Your preschooler is taking naps during the day and crawling into your bed at night. Your school-age kid is clinging to your leg when you try to walk around the house. Your tween is sucking her thumb. Your teen is nonstop sulky.

“Regression means that you’re moving backwards in development, and it’s a very common reaction to stress in children,” Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist and parenting expert, told SheKnows.

Actually, Patel noted that this isn’t just limited to children. Did your wardrobe and diet choices revert to your college days in the first few weeks (months?) of lockdown? Yep, that’s regression too.

“We went into fight-or-flight survival mode,” Patel said. “And children are going to have a harder time managing it because they can’t sit down and tell us exactly what it is that they’re feeling and what they’re frustrated about.”

If this describes anything going on in your household, you are not alone, and there are ways you and your kids can learn to cope together.

Recognize, but don’t criticize

This takes a whole lot of self-control, but you’ve got to hold back on the instinct to reprimand your child for the mistakes they make due to regression — whether it’s peeing in their pants or throwing a giant tantrum.

“You want to validate your child’s experience, to make sure that they feel loved and feel safe and let them know that it’s OK to make these mistakes,” Patel said.

They’re probably already going to know what they did and feel ashamed of it. You can help them focus on moving forward from what happened. “You can say, ‘Sometimes this happens when we’re having a hard time. … Maybe we’re having a hard time today, but we have a chance to try it again.'”

To get to that patient mindset, parents, it might help you to know that when moving forward from regression, your child won’t have to relearn everything (like potty training) from scratch. When they’re feeling less stressed out, they’ll get back on track pretty easily.

Ask questions (& listen to the answers!)

Children don’t exactly know what “stress” is, even if they’re feeling it. Your job is to play armchair psychologist and find out what’s been triggering them by asking questions.

“It’s really important to let your child lead,” Patel said, rather than pushing them to confirm any assumption you might have. “Ask, ‘Hey what’s going on? I know that we’re home over the summer, and we’ve been home for several weeks. Gosh, that must be really hard. What are some of the things that you don’t like about it? What are some of the things that you do?’ Just start those conversations and see what they tell you.”

Take their answers seriously, and see if there are ways you can solve the solvable problems they present. They may miss one particular friend, so you can arrange an outdoor or online playdate with them. They could be sad about not seeing their teacher, so you can help them send an email or letter. Remember that social interactions are really important for children of all ages, including teens, so finding some safe way to facilitate meetings will go a long way.

“Sometimes you’ll hear these blanket statements [such as] ‘I’m never going to get to go back [to school],” Patel said. You can validate them while also providing the comfort that this is not going to be forever, even though it might feel that way now.

Also, if it turns out that their stress is from bigger things — like COVID-19 or police brutality — you may want to cut back on their news consumption. You absolutely should have age-appropriate conversations about these things without giving them more than they can handle.

Provide positive reinforcement

Just as you may have done for potty training, you can give your kids rewards when they do something right.

“Catch them showing the appropriate behavior, because that will remind them what they’re capable of and that they can be successful,” Patel said. That again applies to kids of any age.

And by the way, if the usual rewards or incentives seem to be losing their shine for your child, Patel offered a brilliant tip. You don’t need to spend more or get too elaborate, but you can introduce the element of surprise. Put rewards in an envelope or box with a question mark. A reward can even be in the form of extra time with you, doing something they love.

Prevent the next regressions

Experts have been telling us since March that one of the best ways to help our children through this crazy time is with structures and routines. Even with distance learning on hold for the summer, you will want to make some kind of schedule. But what about our wise-ass kids who are going to scoff at structure when they don’t have any school-related consequences? Patel has an answer for that too.

“Children want to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat, so when you let children buy in, when you give them part of that control, you’re going to get a lot more compliance,” Patel said.

When you set up the schedule, have a conversation with your kids about what their “wishes” for the day are, and discuss how those can fit in with some of the chores, meals, and other activities that need to be done.

“When you create a daily to-do list, they feel more accomplished,” Patel added.

Finally, we all know that this summer isn’t going to bethe end of these strange times. Even if it were, our children will always face new transitions and some kind of stressors. Now we have an opportunity to do what we couldn’t when school closures happened practically overnight: prepare them for new big things on the horizon, including (maybe possibly hopefully) going back to school in the fall.

“It’s really important to help prepare your children for what will be a new type of setup; we’re not going back to what we had,” Patel warned. You can begin a few weeks in advance by stopping by the school campus on a weekend and walking around. Slowly transition to bedtimes and wake-up times that they’ll need to have on a school day. And start to talk about things like mask-wearing and eating lunch in the classrooms that will be so different from what they know.

That said, most parents still don’t know what’s happening in the fall, so those conversations can’t be very detailed yet.

“Take it day by day, reassuring your children that they’re safe and that you hear them, and that those little hiccups occurring along the way — they will get through it,” Patel said, in effect, reassuring us in the process.

If both you and your children are in need of more structure, try taking one of these classes together this summer. 

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