What are regressed behaviours and why are they normal?

Regression looks like a step or two backwards in terms of you child’s development and behaviour. This could look like a return of issues with sleeping, eating, toilet training, baby talk, hyperactivity, increased tantrums and clingy and needy behaviours.

Having phases of regressed behaviours is a completely normal part of any child’s development. Nancy Close, an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Centre at Yale School of Medicine, offers great insight by placing regression alongside progression.

“There is a natural energy in children to explore, manipulate and master their world, however, along with the excitement of being able to do new things comes stress.” (Close, 2020)

Regression can occur before a child makes a developmental leap forward or after a child has made that leap, and we can see it at any age from toddlers through to older children.

When your child has achieved a new developmental milestone, along with the celebration of their success there is also the realisation that they have become more independent, and separate from you in doing so. Independence can be unsettling, and it can be stressful to perceive the shift away from the safety, familiarity and comfort of being coddled and attended to like a small infant or toddler.

What does regression look like in the playroom?

In the world of child-centred play therapy, there are a number of stages that we see children move through in their therapeutic journey. The four common stages are the warm up stage, aggressive stage, regressive stage and mastery. Not all children will necessarily move through the regressive stage but when they do it’s helpful to know what to expect, and to know that it is an important and healing part of the process.

In our work, we see the regressive stage is particularly salient for those children that have experienced a rupture in their attachment relationship with their one or both of their primary caregivers, inconsistent caregiving or neglect at the other end of the spectrum.

For the average child though, we might see the appearance of regressed behaviours at the beginning of school, after successful toilet training, after the birth of a sibling, separation from a parent, or after an unexpected change in routine. In light of this, it’s very normal and understandable if you saw a lot of regressed behaviours in your family during our COVID lockdowns, and also now as we re-emerge into the world.

As therapists we might see the child wanting to role play being a baby or much younger child, and wanting us to take on the role of nurturer or caregiver. We might see a previously quite capable and self-sufficient child all of a sudden become much more dependent in their play and ask us to help them with tasks that we know they have accomplished successfully in the past. We might hear a child start to use baby talk, where previously they were communicating using their normal speaking voice. This stage is a phase and often precedes a significant shift, progress or learning in the child’s therapy.

How can we help our child move through this part of the process?

While this might be frustrating as a parent to see a shift backwards in behaviour, especially after all our efforts to support our kid’s development, it’s best not to communicate your frustration or make our kids feel shamed during this time.

If your child wants to engage you in a role play at home, pretending to be a baby, I invite you to play along and see if you can meet them where they’re at. They might be asking you to cradle them, rock them after bathtime, sing to them, give them more affectionate touch, let them have one of their little sister’s dummies at bedtime. See if you can meet the need for nurturing that they are expressing through this behaviour.

It might seem counter-intuitive, and some parents get concerned that they will encourage more of the same, but dismissing or denying their needs could cause them to increase the behaviours or revert to other forms of regression in order to get the particular kind of attention they are seeking.

If you can play the part in this roleplay, attune to them and acknowledge their needs, it will support them in moving through this stage more efficiently into mastery or on to the next developmental milestone.

About the author – Sophie Vapp

Sophie Vapp is a counsellor and play therapist. She values building supportive therapeutic relationships with both children and their parents/carers, and creating healing so that family units can thrive. Sophie uses a warm empathic approach to accept children exactly as they are, supporting the growth of their self-esteem, confidence, self-efficacy, and their ability to self-regulate and build positive relationships. Sophie has experience supporting children and families who are neuro-diverse, non-verbal as well as those who have experienced challenges such as family separation, bullying, eating disorders, social difficulties, grief and loss, anxiety, family violence, sibling rivalry, relational trauma and disrupted attachment. Learn more about Sophie here.

References:

Gurney, L. (2011). Child-centered play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 10(2), 13 – 31. DOI:10.1037/h0089477

Rich, M. (200?). Child regression: What it is and how you can support your little one. Unicef. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-development/what-is-childhood-regression#:~:text=Regression%20can%20vary%2C%20but%20in,of%20some%20of%20those%20skills

Close, N. (2020). Handling Regression During COVID-19. Yale School of Medicine.

https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/handling-regression-during-covid-19/

 

What are regressed behaviours and why are they normal?

Regression looks like a step or two backwards in terms of you child’s development and behaviour. This could look like a return of issues with sleeping, eating, toilet training, baby talk, hyperactivity, increased tantrums and clingy and needy behaviours.

Having phases of regressed behaviours is a completely normal part of any child’s development. Nancy Close, an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Centre at Yale School of Medicine, offers great insight by placing regression alongside progression.

“There is a natural energy in children to explore, manipulate and master their world, however, along with the excitement of being able to do new things comes stress.” (Close, 2020)

Regression can occur before a child makes a developmental leap forward or after a child has made that leap, and we can see it at any age from toddlers through to older children.

When your child has achieved a new developmental milestone, along with the celebration of their success there is also the realisation that they have become more independent, and separate from you in doing so. Independence can be unsettling, and it can be stressful to perceive the shift away from the safety, familiarity and comfort of being coddled and attended to like a small infant or toddler.

What does regression look like in the playroom?

In the world of child-centred play therapy, there are a number of stages that we see children move through in their therapeutic journey. The four common stages are the warm up stage, aggressive stage, regressive stage and mastery. Not all children will necessarily move through the regressive stage but when they do it’s helpful to know what to expect, and to know that it is an important and healing part of the process.

In our work, we see the regressive stage is particularly salient for those children that have experienced a rupture in their attachment relationship with their one or both of their primary caregivers, inconsistent caregiving or neglect at the other end of the spectrum.

For the average child though, we might see the appearance of regressed behaviours at the beginning of school, after successful toilet training, after the birth of a sibling, separation from a parent, or after an unexpected change in routine. In light of this, it’s very normal and understandable if you saw a lot of regressed behaviours in your family during our COVID lockdowns, and also now as we re-emerge into the world.

As therapists we might see the child wanting to role play being a baby or much younger child, and wanting us to take on the role of nurturer or caregiver. We might see a previously quite capable and self-sufficient child all of a sudden become much more dependent in their play and ask us to help them with tasks that we know they have accomplished successfully in the past. We might hear a child start to use baby talk, where previously they were communicating using their normal speaking voice. This stage is a phase and often precedes a significant shift, progress or learning in the child’s therapy.

How can we help our child move through this part of the process?

While this might be frustrating as a parent to see a shift backwards in behaviour, especially after all our efforts to support our kid’s development, it’s best not to communicate your frustration or make our kids feel shamed during this time.

If your child wants to engage you in a role play at home, pretending to be a baby, I invite you to play along and see if you can meet them where they’re at. They might be asking you to cradle them, rock them after bathtime, sing to them, give them more affectionate touch, let them have one of their little sister’s dummies at bedtime. See if you can meet the need for nurturing that they are expressing through this behaviour.

It might seem counter-intuitive, and some parents get concerned that they will encourage more of the same, but dismissing or denying their needs could cause them to increase the behaviours or revert to other forms of regression in order to get the particular kind of attention they are seeking.

If you can play the part in this roleplay, attune to them and acknowledge their needs, it will support them in moving through this stage more efficiently into mastery or on to the next developmental milestone.

About the author – Sophie Vapp

Sophie Vapp is a counsellor and play therapist. She values building supportive therapeutic relationships with both children and their parents/carers, and creating healing so that family units can thrive. Sophie uses a warm empathic approach to accept children exactly as they are, supporting the growth of their self-esteem, confidence, self-efficacy, and their ability to self-regulate and build positive relationships. Sophie has experience supporting children and families who are neuro-diverse, non-verbal as well as those who have experienced challenges such as family separation, bullying, eating disorders, social difficulties, grief and loss, anxiety, family violence, sibling rivalry, relational trauma and disrupted attachment. Learn more about Sophie here.

 

References:

Gurney, L. (2011). Child-centered play therapy. International Journal of Play Therapy, 10(2), 13 – 31. DOI:10.1037/h0089477

Rich, M. (200?). Child regression: What it is and how you can support your little one. Unicef. https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-development/what-is-childhood-regression#:~:text=Regression%20can%20vary%2C%20but%20in,of%20some%20of%20those%20skills

Close, N. (2020). Handling Regression During COVID-19. Yale School of Medicine.

https://medicine.yale.edu/news-article/handling-regression-during-covid-19/

 

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