Child regression: What it is and how you can support your little one

A child psychology expert explains that while regression can be frustrating, it’s common and usually short lived

UNICEF
Dr Stepanyan is playing with her 2 daughters at their house.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari
08 June 2021

If you have noticed that your child has taken a giant leap forward (like finally mastering toilet training!) only to then take a step back (refusing to use the toilet!), you are not alone. Regression is common in growing children – especially toddlers. We spoke to Nancy Close, PhD, an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and Associate Director of the Yale Program in Early Childhood Education, about what causes regression to happen and how you can help your child through it.

 

What is regression? What causes it?

“I like to pair regression with the idea of progression,” says Close. “Most children have a very strong urge to move forward in their development (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. For example, a baby learning to walk may be delighted by the new skill she has mastered, but may also realize that mom and dad are now further away or that she could fall down.

“So, when those stumbling blocks come along the progressive path of development, it can feel really overwhelming and cause some kind of regression in children,” explains Close.

 

What do regressive behaviours look like?

Regression can vary, but in general, it is acting in a younger or needier way. You may see more temper tantrums, difficulty with sleeping or eating or reverting to more immature ways of talking. If a child has achieved something like getting dressed by herself, you may see a loss of some of those skills. “All of a sudden, your child cannot do what they could do before,” explains Close.

 

When does regression happen?

You will typically see regressive behaviours in toddlers and preschoolers, but it can really happen at any age – even with infants and older children. If there is regression in an infant it might not necessarily be as evident. A baby may be a bit clingier, need to feed more, be a bit whinier or cry more often than usual.

 

Is regression common?

Rest assured, regression is common. In fact, it is to be expected and it’s very helpful to further development – think of it as your child’s way of preparing themselves for taking on more responsibility. “I see some children who may regress right before they’re about to make a big leap forward, or they regress right after they’ve made a leap forward,” says Close. “I think children vary in terms of what causes them to regress and the regressive patterns they seem to exhibit. Usually parents get to know your child’s patterns of moving forward and then needing to move backward a little bit.” Regression is also very common when children are adjusting to new situations, like becoming an older sibling or going to pre-school for the first time.

 

How can parents help support their children through regressions?

Reassure your child. Let them know that they are safe and supported. Try to show them that you notice the regressive behavior without shaming them. Close suggests trying the following: “You are learning to do so many big boy things. That is such hard work. Sometimes you feel like you need my help.”

Play can also be a helpful tool for working through difficult feelings. “Imaginative play and symbolic play are vehicles which children use to develop their language, thinking and ideas about the world. Socially and emotionally, it gives them a way to express some things they’re struggling with that they don’t necessarily have the words for,” says Close. By observing your child while they play and playing with them, you can learn a lot about what is going on with your child.

Sometimes your child may need to be regressed for a while. It’s important to be reassuring, but also to have expectations and to set limits. “Learning that they’re not the boss of the world is a big thing for toddlers! It causes a lot of tantrums,” says Close. “Do not push them away. Help them find adaptive and age-appropriate ways of expressing some of those more difficult feelings.” Sit with them, help soothe and calm them and reflect on what they are feeling. For example: “You were so mad your friend did not give you the toy and then you pushed her. Next time maybe you can ask for a turn and get your teacher to help you.”

 

When should parents be concerned?

Some regressions can last for a few weeks, but it varies from child to child. Usually, if you can pinpoint what might be going on and provide children with support, they will be able to work through it. If it seems to be lasting longer than you think it should, around two to three weeks, Close recommends reaching out to your child’s healthcare provider. “Children are so motivated to move forward in development, so if that motivation is not there then I would be worried. But mostly when it comes to developmentally appropriate regression, I think it is short lived.”


Nancy Close, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Yale Child Study Center; Associate Director of the Yale Program in Early Childhood Education; Lecturer in Psychology and the Clinical Director of the MOMS Partnership® and the Yale Parent and Family Development Program. She is a mother of two and grandmother of two.

Interview and article by Mandy Rich, Digital Content Writer, UNICEF