Regressions: Back to a Safer Time

Regressions – what are they all about? A child with clear speech returns to baby talk  … a potty-trained child reverts to accidents.  Many parents are concerned and frustrated by  backward steps.  After the triumph (and convenience!) of growth forward, regressions can perplex and annoy adults.

Behavioral regressions are temporary steps backward to a safer time, to take a break from uncomfortable challenge. It is a coping strategy. Coping is anything one does to try to manage an uncomfortable state.  Development is tough work!

We adults can no longer remember growing on so many developmental dimensions at once. An adult-world analogy might be: starting a new job (cognitive), resuming exercise (gross motor), learning a foreign language (language), taking piano lessons (fine motor), and mastering a new cell phone (emotional – haha!) all at once.  You too might fall back on an easier skills while your muscles were sore and your brain tired.  You might even throw down your complicated new phone and cry!

Grown-ups may call-out regressive behavior: “Why are you talking like that? You’re a big boy now,” or “Why are we having accidents? You’re not a baby anymore.”  The assumption is that a teaspoon of embarrassment might jog the child back into age-appropriate behavior.  But such responses miss the child message – which is, “I’m anxious, I’m overwhelmed right now, this growing up thing is hard.”  When a child sends a message that is missed, the response is often anger – either internalized (as resentment) or demonstrated (acting out).   Shame never feels good. What to do instead?

1)   Notice the regression and ask yourself, why might this be happening at this moment?  Coping with younger sibling in his life? Working hard on one developmental task (toilet training) may temporarily leave less energy for work on other tasks (puzzles. language, emotional regulation).

2)  Check in with your child.  “Jordan, I notice you are using your younger boy talk lately.  I wonder if something is bothering you today.”  Few young children can answer  How, Why & What questions. So offer your guesses in “wondering” statements like, “I wonder how you are feeling about baby sister these days.”  Offer support and understanding statements. “Yes, I’ve had to hold sissy a lot after dinner.” Your child may offer, “Yeah, and Daddy doesn’t tuck me in like you do!”  

When your child shows a regression, take the cue – something is taxing her capacities.  Child growth does not emerge in linear lines. Knowing this allows us grownups to accept and observe regressions, interpreting them with gentle acceptance and support.


5 Comments on “Regressions: Back to a Safer Time”

  1. hakea says:

    I’m not fond of the “big kid” talk that parents do. Five years old is not big. I ask parents to think of their child standing in a crowd of people. What can the child see? Children know they are not big.

    I ask parents to think about all of the times they say to their child that he or she is big, and then all of the times they tell him or her that they are too little.

    A beautiful post.

  2. Kermit says:

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