Child Regression Amid The COVID-19 Crisis: When To Worry And When Not To

Kids of all ages continue to slip into old behaviors as the coronavirus pandemic slogs on. Here's what parents need to know.
Regressions may be more common during COVID-19. Here's what parents should know.
Oksana_Alex via Getty Images
Regressions may be more common during COVID-19. Here's what parents should know.

At this point in the coronavirus pandemic, there is plenty of evidence that it’s taken a toll on children’s mental health.

And one common way for children to show they’re struggling is when they regress, which generally means they slip back into old behaviors or seemingly lose skills they once had. For example: the previously solid sleeper who is now waking up whining for water every night. The school-age kiddo who is having toddler-esque tantrums again. Or the tween who’d gotten pretty adept at knocking out schoolwork, but is now unable to sit through a Zoom call.

Mental health experts who work with kids say that, anecdotally at least, all of this on the rise. So if your child is regressing during the pandemic, they’re in good company. Here’s what parents need to know.

Regressing is a defense mechanism—and in a lot of ways, it’s totally expected right now.

“It makes sense that parents are reporting these kinds of regressions right now,” said Kenya Hameed, a clinical neuropsychologist with the New York-based Child Mind Institute. “Regressions occur in response to stressors or big changes. And there’s so much uncertainty right now.”

Kids are generally extremely resilient, she added, but their routines have changed — and keep changing — which can be really challenging to cope with.

Children (and adults!) go through regressive episodes because they’re feeling anxious, unsure, and because they’re looking for a bit of reassurance and comfort. In some ways, these momentary behavioral regressions are a typical part of childhood development: Kids grow and change, they maybe get a bit rattled, and they retreat for a bit.

Other times, like during an ongoing global pandemic, regressions are a clear response to a particular stressor.

One matter to keep in mind: Many parents have spent far more time with their children during the pandemic than before, so Hameed said it’s really typical that children may be clingier or struggling more with separation anxiety — particularly younger kids. So, the kiddo who used to be pretty even-keeled about being dropped off at daycare might now be having meltdowns when you step out for an hour or two to run some errands.

“That’s normal,” she said, “and that’s to be expected.”

Regressions don’t just affect younger children.

Again, while we often think of regressions as something that mainly affect younger kids who might slip back into night waking, thumb sucking, tantrums, potty training issues, etc., experts say older children might also revert to behaviors parents haven’t seen in some time.

“Parents should ask themselves: ‘Is this behavior, or this regression, getting in the way of my child functioning normally in life?'”

- Julie Ross, Parenting Horizons

“It’s not limited to early developmental stages,” said Julie Ross, executive director of Parenting Horizons and author of “Practical Parenting for the 21st Century.” “You might have a kid who is 13, 14 coming into mom and dad’s bed every night. They’re returning to an earlier time when they felt safe in the ‘cocoon’ of mom and dad.”

If regressing interferes with their functioning, that’s a red flag.

Hameed’s general rule of thumb for when regressions are cause for concern is: “Consider the impact it is having on your child’s functioning.”

If there has been a change but it doesn’t necessarily impact a kid’s ability to get through the day as they typically would, that’s probably not something to be overly concerned with. But if it’s something that’s been going on for weeks (or longer) and that’s really getting in their way, it needs to be addressed.

For example, you might find it annoying that your toddler suddenly slips back into baby talk, but it’s not necessarily inhibiting your collective ability to get through the days, Hameed said. But if you find that suddenly you’re having to, say, spoon-feed a young child who used to be able to feed themselves, and every meal is turning into a battle, that’s different. (It’s also worth noting: We’re specifically talking about behavioral regressions here, but kids may also be regressing academically and socially during the pandemic.)

“Parents should ask themselves: ‘Is this behavior, or this regression, getting in the way of my child functioning normally in life?’ ― knowing that ‘normal’ is kind of out the window right now,” echoed Ross.

For parents of older children, it’s especially important to talk to them about the “why,” she added. Because that can help you better understand if the regressive behavior is rooted in more serious underlying anxiety, loneliness, depression, etc.

If you have concerns about how your child is regressing, you should absolutely reach out to their pediatrician ASAP. An expert can help rule out whether the behavior is actually being caused by an underlying medical concern, and can also help connect you with mental health resources. Your child’s school can be another excellent touchpoint, both Hameed and Ross said.

Boundaries are absolutely essential.

Yes, regressions are common right now. But that doesn’t mean parents should simply accept behaviors they don’t like. Both experts interviewed for this story urged parents to be patient with children, but also be clear with them about what you know they’re capable of.

Part of that is for them, and part of that is for you. Pandemic parenting is relentless and challenging in so many ways. Take care of yourself by maintaining expectations for your child’s behavior, which is really kind of a form of self-care.

“Part of slogging through this is making sure our own mental health is OK,” Ross said. “So often I hear from parents who are concerned about something their child is experiencing, and it becomes clear that the parent is at the end of their rope as well.”

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