Don't Worry If Your Child Is Regressing Right Now -- It's Normal

Your Child May Be Acting Out Lately — You’re Not Alone

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Scary Mommy and Yasser Chalid/Getty

Life changed practically overnight when COVID-19 took over. Our kids have felt this dramatic shift as much as any of us. In so many ways, their lives have turned totally upside down. Their schools were shut down, friends taken away. Some of their closest family members can now only be seen via FaceTime or at a safe distance of six feet away. Depending on their age, they might not know what any of this means. Which, if you haven’t already witnessed for yourself, can often lead to them viewing their parents as the “bad guys” in this whole crappy situation.

Just like adults, our kids’ “normal” has been disrupted immensely. Unlike adults, however, it’s been done so in a way that allows little to no control over their current situation. For some kids, navigating this “new normal” is causing them to cope in ways that we, as parents, view as regressive.

Take my son, for example. When my five-year-old son was a little younger, to say he struggled with the big world around him would be a major understatement. Loud noises sent him over the edge, groups of people made him want to curl up in a ball, and overstimulation triggered his body to stress out in visible ways. Over the years, we’ve been able to work through these tantrums, full-out kicking and screaming episodes, and sensory aversions.

Up until recently, these occurrences had been minimal… nearly nonexistent, really. But with life as we know it having been so altered lately, I’m witnessing a side to my son that I had thought was long gone. Just last week, our family went for a walk and he cried the entire time. The. Entire. Time. Not just sniffles and small tears, either. I’m talking all-out wails and sobs — the same wails and sobs I used to see daily but rarely catch a glimpse of anymore.

Like all kids right now, he’s been through a lot of heavy life changes, ones which have left him feeling overwhelmed. I can’t blame him for these emotions when, on the inside, I find myself inwardly mirroring the exact emotions he is outwardly displaying. Even if I were to go blue in the face trying to explain the extent of what is happening in this world, he is far too young to fully recognize the seriousness of this pandemic, and sadly, I can’t do anything about that.

He knows that there is a “sickness” spreading around, but he doesn’t understand why he can’t play at the park. He can’t fully grasp why he can’t spend the night with Granny, or get too close to another child on our routine walks. He doesn’t have the mental capacity to process this trauma at the same level I do as an adult, and even I am struggling.

With all of this uncertainty surrounding every one of us, our children may be coping through the default behaviors which have helped them in past situations. They are running on instinct. And though guiding them through these changes can be exhausting as a parent, we all need to keep in mind that all of it — every kick, scream, tantrum, hurtful word, or thumb-sucking-incident — is so incredibly normal.

“In general, we are all going to regress a little in our functioning during this time of major transition,” psychotherapist Noel McDermott tells HuffPost. “Children are going to regress more than adults, and the younger the child, the more the regression is likely to be.”

Even adults are expected to regress right now. So if we are experiencing regression as a direct result of our current situation as a grown human being, then tell me…. shouldn’t we anticipate that same level of response (if not more) from our children? Our kids are not more mentally mature than we are, and yet, they are riding this storm with us. They sit in a different boat, no doubt; but that doesn’t make their experiences “less than.”

It's Normal If Your Child Is Regressing Right Now
Przemek Klos/Reshot

These setbacks might not be purely emotionally-based like my son’s are either. According to The New York Times, it’s normal for kids to be regressing when it comes to milestones they seemed to have mastered, such as potty-training, sleeping through the night, or breaking free of the clingy-stage. Your grade school-aged child may act like a preschooler, your preschooler may act like a toddler, and your toddler may act like a baby. And for right now, that’s okay.

Knowing all of that, it’s also important to understand that sometimes these changes may not even have anything to do with the extra stressors brought on by the coronavirus. It could be that parents are more alert to behavioral changes and milestone setbacks because of the extra time being spent together, particularly when there is more of an involvement in a child’s education than normal.

Sally Beville Hunter, Ph.D. and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, tells The New York Times that adults learn on a “little by little” basis, picking up information as we go along the way. For children, however, “learning is not linear. It’s in spurts,” she says.

I suspect that the varying mental and emotional effects from this pandemic will all come down to a person’s perspective. If our kids don’t have the life experiences to mark the severity of this pandemic on a scale, it’s only natural that they would act out in ways that resemble their entire life falling apart. Because to them, their entire life is falling apart.

This pandemic is not a vacation for these kids. Their schedule has been thrown out the window, their parents may be without jobs. Or who knows, maybe they really just miss being able to see their Nana. Whatever their troubles, the point is that our kids are hurting, and their pain is relevant too. In the same way parents need compassion and understanding in this very moment, our kids do too.

“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,” Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, clinical psychologist and parenting coach at Little House Calls, tells TODAY.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trauma to us all, so it’s only natural that our kids would have a strong reaction to that trauma. Our job as parents is to comfort and guide them through that regressive behavior, not scold them for how they cope.