Signs of Child Regression & What to Do

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Traumatic events or disruptions of regular routines can really throw children for a loop. Amy Shriver, MD, UnityPoint Health explains common regressive behavior in children and how to help support them.

What is Regressive Behavior in Children?

Older children and adults tend to learn in a linear fashion, sequentially building on skills. A young child’s learning process is linked to his/her developmental stage and is more likely to occur in spurts. During stressful situations or changes in routines, such as starting a new daycare or school year, a new baby sibling at home, divorce or even a global pandemic, regression in learning can occur. 

This means children can take a few, or sometimes many, steps back in their learning process. Sometimes they can lose skills they recently acquired, such as sleeping through the night, language acquisition or potty training, reverting to an earlier stage of development. 

Regression can add to an already tense home environment. Parents may feel confused, frustrated or disappointed. It’s important to understand that, often, the underlying cause of regression is stress. Understanding the link can help families cope with child regression in a positive way.

Why Does Stress Cause Child Regression?

Increased stress has a major impact on a child’s brain function. Increased stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) can target certain areas of the brain that influence behavior. For example, stress targets the amygdala, the brain’s alarm center. This can cause children to become more reactive, anxious and scared. Stress can also target the brain’s emotional centers, making children more emotionally labile or aggressive. Stress also targets the memory centers of the brain, making acquisition and storage of new information difficult. Stress affects the prefrontal cortex, or control center of the brain, too, leading to poor decision-making. 

What are Signs of Regression in Child Development?

  • Potty Accidents. Young children at the potty-training stage may suddenly refuse to use the potty. Some older, toilet-trained children with disrupted sleeping/eating/stooling schedules or changing diets may experience constipation and, as a result, may have potty accidents.
  • Disrupted Sleep. Infants and young children who used to sleep through the night may suddenly begin waking frequently and asking for food or comfort during the night. Stress may lead them to need more attention and increased closeness to feel safe and secure.
  • Decreased Independence. Infants, toddlers, and preschool children who previously played independently may be clingier and experience more separation anxiety.
  • Disrupted Learning. Children who were previously hitting appropriate developmental milestones may suddenly slow down in learning or be more forgetful of what they previously learned.
  • Language Regression. Children who were showing rapid language acquisition may suddenly slow down in language or start using “baby talk.”
  • Behavior Disruption. Children who previously demonstrated excellent self-soothing behaviors may be more prone to externalizing behaviors such as crying jags and temper tantrums. Conversely, stress can manifest as internalizing behaviors such as becoming more withdrawn, shy or depressed.

How Can Caregivers Handle Regressive Behavior?

Parents should try to stay calm and take a moment to evaluate their children’s regressions. Behaviors are typically reflecting important communications. What is your child trying to tell you? How can you best support your child? Here are five regression tips to help your family.

  • Discuss Concerns. Stress in your child’s life can be a trigger for some, but not all, regressive behavior. It’s important you make your pediatrician aware of regression so he/she can evaluate your child for other medical causes of regressions.
  • Identify the Problem. What is the stress that’s triggering the regression? Is it a disruption in routine? Is the child able to detect tension between family members? Has the sleeping arrangement changed? Is a parent absent from the home? Understanding the stress trigger can help families address the issue with their children.
  • Sympathize. It’s a good idea to let your child know you understand what they're going through, and that it's common. Children love to feel validated and understood. Be as reassuring as you can about the situation.
  • Work on Solutions. Work on ways you and your child can reduce stress together. Family dinners, play time, shared reading and cuddling all reduce stress in young children. For older children, try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, journaling, reaching out to friends for stress relief or suggest talking to a professional.
  • Use Positive Reinforcement. Now is not the time for harsh punishment. Make sure to set some reasonable expectations to help your child meet his/her learning goals. Be flexible and reward their efforts. Avoid harsh punishment, shaming or teasing. It’s OK to use time-outs, if needed, in children over age 2 years, or at least suggest them. But if possible, try gentle ignoring strategies for non-dangerous behaviors. And try lots of humor. 

When Will the Regression End?

In an otherwise healthy child, regressive behaviors will end. It's hard to give an exact prediction of when. Some behaviors like disrupted sleep will last several weeks. Potty-training regression can last months. The behaviors will last longer in a setting of harsh punishment.

Focus on maintaining a safe, secure, nurturing relationship, routines and rituals and positive reinforcement to help the regression behaviors improve.

One Last Thought for Parents

Parenting is stressful! Acknowledge you aren’t perfect and are doing your best. Forgive yourself; give yourself grace. Take parent time-outs, if available. Have a positive self-care plan that includes getting sleep, eating well and exercise. Avoid excessive alcohol and other substances as a way of coping with stress. Recognize when you’ve been on social media too much and don’t be afraid to switch off the news. Incorporate rituals for yourself and your family like walks, game night, movie night, shared reading, personal journaling, yoga or meditation. Try to find ways to have fun or laugh. Give and get hugs. Remind yourself that this too, will pass.