Defense Mechanisms

Regression in the Time of Coronavirus

Why children take steps backward in their development in times of stress.

Posted Apr 13, 2020

Madison used to be a great sleeper. Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus lockdown has persisted, bedtime has deteriorated. It started with Madison insisting that I stay with her until she falls asleep. Now she insists on sleeping in our bed all night.—Father of a 4-year-old

Marcus has been fully potty-trained for two months. Since his school closed and we are all home together, all day, he has regressed to the point where he insists on wearing pull-ups all the time. All of a sudden he seems totally uninterested in the potty.—Mother of a 3-year-old

Kids regressing—moving backward in their development—is a very common reaction to stress. The same is true for adults. Experiencing this seismic shift in our worlds has sent many of us into survival mode. Our psychic energy has been diverted from higher-level brain functions to just trying to cope day to day. Few people I know would say they are at the top of their game right now.

Just like many of us are having a harder time managing everyday tasks and challenges, so are our kids. This can result in more challenging behaviors (which I have addressed in previous posts) and regression to less mature levels of functioning. You may see your child get frustrated more easily, become more clingy, have more potty accidents, experience sleep disruption, and, have a change in their eating patterns.

Responding to regression: What not to do

Shame your child for acting like “a baby.” Shaming has a profound, negative effect on children. It is an attack on their sense-of-self which leads to more acting-out behavior. It also makes it much less likely they will rebound to a higher level of functioning.

Cajole, bribe, reward or punish your child to get her to “act her age.” These strategies tend to backfire for several reasons:

  • When children sense that you are trying to control them, it often leads to power struggles that only result in their digging in their heels more forcefully.
  • Your child is not regressing on purpose. She is acting on her feelings; so, using logic and trying to convince her to “get with the program” rarely works and can, in fact, reinforce her regression.
  • Regression is often an unconscious way to elicit the additional support and reassurance children need when they are experiencing stress. When you demand that your child act more independently—to use the potty, to be less clingy, etc.—it increases her insecurity which only leads to more regression.

Responding to regression: What to do

Validate your child’s experience. Because we love our kids so deeply, it is hard to see them struggle. We just want to make the “bad” feelings go away because we think it’s harmful to them to feel sad, angry, or scared. But ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them magically disappear. They just get “acted out” through behaviors—like aggression and regression—that can lead to more, not less, stress for your child … and you. 

So, start by acknowledging that your world has changed a lot over the past few weeks, and that change can be hard. Share that you are also adapting, and that you are all in this together.

Avoid the temptation to jump to reassurance that all will be well when your child expresses difficult emotions. If he says he misses his teachers and friends, instead of responding, “Don’t worry, you’ll see them again soon!” start by validating his experience: “That makes a lot of sense. You love your school pals and teachers. It’s hard not to be able to play with them.”

Then, move to empowerment. For example, brainstorm ways your child can stay connected to teachers and friends by scheduling video chats, or drawing a picture or dictating an email to send to people he is missing. If you skip the step of validation before providing reassurance or going into problem-solving mode, it doesn’t give your child the chance to work through the feelings that are driving his behavior.

When your child shares his deepest feelings with you, it is a gift. It means he trusts you. It also gives you the chance to help him cope with his emotions—one of your most important responsibilities as a parent. So, when your child tells you what’s on his mind and in his heart, tell him how happy you are that he is sharing his thoughts and feelings with you to reinforce that you will always be there for him and can handle whatever he is experiencing.

When you recognize and validate your child’s feelings, you let him know that he is not alone and that you understand and accept him completely. This helps your child gain the self-acceptance and self-awareness he will need to recognize, own, and manage his feelings effectively far into the future.

For guidance on how to respond to specific questions your child may ask about the coronavirus, check out ZERO TO THREE’s great resources.

Follow your child’s lead. If you’re like most parents, you believe that you have to do something to control your child's behavior—to make her behave the way you think would be best for her. In fact, while it may feel counter-intuitive, following your child’s lead and giving her the space and time she needs to regain a sense of safety and security makes it more likely that she will return to a higher, developmentally appropriate level of functioning.

  • If your child is getting more easily frustrated with an activity or task, let her know you see she is having a hard time and ask whether she’d like some help or to take a break and try again later.
  • If your child is acting helpless and clingy, provide lots of love and connection. But be sure to provide similar attention when he is acting his age—snuggle up with him to read some books and give him big, spontaneous hugs throughout the day. This signals to him that you will provide nurture and support even when he is behaving more independently.
  • If your child has regressed in using the potty, don’t push it. Let her know that it is her body and only she can decide how she pees and poops. She can wear underwear if she wants to use the potty. If she is not going to use the potty, she wears pull-ups. When she has accidents, don’t shame or punish her. (Shaming makes the whole potty experience fraught with anxiety which leads to an increase, not a decrease, in accidents—however paradoxical that may seem.) Take a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental approach. Acknowledge that accidents happen, then help your child get cleaned up and move on. Remember, elimination is all about control. When kids feel out of control on the inside, they lose control on the outside. The more you try to control your child, the more likely she is to resist. Following her lead and not making a big deal out of it makes it more likely that she will choose the potty again, sooner rather than later. (For more guidance on potty learning, check out these posts.)
  • If your child is becoming more clingy at bedtime, acknowledge that during times of big changes like this, it’s harder to separate for sleep. To provide more support and connection at this juncture in your day, consider expanding the bedtime routine by adding a few books and some cuddle time together. But try to stick to the limits you have already established, for example, that your child sleep in his own bed. You want to avoid setting up a dynamic that will be hard to undo. Further, letting your child sleep in your bed inadvertently sends the message that he isn’t okay in his own room at night—increasing, not decreasing his fears. Instead, consider letting him know you will check in on him periodically to provide reassurance. (For more guidance on dealing with sleep challenges, check out these posts.)

Most of all, be patient. This too shall pass. Have faith in your children, as they are often much more resilient than you think. With your support and acceptance—giving them the space and time they need to regain a sense of security in this changing world—they will return to their higher level of functioning.