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When children regress

Its amazing. Your child is becoming more responsible, mature, following instructions faster and is blossom before your eyes. You're bragging to friends and family about how smooth things have been in your household and that everything is just going so well.

Then, out of nowhere, some one turns back the clock and you have a baby on your hands again. You're hit with waves of whining, crying, screaming, and even wanting to be held all of the time. Your once independent child is now insistent on you dressing him and has suddenly forgotten which shoe goes on which foot. They begin to thumb suck, want to sleep in your bed, and wont leave your side.

And the baby talk.

One of the most common behavioral shifts during a regressive period for a child. They begin to leave out words in sentences, make their voice higher pitched, and seem unable to communicate any desire in a sensible way.

When working with parents, they often share that baby talk is not something they know how to manage. Mainly, it comes from a concern with how the public will view the child and share that they feel embarrassed with how their child is acting. Caregivers are often mystified why their child has been regressing and even more frustrated that their once clear communicator is babbling like a two year old again.

Reasons why children regress and what to do about it

1. One of the most common reasons why a child regresses is a new sibling. Kids LOVE attention and when they see that a new baby is in the picture, they try just about anything to regain that #1 spot back in a parents eye. Their feelings are out of whack and they see that a new baby gets plenty of attention when they cry, roll over, throw food on the ground, or need a new diaper. So obviously your 5 year old is going to start doing those same things to try to get the same response from you! If its working for baby, it should work for him, right??

Many parents natural response is to try to shut that behavior down as quickly as possible. They say things like:

"You're a big boy, not a baby"

"You know better than to do that"

"That's for babies"

They are well intentioned comments coming from a place of guidance, however, they often are laced with shame which the child picks up on without fail. It frequently leads to anger and upset from the child and can drive resentment between the siblings. Plus it will most likely continue to happen despite what the parent says. Kids are fun.

What do you do then? The best bet is to provide an outlet for the behavior within some framework of limitations that fit for you. When our son began to baby talk after our daughter was born, I allowed him to do it within the confines of our home but not out in public. He could pretend to be a baby as much as he wanted while we were home including wearing onesies, pretending to get a diaper change (he was fully potty trained), get swaddled like a "burrito baby" as he put it, and even put a paci in his mouth. But as soon as we stepped out of the door, he had to be is 3 year old self. This worked well because I allowed him to get any needs met that he was trying to express while still fitting within my boundaries of not wanting deal with two babies in public. Find where your limit of comfort is and create a space for it.

Another sure bet is making 1:1 time with your child away from the other sibling. Everyone likes to feel special and have full undivided attention, including kids. You can take him/her to the movies, on a bike ride, or play a game. As long as it is peaking their interest and carving out quality time, they are less likely to try to gain your attention in other ways. Here are some sure fire ways to bond with your child (clink each item to see link):

Play the original way or write question prompts on each block for conversation starters

Fun and easy for any age and developmental level. Use inside or outside. Great way to chat about any topic while playing

Let the child lead while you build and create together

Have a kiddo who loves to learn and experiment? Choose a page in the book and let the exploration begin

2. Another reason children can regress is a new stressor. This can be as obvious to adults such as:


Death of a loved one

Parental incarceration or deportation

Or less obvious ones such as:

Abuse (when the parent is unaware)

A move (new school/home) even if its for good reasons

Parent job or work schedule change

Any changes that affect a caregiver will indirectly affect the child. Many parents believe that when there are positive changes, only positive feelings should arise. I have worked with parents who got a new job that increased their earnings significantly. They were happy about it and saw the positive financial implications that they would provide for their family. While they were not wrong, they were confused as to why their child was suddenly more clingy and began to want to sleep with them at night. Even though this was a change for the better financially, the child only saw that the parent was going to work earlier (longer commute) and mentally more distracted due to adjusting to new work demands. The child felt the change and reacted to need to connect more.

When the new stressor has to do with big shifts such as a divorce or abuse, professionals should be involved. Of course maintaining connection and stability for the child is key, there are way more layers and support that will need to be provided and built into the family. Seeking therapy, mediators, and other support groups to best fit the interests of the family is the strongest way to help the child feel more secure and decrease regressive behaviors.

I have provided an in depth book list here to help support kids during many of these stressors and life events.

Check it out.

3. Finally, children may regress due to feelings of insecurity. No matter how mature, responsible, self assured, or confident your child may seem, there are insecurities inside. No matter how present you are, stable your home is, or strong your support system is, kids will still feel shakey from time to time.

These insecurities can vary from their own personal thoughts and feelings about themselves, to external ones such as peer responses and perception of their environment. I have worked with kids in therapy who have expressed time and time again of their worries about their parents financial, housing, or mental health situation. They have shared concerns about the sadness of a parent because they overheard a parent discussing checks that have been short or unexpected bills that arrived. They have felt their peers have been less inclusive recently and interpret it as their fault.

In turn, behaviors that you once thought were washed away with age, begin to resurface. You child may become more whiny or even start to wet the bed. You may be confused, sad, and unsure what to do.

No mater the behavior or what your child is exhibiting, the first step is to try to open lines of communication up with them. This must be done in a non judgemental way that provides an opening for the child to talk. It can be easy to want to negate what they are saying immediately ("Your friends love you!", or "don't be silly, we are fine financially"). It is hard to sit with kids emotions and we as parents want to fix everything so they are happy and well. Just wait to make it all better, no matter how hard it is, and let them share their feelings while you empathetically reflect what they say.

By providing a place for them to express and process what is going on, they are better able to name everything and shift their brain from an emotional thought process to a more logical process.

That is when you can provide all of your truth, logic, fix its, and more rational thinking for them. This is when you pour your love and share how strong and capable they are, that they are an amazing friend and people are lucky to know them, that no matter what financial situation your family is in you will always make sure they are safe and taken care of.

Regression can be irritating. It can slow us down. It often makes no sense.

Remember, behavior equals a need trying to be communicated.

When your kiddo is presenting differently than they typically do, they are speaking to you and need help. Try to decipher what they are communicating and choose the best rout to get their needs met.

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