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.

Redirect and Connect

Well, here we are again. I am not quite sure what day of the week it is just yet but it’s another eerily familiar day in July of 2020. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. We are still watching too much television. We are still eating a lot of junk food and I am still trying to figure out how school is going to actually happen in the middle of all this mess. I also still have a headache from devouring the entire internet and ever changing information about the restart of school this Fall. There’s a lot to process right now and we are trying to do it in a world that feels so very unfamiliar to us. The future is not as certain as it used to be and we are often looking at people differently than we did before. It’s isolating and scary. And just when I find myself at the end of my rope, I realize my nine year old son is watching my reaction to “The Facebook” and taking cues about how he should be responding to the world right now. So I close the laptop and we watch an oddly interesting cartoon show about amphibians together. We need a distraction.

I bought tickets for a drive-in movie tonight because I needed to try and find something to look forward to this week and to cheer up my girl. I’ve had to tell my 11 year old, Bella, that she can’t go to many gatherings this Summer. I try to be reasonable and let her see friends if the group is small and they can social distance but that isn’t always possible and not everyone is in our situation. Sometimes I think having a Mom with health issues during a pandemic must be the worst thing in the world for a child entering middle school. Social relationships are often so awkward and complex at this age and Bella is a sweet but often very shy little girl. In the last few months, she had to say goodbye to elementary school from afar and miss out on all the fun end of the year events most 5th graders get to participate in. She made some friends she really cares about this year but hasn’t been able to spend much time with them.

In the beginning, I tried to explain to the kids that we are following guidelines to help stop the spread of the virus and to keep ourselves from getting infected. And we did see most people we know also following those guidelines back in the Spring. But now, I know it seems like a Mom-made prison for them when they see so many people they know carrying on with life as usual. What my children don’t know is that my doctor told me that she is afraid I would have a very difficult time surviving COVID-19. My kids probably suspect this even if they won’t tell me. They’ve seen me struggle since I had cancer with all the side effects from radiation and chemotherapy. That is our normal and has been since they were very small. Some of my favorite things about them are a direct result of this experience. They are so kind, so empathetic and care deeply about people. But I also know that worry of “what if something happens to Mommy…..” lingers under the surface. And I stay up late at night worried about it, too. I always will.

I see my youngest child regressing in some ways right now. He hovers like a shadow, needing to be in the same room with me at all times. I admittedly get cranky with him sometimes tears start flowing. We all truly need space from one another but we don’t know how right now. Emotions are more tender and fragile than they’ve ever been. Lots of time is spent just snuggling and our sofa is the center of life a lot of times. I wish I knew the answer to all of this but even with all my education and experience, I don’t have the magic key. I have been reading more about child regression during pandemics and found some helpful information here.

I also see myself getting very angry lately. And that is the hardest part for me. I can see and read too much about what other people are doing and I feel frustrated, hurt and honestly jealous sometimes. But then I remind myself that I need to take a deep breath and practice a little more empathy. Does that mean I agree with what some other people are choosing right now? No. But it does mean I will actively try to put myself in their shoes and let go of taking things so personally. Most of the time people really are trying their best and we need to remember that. We don’t know what their life looks like from the inside.

When students come to see me who are feeling so frustrated with people and situations beyond their control, I ask them to take a deep breath and explain how they are feeling. I reflect and let them know that I see and acknowledge that frustration. Then we discuss what we can and can’t control in the situation. For some students, it helps to see this on paper. I often use a worksheet to help them work through this. Once we identify what we have control over, we then discuss how to deal with these uncomfortable feelings and create a list or “toolbox” the student can use when feeling overwhelmed. The list is written on that same worksheet. You can find it here.

Many people who work as counselors find it much easier to help other people and not themselves and their own family members. I think this is because counseling is like holding up a mirror to help another person see the answers they already have within themselves. It is much harder to do that for yourself. But I am going to try a little harder. I am going to try to judge a little less and connect a little more with my children right now. The other night, I turned all the electronics off and just played cards with them on the porch. A storm was coming and it was fun to remember how much I used to love watching storms as a kid. It also helped me forget the stress of pretty much everything going on in our world right now. I don’t have all the answers to any of the bigger problems but I’ve discovered this week that redirecting and connecting made me feel better and it made my kids smile a little more, too. And that’s definitely a win.

Cards games are more fun when a storm is rolling in