July 19, 2019

Understanding Childhood Regression

“Let’s start with a quiz. Which of the following is an example of childhood regression?

a. When your kid starts calling for you at night after not doing it for eight months

b. When your kid starts having bathroom accidents after being fully potty-trained

c. When your kid clings to you at day care drop-off even though last week was fine

d. All of the above

The correct answer is, of course, d. And in case you were wondering, all these things have happened to me (multiple times). Still, every single time my kids start regressing — doing things that I really thought they had moved past developmentally — I wonder what the heck is happening, why this bewildering behavior is coming back, and what to do about it. Luckily, after calling some child development experts, I now have some answers.

Why childhood regressions happen

Although extreme regressions — such as suddenly being unable to talk or walk — can be signs of a neurological or developmental problem, mild behavioral regressions in kids are totally normal; and they can happen at any age. According to a study published in the journal The Primary Care Companion for C.N.S. Disorders, Sigmund Freud defined regression around the early 1900s as “an unconscious defense mechanism” that “causes the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development.”

But what triggers it? According to Dr. Tovah Klein, Ph.D., a child psychologist and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, children may regress when they encounter something stressful or new — a transition or routine change, perhaps. When my then 3-year-old daughter started at a new preschool, she woke up screaming for me every night for weeks and was suddenly terrified of the dark. Each time we travel as a family and our daily routine gets upended, my 8-year-old son’s tolerance for frustration drops, and he starts having epic meltdowns.”

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