Are My Kids Actually Regressing Right Now?

Have you found your kids following you around a little more lately? And not just because you actually have no place to go, they just need to be with you every. single. second? Have the nightly tuck-ins become longer and longer? Did someone cry over the last pack of ramen? (Ok, maybe that was me…) Are you staying up later every single night binging Netflix shows just to get some precious time to yourself??? That’s also me…but anyway.

Things are uncertain right now and scary, even for 37 year olds. And it’s likely that our younger family members are feeling that too, even if they don’t realize it. They are still feeling it even if we ARE wearing ourselves out to make them feel like the world is just sooooo great, even though you’ve worn the same jogging pants three days in a row and the news sounds different on every single channel. You see, it’s not so easy to hide the stress we’re all feeling right now.

There’s actually some psychology behind what’s going on here. It’s called regression, it manifests in many different ways and it often occurs during times of stress. Children and even adults experience regression as they find themselves retreating back to behaviors that bring them additional levels of safety and comfort. This could mean stepping backward with potty training, needing a cherished comfort item more often or even experiencing more tantrums from your child.

My Shadow Lately

In our house, I see my children following me almost everywhere I go and they seem to need to be right next to me at all times. We’ve also had some acting out and frustration that isn’t typical around here, at least it wasn’t Pre-Covid. It can be absolutely overwhelming for us all. I know about regression and I know what’s happening but it still surprised me because I thought they were doing just fine. I was wrong.

So, I decided to sit them down and try to talk about how they were feeling. They rolled their eyes because this is pretty much what I always do to them and I’m their Mom so you know, not likely to get the most honest of answers. So, I decided to pull one of my Art therapy tricks out of my counselor hat. They both love to draw so I pulled out the markers that smell like random fruits and between the marker sniffing, we did an exercise to help them express what might be happening in their minds that they aren’t actually aware of. This one is helpful in a lot of settings. I use it in my office and even used it once with a group of adult cancer survivors. It’s always a hit and gets people talking. I have a template available here, if you need one.

Page One of a Two Page Worksheet to Help Work Through Feelings

In all the talk about schools reopening, political posturing, etc. and focus on protecting our physical health, we adults can forget about the actual emotional needs of our family members. There are many amazing child focused mental health providers in most communities and wonderful tele-health options, as well, if you feel someone in your home can benefit from or is in need of those services. Pay close attention to the cues you may be getting from your children that they need to talk and let them know it’s okay to do that. Sometimes just sitting down with some play-doh can be a great way to get a child to open up to you.

So what do you do about the regressive behaviors? Leading experts say to practice a little patience. Validate your child’s feelings of stress right now, reenforce age-appropriate behaviors with extra attention and praise and don’t shame or judge. Psychology Today has an excellent article written by a mental health professional on this topic here.

This is a tough time for everyone. One thing that we’ve been doing is reading a few pages of a novel together at bedtime. It gives my kids a sense of comfort and reassurance while encouraging them to separate and go to bed without a fuss. They look forward to that little bit of extra connection and to hear what is happening next in our story. My younger child also tends to worry and needs structure to feel secure. I finally started creating more of a daily routine for us and his mood has significantly improved. What kinds of new routines have you adopted to help reassure and comfort your kids during the pandemic? Leave your answers in the comments.

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