What to Do When Your Child Regresses
The Causes and Solutions
Kids have off days just like we do. I'm sure you've had that experience. A day of moodiness, whining, irritability, meltdowns . . . nothing goes right.
An occasional off day can be dealt with fairly easily, but sometimes these trends extend into many days or even weeks. A six-year-old who has been getting herself dressed and tying her own shoes for some time all of the sudden can't seem to get her clothes on in the morning and is whiny and teary when you try to get her ready for school. Your 4-year-old starts sucking his thumb and wants you to hold him like a baby in your lap. Your teen who is for the most part cooperative and takes care care of himself begins lying around the house, leaving stuff everywhere, avoiding homework, playing video games and watching TV all afternoon into the evening. [Side note: If your teen always acts this way, then that is a whole other problem for another blog.]
The gist here is that there is some new behavior that isn't part of the regular daily norm. Your child or teen is regressing, and in spite of your attempts to put a halt to it, he or she continues with the regressive behavior.
In psychology, this is called "regression in service of the ego." We all do it. What it means is that if you get stressed for some reason and overwhelmed as a result, you step back to earlier modes of behavior, or in the case of your child, an earlier developmental phase, for awhile until you feel better and can resume normal functioning.
This kind of regression is what's behind taking a mental health day off from work. You feel overwhelmed, depleted, low on energy, unable to think or use your brain clearly, and you just need a day off to do nothing. Often mental health days are used to do just that. You veg in front of the TV, read a novel, lay around, or sometimes even catch up on house stuff that has been nagging you and making you feel like you are chronically behind.
Whatever the case, a mental health day is a reaction to stress, and a temporary regression gives you a chance to calm the overwhelm. By allowing the regression, most of us will go back to work feeling less stressed and able to jump back in with a little more oomph.
Kids have similar experiences, but they are unaware of what's happening. They become stressed and react without any awareness of the shift. Sometimes the stress is prolonged and behavior regresses over days, weeks, or worst case scenario, months.
For parents, the task is to figure out where the stress is coming from and see if you can alleviate it. It may be that you can't figure it out and have to just go with it for a day or two, but most times with a little sleuthing, you can come up with some ideas about what brought on the regression.
Here are some of the more common stressors that can bring on regressive behavior.
- Lack of sleep is number one on this list. If kids go several days or more with too little sleep, tiredness builds up and you get a cranky, uncooperative, and unhappy kid who begins to regress behaviorally.
- A second physical stressor is some sort of illness coming on. Your child may be getting a virus or flu before you catch on, and the first sign is regressive behavior. Most of us regress some when we are sick.
- Last is a change in diet or bad diet. If there have been additional amounts of junk food, sugar, and conversely a lack of healthy eating for a period of time, you may see regressive, irritable behavior.
Altercations with other kids, being bullied, feeling left out or isolated are all social stressors than can bring on regressive behaviors.
Younger children can't really think through experiences in a way that allows them to maintain self esteem in the face of social rejection. Adults have problems with this too, but have the capacity to at least sift through what's real and what's not, and to use coping mechanisms to maintain their normal behavior in spite of social problems.
A child can become morose, irritable, clingy, overly sensitive, argumentative, hyperactive, or distracted when they take a social hit. It goes straight in without much buffering, and they react. They aren't able to tie their reaction to the situation. They just feel it.
Our job as parents is to do some detective work and try to find out what happened and provide some ways to cope.
Changes in Environment or Routine
Some kids are more flexible than others and handle change with less reactivity, but most kids react to major changes such as moving to a new house, changing schools, or the birth of a new child to name a few.
Reactions may be seen right away, but sometimes they show up a little later and intensify.
All change signifies a loss. Very often there is a gain too, but the loss occurs first. You lose whatever you were doing or were used to, even if it wasn't a good situation.
Some changes produce a grieving reaction. This is especially true if the change involves relationship loss. For example, when kids change schools, they may lose daily contact with good friends and teachers, as well as the familiarity of classrooms and the school environment.
You might initially see withdrawal, alloofness, or conversely hyperactivity followed by sadness and anger, and then eventually resolution as new friends are made, and the new school becomes familiar.
The reactions will most likely be behavioral meaning they may not seem direct. Instead of actual sadness, you might see clinginess or crying when it's time to go to school, or regressive behaviors such as forgetfulness, refusal to do things normally done without problem, baby talk or infantile behaviors. Some kids react in a more opposite way with hyperactivity. They become kind of manic.
A note here about the birth of a new child. This is a major shift for any child, and often can lead to the most regressive behaviors. It will depend on several factors:
- the age of the child
- the preparation ahead for the transition
- the parent's capacity to detect reactions and work with them as you go
In terms of age, I think this is one of the most crucial factors, especially if your child is under the age of 3 1/2 to 4. Children this age are working on major developmental tasks that help them establish themselves as whole, separate human beings, who feel secure and can soothe themselves. When a second child arrives while the first child is working through these tasks, there is real challenge and interruption to the smooth navigation of this phase.
Some kids weather it better than others, and some parents also weather it better. It depends in part on the resources you have and whether you have the time and energy to work with it. If you work full-time, it becomes quite difficult and strenuous.
Regardless, it can all be worked out and nothing is lost, but you will see much more reactivity to a new baby from a child who is 2 1/2 than from a child who is 6 or 7. Your 6 or 7 year old can participate more easily in being the big sister or big brother and will feel included. She already has a peer group and has extended her life into the school environment. Your 2 1/2 year old will feel a loss. You can alleviate this stress by understanding the regression and providing more individual attention regularly to your toddler.
As kids move through developmental phases, they may experience anxiety and react to it behaviorally.
A perfect example is the time period between the ages of 12 to 14 otherwise known as early adolescence. These kids are getting surges of hormones as they hit puberty, coupled with an internal push to move away from parents more towards the peer group. Both factors tend to produce emotional ping pong vascilating between euphoria and moodiness or depression.
These young tweens and teens often experience anxiety as they move outward away from the family, and you are likely to see periods of independence peppered with moments of wanting to return to an earlier age.
The 13-year-old girl dresses up, puts on make-up, and goes to the mall to meet with friends one day, and wants to curl up in her pajamas and watch movies with her Mama on the next.
Sometimes behavior can regress for weeks at a time if the budding adolescent becomes overly stressed by any facet of her life like having a fall out with her best friend, being overloaded by new school responsibilities, starting her period, or getting rejected by her peer group. Boys undergo the same problems, but may express it differently. They may become aloof, want to hang out around the house and immerse themselves in escapist activities like video games, or become uncooperative and argumentative.
It’s helpful to know the developmental phase your child is working on, and to educate yourself about what the tasks are and what kinds of behaviors you may expect. Go online, read a book, or even talk to other parents. Knowing what’s going on and why makes it much easier to endure, because you understand the underlying process that is happening, and you know it won’t last forever. By educating yourself, you can also learn what to do. There is a huge amount of information available to help you.
When parents are having marital problems, it is nearly impossible to keep it from the kids. Even if there are no outward signs such as arguing or fighting in front of the kids, they still feel the tension and emotional stress in the air. Kids are sponges and they are very tuned into shifts in their parents’ emotions. They may not know what the problem is or even be old enough to think about that, but they will feel the stress and internalize it and react to it.
There is no marriage that doesn't have stress sometimes, and often marriages have periods of stress. That's normal actually, because marriages go through stages of development just like individuals do. You can't avoid that, but you can be aware that when you are having marital stress, you might see some regressive behavior in you kids. It helps to recognize what the cause is because it will keep you from becoming overly reactive yourself.
I think one of the most difficult parts of being a parent is that your kids almost always become more reactive when you are under stress yourself.
This is because for them it feels like you are unavailable when you are stressed, so they feel a loss and often become more demanding to get your attention to close up the separation gap.
It does help if you can recognize it when it's happening and take some steps to make them feel more comfortable and connected so they will be less behaviorally reactive and regressive.
This last category is simply stress overload that occurs when too much is happening and there are too many demands that produce overwhelm. Some items in this category are:
- Too much homework or too many school projects.
- Too many extra-curricular activities and not enough downtime.
- Over packed weekends.
- Sports seasons loaded with many practices and games.
- Performances of any kind.
In general, an overload of activity and responsibility with inadequate breaks and periods of rest or downtime can lead to regressive behavior. This is true of adults too!
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO DEAL WITH REGRESSION
Become a Detective
The first thing to do is to approach regressive behavior with some emotional distance and objectivity, and become a detective. Instead of getting angry and reactive yourself, investigate what might be happening that could cause your child to feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Talk, ask questions, go over the last few days or weeks, changes in routine, upcoming events, stress in the house, your stress, marital stress, or any other possibility that could create overwhelm for your child.
By doing this, it will be easier to figure out what to do to alleviate the stress. It will also help you to maintain a calm approach and find solutions.
Reduce the Obvious Stress
- Take an inventory of the activities your child is involved in, and reduce them if need be to allow enough downtime and regular play time that is non-structured.
- Make sure sleep time is what is should be, and reinstall regular bedtimes and nighttime routines if they have fallen off.
- Check your child's diet and adjust if they are eating too much in the way of sugar and junk food. Make sure good protein and complex carbohydrates are the staples.
- Find opportunities for physical exercise. Simply playing outside or on a playground is great.
- If there is marital stress, see a marriage counselor so that you are working on the problem and making headway. Make a rule with your spouse not to argue or fight in front of the kids, and make sure you are both spending time with them (as well as with each other).
- If you are depleted, overdone, depressed or anxious, think about how you might get some relief. Individual counseling may be an option that is helpful. Also carving out some time for yourself (if possible), changing the daily routine in some way that makes it easier for you, exercising if you can (even just walking is great), good eating, sleep . . . you know the drill.
- I think getting kids to bed on time and early enough is just as important for parents as it is for kids, because that small amount of evening downtime goes a long long way. If you are not currently doing this successfully, tackle it first. Just knowing that by 8:30 you can relax with no further interruptions is very helpful.
Work with Your Kids
For younger children, play is the number one activity that will reduce stress and help children get their equilibrium back. Spend some regular time playing on the floor with your child. Let them pick the activity, and participate as they direct. When you are playing, turn off your phone and give your entire attention to the play. Even if you are playing for only 20 minutes, the total attention and participation will help your child feel better.
The play should be creative meaning no screens. Play with dolls, figures, blocks, board games, or whatever your child likes. Let them choose.
I would try to do this daily for awhile until you see a reduction of regressive behaviors and return to normal.
Even for hyperactive kids, play goes a long way to help with reactivity. It stimulates dopamine in the brain and activates the pleasure centers, while increasing attentiveness.
This type of play also gives kids a sense of power that helps to calm helplessness.
Best of all, imaginary play allows children to work out emotional conflicts in disguise. So they feel relief without actually knowing what they worked out. Adults and teens talk through problems, but kids put the conflicts into play situations where they get worked out at a distance.
When in doubt, play! It always helps. For more info about how to do this, read Play Techniques with Elementary School Children.
Kids often feel distress, but have no idea how to express it, so they act it out. Your job is to help them move from acting out feelings to verbalizing them. You do not have to get elaborate about this, just help them find words to identify feelings and say it.
You can start by verbalizing for them. That alone is soothing to them. Ultimately, they will internalize your words and learn how to verbally identify the feeling themselves.
Make this simple, but use a lot of different words so that you are labeling feelings with as much specificity as possible.
Instead of mad, say irritable, frustrated, furious, hurt, made fun of, or whatever most accurately describes the situation. You can do this with positive feelings also. Happy may mean overjoyed, excited, contented, calm, or secure.
You get the idea. Just label without a lot of discussion. The words are potent and give kids a place to put the feeling and leave it. The better they get at verbalizing, the less they will act our behaviorally.
If your child is particularly clingy, give into it a bit and soothe. You might let her climb on the couch with you and cuddle, lie in bed together and watch a movie she loves, have a pizza night and camp out on the floor, or simply chat uninterrupted. Instead of fighting against the cling, dive into it until your child feels soothed, and then you can back up a little. Reaffirm your love for her, make her feel important, and re-establish your bond.
If you have a teen, just listening without any distraction, showing real interest without criticism, and spending some alone time together is invaluable.
I emphasize listening without criticism because it is easy to become reactive to things you hear when your teens are talking casually to you. If there is an issue you need to address, save it until another time.
Teens are working toward independence, but they need their parents. Your real presence is invaluable to them, and a solid connection with you will go along way in helping them navigate the roller coaster developmental tasks of adolescence.
As mentioned above, educating yourself about developmental phases or specific problems is an invaluable tool for both understanding problems and finding solutions. You are reading this blog, so you already are attuned to seeking out information to help you with parenting issues. Bravo!
Take Care of Yourself
You can’t give what you don’t have.
I am a huge champion of parents, because I think it is so easy to criticize what they don’t do, and much harder to understand what it’s really like for each person on a daily basis. Only you live in your situation, and know how stressful it is.
The above is meant as a guide for you, and hopefully to give you some ideas you can use. That said, often you may not have the energy or the time to do all of the things that would be helpful. Your kids may be regressed because they’re overwhelmed, but you may also be overwhelmed.
As best you can, really consider what ways you can take care of yourself to make things better. Adding new activities may be impossible, but maybe there are things you can improve right now that would make your life easier or at least give you a little more room to work with. Use any of the above to help. Modify them to work within your schedule. Anything you do will bring some relief.
One Last Note
There are other reasons kids have regressive behavior that are outside the scope of this blog. Autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorders, Developmental Delay, Brain Injury or Trauma, and Epilepsy all are characterized by ongoing regressive behaviors.
The chronicity and intensity will depend upon the depth of the problem. For example, some kids with milder ADHD do well overall using the practices and techniques I’ve offered in this blog. If the disorder is more developed, you will likely need to tap into other resources to help you manage the regression and behavioral dysfunctions.
As always, I am interested in your feedback, and would love to hear about your ideas and successes.