Reasons your child might be regressing to outgrown behaviours

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Childhood regression can happen for a number of reasons, explains educational psychologist Ashley Jay. It may occur when a traumatic or stressful event happens in their lives, such as a death, divorce or a move to another home. It may happen when a new sibling is born as they may feel displaced and insecure. It may happen when a child is struggling to effectively express their feelings.

Children may also regress as a primitive way of controlling their immediate environment. “This is because certain regressive behaviours allow them to feel more powerful and autonomous when other things in their lives make them feel as though they have a lack of control,” she says

“When a child regresses, they behave in ways that show there’s something amiss or wrong, which usually elicits more attention from their significant adults. It’s a normal way to communicate when they are unable to articulate with words how they are feeling.”

How does it manifest?

In younger children regression tends to occur in 4 main areas:  eating, sleeping, toileting and general behaviour. “They may start to eat a lot more, which could be due to emotional eating patterns, or become completely disinterested in eating at all. Their sleep may become fitful – they may struggle to fall asleep, wake up in the night, not want to sleep in their beds, need the light on or begin having bad dreams. Older children may also begin sleeping more and going to bed later.”

From a toileting perspective, Ashley says children who have mastered toilet training may start wetting themselves or the bed, they may refuse to go to the toilet and only want a nappy and they may also begin withholding their urine or stool.

ALSO SEE: 4 steps to handle potty training regression

In terms of behaviour, she notes children may want to start using their dummies again even if they stopped using them a long time ago. They may become defiant, angry or anxious and they may display a complete disregard for rules with an increase in negative behaviour patterns. They may also become disinterested in things they previously enjoyed or retreat more into themselves.

The impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 will definitely have an impact on children of all ages, says Ashley. “This is because their lives have changed without their consent – literally overnight. All the structures and routines, such as school, extra murals and play dates, which provided them with clear expectations, socialisation and a sense of security, have disappeared. They’re also not used to being around their parents, adult caregivers and siblings 24/7, which is neither healthy nor normal. “Children need to physically connect and interact with their peers and other adult authorities such as teachers and family members. Talking to them through a computer may feel like a disembodied experience. This form of virtual communication and learning, which relies solely on verbal interactions. It means they can’t rely on non-verbal communication such as body language, whose subtle yet effective nuances make up at least 50% of their interactions. Verbal communication on its own can be exhausting and lead to further emotional fallout such as refusing to do classes and homework, or not wanting to talk to family and friends.”

ALSO SEE: How to relieve lockdown stress for your children

How to help your child

Parents often get anxious about what to do when they’re dealing with regression, says clinical psychologist Wendela Leisewitz. “However, it’s often less about what you can do and more about why and how.”

Wendela suggests the following principles to guide you –  especially during the COVID-19 upheaval:

  • Never shame or blame. Remember, your child is reacting to an external stressor that’s beyond their control and often beyond their understanding. Fir this reason, always adopt a non-punitive, non-aggressive, non-punishing attitude.
  • Go back to basics: In the usual areas in which children regress (toileting, eating, sleeping and general behaviour), try recall what you did when that particular milestone was pertinent. For example, what did you do when your child first required potty training or when you began to wean her from milk to solids? What was the bedtime routine you followed when she was younger?
  • Don’t let this become a battleground or a power struggle. This will have a detrimental effect on your relationship when your child needs you the most. Remember, your child is not being naughty or manipulative – they’re communicating worry, fear, insecurity and confusion. Also, don’t get hooked into the idea that it’s a competition: this is not about winning and losing.
  • Stick to a routine (toileting routine, eating routine, sleeping routine, and rules about general behaviour). With COVID-19, the usual points of reference (for example, going to school and extra murals) your child used as predictable safe structures have gone. This can result in a ‘groundhog day’ like feeling. Routines fence off activities, structure experience and contain anxiety.
  • Always be more mindful, sensitive and flexible when it comes to consequences.
  • Encourage your child to talk about what they’re afraid of. Find out what they understand a virus to b, why people are wearing masks, why there isn’t any school, why they can’t see their friends or grandparents. Don’t shut communication down – open it up, explaining these issues in an age-appropriate way.
  • Focus on positive reinforcement rather than the negatives. For example, reward behaviour you want to encourage and ignore behaviour you want to discourage. Use distraction – give your child 2 or 3 choices and alternatives to what she is doing.
  • Bear in mind that COVID-19, unlike other traumatic events, is chronic in nature. Therefore, whatever you decide to do, always think about the lasting effects of what it is you’re doing. For example, if you perceive letting your child sleep in your bed is going to be a temporary measure, how are you going to ease your child back into his/her bed? This is the reasons why going back to basics is so important.

Ashley’s top tips for managing regression:

  • Always acknowledge their feelings and make sure they understand that all feelings are acceptable and that they are allowed to feel however they want to feel.
  • Remind them you are there for them by telling them and demonstrating this to them with increased empathy and understanding.
  • Never get punitive or angry. This is because it will probably just prolong the regressive behaviours and intensify them. Don’t try to embarrass your child into acting their age as this will add stress and anxiety. It can also cause your child to regress even further or to remain in this regressive stage for longer.
  • Keep a close eye on any form of regressive behaviour. If it continues for a prolonged period of time and starts to adversely affect significant areas of your child’s functioning (for example, their ability to concentrate or learn, their peer and family relationships and their self-esteem), always seek professional help.

More about the experts:

Ashley Jay is an educational psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She also works as consulting psychologist at King David Minnie Behrson Pre-Primary and has appeared on TV and radio as an expertise in her field. Learn more about Ashley Jay here

Wendela Leisewitz is a qualified clinical psychologist and family/divorce mediator. Her areas of expertise range across the age spectrum and include conditions specific to children such as separation anxiety and school refusal, relationship and marital difficulties, depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and trauma and bereavement counselling. Prior to training as a psychologist and mediator, she worked as a paediatric nurse with an undergraduate degree in Social Work. Learn more about Wendela Leisewitz here.

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