Around the time school was canceled because of coronavirus, my 5-year-old started climbing in bed with me every night. His excuses got increasingly baroque: bad dreams, a spider, hundreds of spiders, a black hole.
He started playing “baby." He sucked on comfort blankets he had previously abandoned. Finally, he said he wanted to climb back into my tummy.
What I was witnessing was a slow-motion regression, all the way back to the womb.
Stress and anxiety can show up in all kinds of ways in children: irritability, defiance, clinginess. But one of the most common responses is regression. Sleep regression and toddler potty training regressions are common, but psychologists say all children (and adults) may regress in times of stress.
“Children who are stressed almost always regress,” said Dr. Laura Markham of AhaParenting. “Regression means that the child is not able to cope in as mature a manner as they have recently mastered, because they feel too overwhelmed.”
As the threat of coronavirus disrupts school, daycare and other activities for children, many parents are noticing a sudden resurgence of nighttime waking, tantrum-like meltdowns and potty accidents.
Some kids are clingy even if parents are always around, use more baby talk or pout and cry when they can’t have what they want. Older children and teenagers might ask for more help than usual with their homework. They may also be volatile or lash out.
“Children are seeking predictability and control in a world that feels increasingly uncertain, and they're taking that out on their parents, which is — of course — understandable, but also can be quite difficult,” said Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a psychologist and parenting coach at Little House Calls.
Here's what to do when a child regresses:
Increase "connection" time by being physically close and creating special time together. That could mean getting a child laughing, listening to her worries or snuggling.
"Kindness, love and compassion is what children need to feel secure," said Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. "It is very basic and true."
Klein suggests recognizing the child's need for extra comfort and babying them more, even rocking and singing to them as you once did.
"The number one thing that will protect children against experiencing this time as traumatic — stop their nervous systems from going into fight, flight, or freeze — is their connection to their parents or caregivers," Hershberg said. “Research bears this out again and again.”
Give extra support
It may be tempting to scold children who aren’t acting their age, but experts caution against it. Recognize the regression as a sign of stress and increase your support, even if it seems like babying them or “caving in” to childish demands.
“For example, your 6-year-old is perfectly capable of washing her hands. But the stress now associated with hand-washing becomes a stand-in for all the stress of the moment. She also knows that since hand-washing has become so important to you, you will intervene if she balks at it. She collapses, whining that she can't wash her hands,” said Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.”
“The best intervention is reassurance. ‘You are having such a hard time right now, aren't you? Don't worry, Sweetheart. I am right here to help.’ You step in, hold her kindly, make it fun, and get the hand-washing accomplished.”
That's not rewarding bad behavior, Markham said. It’s understanding your child’s way of communicating stress when she can’t quite explain it in words.
In this unpredictable time, parents should strive to create some structure to help anchor children as much as they can.
"Young children thrive on continuity and routines, doing the same thing daily, or reading the same book over and over," said Klein, author of "How Toddlers Thrive."
Creating a new "normal" will reset a child's rhythm. Klein suggested telling a basic narrative about what is going on and reminding children they are safe.
Try to create a bit of predictability, even if it's just with a daily walk or dinner routine.
Know the signs
Not all regression looks like whining or baby talk.
“Some children — especially as they get older — will act out stress by lashing out,” Markham said. “So if your child gets belligerent, remember that they are signaling you that they have some tears and fears lurking under that anger. Resist getting hooked on their rudeness. Instead, use your empathy to create emotional safety so they can show you those more tender feelings.”
“When children (and adults for that matter) are stressed, it's tremendously helpful to have them get out of their heads and into their bodies. Whether it's using GoNoodle, Cosmic Kids Yoga, or simply doing jumping jacks, movement/exercise can be very helpful,” Hershberg said.
Markham notes that engaging in messy play and getting outside also help. “Nature helps stabilize humans emotionally,” she said.
Practice self care
Children pick up on their parents’ stress, and it can make them feel unsafe. Young children might not understand what you're talking about, but that makes it even more scary, Klein noted. They absorb your emotion and tone, worry and anxiety.
"Try to be aware of your level of stress and anxiety and be kind to yourself," Klein said. "Take 15 minutes in the morning to have coffee by yourself before children wake up. Get small breaks if you have a partner to trade off with. Even a longer than usual shower can be comforting."
Perhaps most importantly, Hershberg said, “don’t panic.”
“Regressions are common, and to be expected right now," Hershberg said. "Be patient, ride it out, and it will pass.”