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Defense Mechanisms

Pandemic-Induced Toddler Regression

How to help when parents struggle.

Tanya Little/Shutterstock
Source: Tanya Little/Shutterstock

Regressive behavior is common, and it is something all caregivers of toddlers face, especially during the typical times it shows up: after a move or another big transition, such as the arrival of a younger sibling.

During these times, it is typical for a child to lose ground in one or even many areas. For example, a toddler who was using the toilet regularly starts having accidents, or a baby who was sleeping through the night is now up multiple times.

Regression can also affect a child’s eating habits (hello again, requests for a bottle), or they may revert to “baby talk” or other behaviors considered immature for their age and development (did we really throw away that binky?).

Parents and caregivers might know how to navigate these waters under “normal” circumstances, but how about now, when “normal” is a fantasy, and we’ve all been living through a pandemic that has lasted for a full year? Here are some tips to help you support the families you serve.

Ameliorating the stress that causes regression

Stress is the underlying cause of regressive behavior, so it is the first place to put attention when trying to manage it. One important thing to keep in mind is the feedback loop between family members. When caregivers are stressed, babies are stressed. Then stressed babies cause more caregiver stress. Practitioners can help interrupt this stress cycle and support families in bringing more self-regulation and calm to their homes.

A recent report from Child Trends recommends that caregivers practice the “3 R’s” with their children: reassure them of their safety, establish and maintain regular routines, and focus on regulation skills (Bartlett, et al., 2020). Parents and caregivers may need assistance in cultivating and maintaining these practices during the pandemic.

What else may help families reduce stress?

  • Focusing on adult mental health. Because adult caregivers have ongoing opportunities to help or hinder a child’s progress, it’s doubly important that they receive support and mental health care. Help them get connected with any services they may need. A silver lining of the pandemic is the almost universal availability of telehealth services for mental health.
  • Broadening one's perspective. When caregivers can see the “long game,” they are more likely to take regression in stride. While unexpected regression can be frustrating, a reminder that it will eventually pass can be reassuring. Additionally helpful is a reminder that perfection is always out of reach when talking about parenting and toddlers, but especially now.
  • Practicing mindfulness. Another way to help caregivers mitigate their own stress, and the cycle of dysregulation that can flow between parent and child, is through mindfulness.

    Breathing practices and other strategies can help calm everyone’s nervous systems and increase self- and co-regulation among dyads. This isn’t a clueless suggestion that caregivers meditate an hour a day, but instead an opportunity to bring mindfulness to everyday moments.

What will not help?

  • Engaging in the power struggle. Helping caregivers see that a child’s regressive behavior is not intentional but rather a symptom of stress can help bring more empathy and patience.

    It’s OK to go back to pull-on diapers for a little while. A more relaxed and encouraging caregiver can help a baby or young child feel secure enough to gain their skills back more quickly, much like a car coming into the gas station for a fill-up, so they can continue on their journey.

  • Shaming, blaming, or punishment. These methods are likely to increase the length of a child’s regression, not shorten it. Let caregivers know that these approaches—because of the additional stress they can cause—do more harm than good and will only exacerbate the problem. Remind them of the positive approaches outlined above to try as alternatives.

Some families are disproportionately affected

As mentioned, the longevity of the crisis we’re all living through is significant. Even families with more resources are faced with regression, stress, and burnout at this time.

However, families that were already struggling in some way before the pandemic have been hardest hit. Children who have developmental delays, preexisting health or mental health conditions, or have experienced previous trauma are at higher risk for regression and delays (Bartlett, et al., 2020). Likewise, families with caregivers who struggle with substance misuse, mental health issues, or economic instability are at the greatest risk (Bartlett, et al., 2020) and in need of the most support.

Regression is always a challenge. However, compassionate providers and caring communities can make a huge difference in how parents and caregivers not only view this phenomenon but manage it as the coronavirus pandemic will soon enter its second year.

Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, contributed to this post. Sarah is a social worker, parent educator, and author of the award-winning, bestselling book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking With Young Children.

References

Bartlett, J. D., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020). Resources for supporting children’s emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Child Trends, 12.

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