Are Your Kids Regressing? Yes, it's the pandemic. Here's what to do.
"Dr. Laura.... My three year old is having accidents after having been completely potty trained for a year. My five year old wants to sleep in my bed. My seven year old whines all the time and acts helpless -- she can't even wash her hands without help. She has a tantrum if I tell her to act her age. Is this because of the pandemic and remote schooling?"
Probably, yes. You're describing classic regression, which just means that the child isn't able to cope in as mature a manner as they've recently mastered. When children feel stressed and overwhelmed, they almost always regress. And this past year has been stressful for everyone!
Children have coped with school closures, remote learning, missing friends. They've mourned birthday parties and soccer tournaments that never happened. They've worried about getting infected with invisible germs, or about their parents or grandparents dying. We parents have been stressed, so we yell more, and when we supervise their learning, it often triggers power struggles and other stress. Just being able to run around on a playground with other children is off limits. No wonder children are stressed! So you can expect regression from kids of all ages.
That means that you can expect behavior issues from kids of all ages. Regression comes out in many ways depending on the child and the age, but whining, potty accidents and sleeping challenges are common. Generally you will see that the child gets emotionally dysregulated more easily and needs much more reassurance. Here are some examples:
- Emotional volatility: Children may burst into tears about things they could have handled in the past. They may be whiny or crankier than usual.
- Need for reassurance: Children may compete with siblings to be in your arms or lap more than usual. They may develop fears, such as a fear of going alone to the bathroom.
- Inability to focus: When children are stressed, they have a hard time paying attention and learning.
- Anger: Children who are worried and unable to express it in words may instead become angered more easily, or act belligerent. They may purposely provoke you so they get a chance to cry to let off stress.
- Sleep: You may see children have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep in their own beds. Nightmares are common.
- Potty accidents: You may think your child has been potty trained for a long time, but it's a common regression that shows us how much effort is involved for a young child to use the toilet.
How should you handle regression?
Stress means that the demands on the child are greater than the child feels able to handle. So when your child regresses -- which indicates stress -- increase your support.
The most important support to help your child feel less stressed is emotional and physical reassurance so your child feels physically and emotionally safe.
When your child acts as if they can't handle what is being asked of them -- they may start whining, act helpless, or need you to do something with or for them that they usually could handle -- it's normal to feel annoyed, because you think your child "should" be able to handle what you're asking.
But right now, your child actually can't handle what you're asking. Their regression is a signal that they feel overwhelmed. They're showing you, because they don't have the words to tell you.
So summon up all your patience and remind yourself that your child needs your support to cope during this challenging time. You can either reduce the demands on the child, or increase the child 's inner resources.
Practically, in the moment, you increase her resources by reassuring her, empathizing with the fact that everything seems like too much at the moment, and helping her with the task at hand.
So for example, your seven year old is perfectly capable of washing her hands. But the stress now associated with hand-washing becomes a stand-in for all the stress of the moment. She also knows that since hand-washing has become so important to you, you will intervene if she balks at it. She collapses, whining that she can't wash her hands. The best intervention is reassurance. "You are having such a hard time right now, aren't you? Don't worry, Sweetheart. I am right here to help." You step in, hold her kindly, make it fun, and get the hand-washing accomplished.
Then you spend some snuggle time to "fill her cup." You also build preventive maintenance activities into the routine to reduce your child's stress level and build inner resources. For instance:
- Roughhousing and laughter (changes the body chemistry to reduce stress)
- Snuggling and physical connection (increases sense of safety)
- Artwork, creative or messy play (emotionally therapeutic)
- Time outside (nature helps stabilize humans emotionally)
- Physical activity (helps kids work through emotions and pent-up energy)
- Regular one on one check-ins with each child in which you listen to their worries (emotionally therapeutic)
- Regular one on one play time with each child where you follow their lead in play (emotionally therapeutic, as kids often act out scenarios of germs, sickness, saving people, rescues, etc.)
One last note. Instead of collapsing and whining, some children -- especially as they get older -- will act out stress by lashing out. This is particularly true if they feel that you're not available to help them, for instance, if you suggest that they "act their age." So if your child gets belligerent, remember that they're signaling you that they need some help, both with the task at hand, and with the tears and fears lurking under that anger. Resist getting hooked on their rudeness. Instead, use your empathy to create emotional safety, so your child can show you those more tender feelings.
Is this a reward for "bad" behavior? No. This is not bad behavior. This is your child's way of showing you something that she does not know how to tell you, which is that she is emotionally overwhelmed and needs your help. When your child feels stressed and you respond with reassurance and support, you're increasing her sense of safety, which decreases her feeling of overwhelm.
Regression can be frustrating for parents, but don't worry; this isn't permanent. Your child will eventually regain all her lost capacities. You can facilitate that by making sure that she knows that she can depend on you to understand and nurture her -- even when she can't explain why she's having a hard time.
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