Help Stop Your Kids From Regressing Milestones During the Pandemic

Mother and daughter playing on bedroom floor

Maybe your potty-trained 3-year-old suddenly won't use the potty. Or your 5-year-old won't sleep through the night. Or your previously independent tween has to be right next to you, at all times. As if things weren't unpredictable enough in a worldwide pandemic, now it feels like your child might be regressing.

"The pandemic is a highly stressful event that reverberates across every aspect of our lives," says Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., professor of family science and child development at the University of Minnesota. "And this is exactly what happens to kids when they are stressed and distressed: they regress."

So, what can you do to help prevent regressive behaviors or head off what you think you might already be seeing in your own family?

Talk to Your Child About Their Feelings

Conversations are really important, says Dr. Gewirtz, who authored When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids. Kids may regress, she says, in order to feel a sense of comfort. "You'll go back to that age where you didn't know the scary thing," explains Dr. Gewirtz.

In the meantime, parents may worry that by talking about something scary, the child will get more upset. "I think that is a huge misconception," she says. "When we don't talk about it, our kids collude in that." Then the child avoids conversations about what's upsetting them, because they think they will upset their parents. In reality, talking about the scary thing can make it less overwhelming, reducing the stress and its effect on children.

But take time to compose the right words. Think about what you're going to talk about and what you're willing to share beforehand, says Dr. Gewirtz. If you're not prepared to discuss your child's worries immediately when they bring them up—maybe your daughter tells you she's worried about grandma getting sick, for example—it's OK to pause and get a glass of water to collect yourself before talking.

Be honest and don't let your own worries get in the way. Also try and understand where your children are developmentally, says Dr. Gewirtz, "so that you can pitch what you're saying to their level of understanding."

Validate Your Child\’s Emotions

Your child is coping the very best that they can under the circumstances, so it's important for parents to keep that context in mind and maintain compassion for their children and themselves, says Laura C. Kauffman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Menlo Park, California, with expertise in parenting and educational issues for kids and teens. Parents may interpret their child's regression as willful disobedience, when "their child just needs additional support and coping tools to manage the challenges of this time."

That's why it's important to validate their worries and let them know what they are feeling is totally OK. Maybe your child comes into your room at night saying they can't sleep because they've had a nightmare. Dr. Gewirtz recommends parents say something like, "I remember when I was a kid, I used to have nightmares and I would be terrified." This also helps children identify their emotions and helps them feel less alone.

Stick with Structure

Many families were thrown into a new daily routine—or lack of one— because of the pandemic. Dr. Kauffman says it's important to return to a parenting basic: structure. "The sudden and dramatic shift in routine and anchoring of typical family activities and values was incredibly disorienting for many children," she says. It's similar to the arrival of a new baby at home, which can cause regression in developmental milestones because of "substantial change in routine, disappointment, and loss around a previous way of life," says Dr. Kauffman. That "mirrors the experience of school closings, a pause in extracurricular activities, and a change in their parents' attention."

Focus on things like maintaining regular bedtimes and routines. Parents should also be thoughtful about their values and goals around screen time and clearly communicate them, and if children are old enough for chores, parents could enlist their help around the house.

Keep in mind, structure is especially necessary for children entering a new school year. "It is critical that parents explain what the plan and structure will be as children return to whatever version of school and activities they have available to them in the fall," advises Dr. Kauffman.

Don\’t Be Pushy

It's best not to force kids to abandon a regressive behavior, especially since anxiety can contribute to regression. Instead, parents should find ways to encourage kids through their fears.

For example, if your child is having nightmares and/or coming into your room at night, you can talk during the day when things are more relaxed. "Remind them how you all used to sleep better before and ask them how you can help them reduce worries and nightmares, and also stay in their bed," says Dr. Gewirtz. "That'll be a brainstorming conversation with ideas from them and you, resulting in a plan of action."

The plan could include relaxing pre-bed rituals, like reading stories, as well as rewards for staying in bed in the form of extra reading time. "That way," she says, "you are shining the light on what you want to grow, rather than focusing all your attention on the avoidance or regressive behaviors."

Seek Outside Help When Needed

Mostly, regressive behaviors can be typical for children under stress, but if your child's symptoms are disrupting their—or your—everyday life for a period of time, outside help might be needed. Parents can reach out to a mental health professional/therapist, such as a child psychologist, social worker, family therapist, or even a behavioral pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychiatric nurse practitioner. “Some kids, especially those exhibiting transient anxiety, can really benefit from a 'go-to' person in school, such as a guidance counselor or social worker,” adds Dr. Gewirtz.

Just don't be too hard on yourself. Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined the phrase "good enough mother," something Dr. Gewirtz says is important to think about. "Let's just try and be good enough parents. And let's give ourselves a little bit of slack in these days where parents are expected to be workers, parents, and teachers, all in one shift."

And the good news is that you can expect things to get better. "Kids are remarkably resilient, and we adults are pretty adaptable, too," says Dr. Gewirtz.

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