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Child Regression: Parents, Don’t Lose Your Minds

You did it. You accomplished a parenting goal. Whether it was potty training, not throwing tantrums, or sleeping through the night, you made it through, and everythings is going great. Until it isn’t. All of a sudden, your child seems to have unlearned everything. It’s enough to deflate anyone’s stamina. But, if it makes you feel any better, regression happens with every child at varying times throughout their lives. Here is a guide on what you can do as a parent to keep your sanity and help your child through a period of regression.

What Causes Regression?

Despite what it may feel like, your child hasn’t forgotten everything you’ve taught them. Simply put, regression comes down to stress. 

“Regressions happen, in part, because kids want more from their parents when they feel unsettled or anxious, and regressions ensure that they’ll get that extra attention,” says mom science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer in an article for The New York Times.

So what are the biggest stressors for a preschooler? Glad you asked. 

  • Normal Developmental Milestones – Regression is something parents will encounter from the very beginning. Many of the developmental milestones children normally experience involve regression. As a child’s brain and body undergo massive changes, it’s a very overwhelming time. And the way preschoolers deal with being overwhelmed is by becoming clingy, cranky, and crying incessantly.
  • Big Changes (Anxiety) – For preschoolers of all ages, major life changes can trigger regression in every form. If your child starts backpedaling in sleep quality, whininess, tantrum throwing, or demeanor, ask yourself if any of the following have happened recently. 
    • New sibling
    • Started school
    • Moved houses
    • Big changes in routine (traveling, end of summer vacation, etc.)
    • Death in the family
    • Parents divorce
    • Parents fighting
    • Parents are stressed (new job, financial difficulties, ect.)
    • Trauma (natural disaster, car accident, abuse, etc.)
    • Global pandemic (right?)
  • Physical and/or Mental Exhaustion – Not getting enough rest can completely derail things for a child. (Let’s be honest, it throws things off for adults, too.) Has your child recently been sick? Are they participating in a million activities? Have you had an exceptionally busy social schedule when you normally don’t? Have they been learning new skills at school? Are they receiving more intensive tutoring for a reading, speech, or other developmental delay? If so, they may be struggling to keep up. 

Signs of Regression

In terms of what regression looks like, it’s different for every child. However, here are some of the common behaviors that kids exhibit when they’re in the middle of a regressive period.

  • Potty accidents after they’ve been toilet trained 
  • Poor or interrupted sleep
  • Clinginess
  • Decreased performance/interest in learning
  • Increase in baby talk or sudden speech regression
  • More frequent temper tantrums
  • Becoming withdrawn or antisocial

When to Be Concerned

If your child is regressing, it can feel like an eternity before they start acting like themselves again. They almost always coursecorrect, though. Especially if the change triggering their anxiety isn’t linked to trauma, a child’s brain will adjust to the new situation and find ways to deal with the stress they are experiencing. (That’s especially true if they have a loving, caring parent like you helping them through it 🙂)

However, if your child is still exhibiting regressive behaviors two or three weeks after they started, it may be time to call in your pediatrician or mental health expert. 

“Children are so motivated to move forward in development, so if that motivation is not there, then I would be worried,” says Dr. Nancy Close, assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “But mostly when it comes to developmentally appropriate regression, I think it is short lived.”

What You Can Do 

In short, the best way to help your child to get through their regression is to be supportive.

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We know that’s the answer to so many questions, but it’s true! Here’s how you can love and support your child specifically.

  1. Communicate – A big frustration for everyone involved is the lack of communication that can happen between adults and preschoolers. Infants can’t talk at all, so decisions have to be made on research and intuition. For kids who can talk or communicate, expressing what they’re feeling can feel like an impossible task. As a parent, play detective to see if you can get to the bottom of what’s stressing your child out. Use the list provided above as a starting place for things that could be bothering them and go from there. “What you want to do is help your child to experience and express their feelings,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. “Give them a feeling of comfort and safety as much as you are able. Children this young need help with expressing how they feel, so ask them to tell you a story about what has been happening or what happened that was difficult.”
  2. Use Positive Reinforcement – In all the chaos of regression, it can be easy to overlook positive behavior. If your child does anything positive — shares, uses the toilet instead of having an accident, says something nice, expresses interest in a hobby — praise them the way they like to be praised. The additional support will help them get back on track mentally and emotionally. 
  3. Don’t “Feed the Monster” – Being sympathetic and supportive is good … but at the same time, don’t reinforce negative behavior. Don’t give unnecessary amounts of attention, buy that toy they’re whining about, or make that highly customized dinner that’s being demanded. In other words, treat them with consistency. And if pushing back triggers a tantrum, you know what to do
  4. Give Them a Hug – Is it the same as #2? Maybe. But it needs to be said again. Physical closeness and emotional reassurance are some of the most important things you can do for a child who is regressing. 

Ultimately, the goal is to identify the stressor and find solutions with your kid. Regression looks different for every child, and the solutions to lowering their stress is just as unique. Providing them with a safe place to fall apart and helping them pick up the pieces is one of the hardest parts about parenting. But, if done correctly, it can be one of the most beneficial things you could ever do for your child. 

 

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