As a parent, it can be thrilling to watch your child achieve developmental milestones. After mastering a new skill, such as using the toilet or separating from a parent, it can be confusing and upsetting if your child shows signs of regression. Regression is when a child loses skills they have developed or take steps backwards in their progress.
Regression can look like a child who is potty trained suddenly having accidents or wetting the bed. It can be the child who bounced excitedly into his classroom every day suddenly clinging to Mom and having difficulty separating. It can be a child wanting a bottle after they have transitioned away from needing one. Baby talk, temper tantrums, sleep regression and thumb sucking are ways in which a child may demonstrate regression.
Regression can be a typical aspect of development that occurs before a developmental leap is set to happen. Life changes can also lead to regression. A child may regress after starting a new school or having a new child care provider. Divorce or a death in the family can cause regression. A pregnancy or new sibling can lead to regression, as can a child’s sickness. Even events that adults may perceive to be happy ones, such as a move, can be experienced as stress to a child which can result in regression. These events can make a child feel insecure or scared without the skills to communicate these feelings. They may regress in an attempt to get more affection or to return to a time in life that felt safer and more predictable.
Identify the issue
It can be challenging for young children to express what they are feeling and why. Identify the change of behavior without judgment or punishment. “I notice that you have been wetting your pants and not using the toilet.” Help him brainstorm possible reasons. “Could it be because you are in a new classroom and is a bigger bathroom and maybe feels a little scary?” or “is it because baby sister wears a diaper and you feel sad that Mommy changes her diaper and helps her?”
Let your child know that you understand how hard the change is for him. Validate his emotions, and let him know that you understand he may be feeling scared or confused. Tell him that it is normal to feel that way in a new situation and that those feelings will go away soon. Acknowledgment and reassurance can help him move passed the regression to achieve the next step developmentally.
Fix what you can
Spend special one on one time with your child who is having a hard time coping with a new sibling. Set up a plan with the school to ease anxiety for the child having difficulty adjusting. Set up her new bedroom with familiar items. Ask her to tell you what might make her feel better and let her be a part of the solution.
Offer additional affection and attention as big transitions occur. Sometimes, the regression presents as baby-like behavior as a way to communicate that the additional time and affection they got during that phase is needed again. Remember that this stage is most likely temporary and the additional physical and emotional support may help them move forward.
Regression can be a typical phase of child development and usually lasts a few days or weeks. If the regression lasts longer or worsens, or is the result of significant trauma, consult your child’s doctor.
Graziella Simonetti is a parent educator for EAC Network’s Long Island Parenting Institute and works as an early childhood social worker for the New York City Department of Education. She holds an advanced certificate in parent education from Adelphi University and is a NYSPEP credentialed parenting educator.