Jessica’s four-year-old just doesn’t seem to want to grow up. At daycare, he will go into the infant area and ask for a bottle. The other children mostly stare at him as if he is weird. At home, he tries to get Jessica to rock him to sleep at night and is practically glued to her side. Jessica only works part time and makes it a point to spend one-on-one quality time with him, but he doesn’t want to try anything new.

Have your children ever seemed to have an age regression or “act like a baby” when they are “too old”?

Teaching your children new skills at different child development stages  can be fun and exciting, as long as they seem to pick up the new skill. Otherwise, it can be very frustrating and discouraging.

Once you feel like your children are progressing in their skills or have even mastered them, it can be irritating or frustrating if they seem to have an age regression . So it’s helpful to understand why your children are regressing and how to respond helpfully,

Reasons Why Children Regress:

Regressions can be common or expected as children transition through different child development stages. That’s because they can’t just leap overnight to a new stage.

Louise Bates Ames and Francis L. Ilg, authors of the “Your [Age] Year Old” series refer to these temporary regressions as being part of the “Cycles of Equilibrium and Disequilibrium.”

  • During the disequilibrium cycle, the child is learning new skills and going through a lot of changes. This cycle can bring on regressions that can be frustrating for parents.
  • During the equilibrium cycle, the child is eager to practice new skills and seems to coast for a while after mastering them, until they are ready to move to the next developmental stage. 

In the early years, the cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium last about six months. As children age, the cycles become longer. This is consistent with the number and difficulty of the skills they are learning at these child development stages.

Understanding these cycles in your children can be beneficial and can lessen your frustration when your child seems to regress instead of progress.

Age regressions can also occur when something stressful is happening in your child’s life, such as:

  • A change in the child-care routine whether it’s a new daycare or childcare provider.
  • A new sibling.
  • A family member or the child is dealing with a major illness.
  • A recent death.
  • If the parents are fighting a lot or getting a divorce.
  • If the child is moving or has recently moved to a new area or home.

Lastly, it can be the result of peer pressure. If other children are doing it, they may pick up the behavior and think it’s fun to get the attention. 

Effective Responses to Your Child’s Regression:

After determining what might be triggering your child’s regression, choose a response or solution that addresses or resolves that core issue. One of the best ways to do that is to use the “PASRR Effective Response Formula,” which is a part of Parents’ Toolshop®’s proprietary “Universal Blueprint® For Parenting Success” system.

The beauty of the Universal Blueprint® is that you can always apply it in an individualized way, specific to that situation with that child, based on the reason the problem is happening.

So here are some suggestions for a helpful response for each reason or situation children may regress.

  1. Prevent the problem. Nudge your children into situations and avoid pushing them too far before they’re ready. If your children are told they are a “big’ boy” or “big girl” they can actually feel pressured to grow up- and most people resist pressure. If your children are hesitant and truly scared to try a new skill, you can nudge and encourage them to take next step. Read their reactions and be ready to back off a bit or slowly ease them into a new situation.
  2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Even if your child is pre-verbal, noticing and verbalizing your child’s words in a calm, reassuring tone can be extremely helpful for your child to hear. It also teaches your child feeling words. As children improve their emotional vocabulary, they will use words more often to express their feelings, instead of acting them out.  Find out what might be the reason they are regressing and address how they might feel about it. Here are some examples:
    • If you have just recently moved you may want to say to your child, “Living in a new house and a new neighborhood can be scary, huh? There are a lot of changes for you, aren’t there?”
    • If your child likes to “play baby” for fun or attention, then simply say, “It’s fun to pretend you’re a baby, huh?” This lets your child know that you understand how they feel and that it’s okay.
    • If there is a change in the child-care routine and your child regresses out of insecurity, you might say, “Does it feel strange to be around new people all day? It can take a while to get to know your teachers and the other kids. What would help you feel more comfortable?” If they are too young to answer or brainstorm ideas, you can think of some ideas to try.
    • If a new sibling has arrived, you might say, “Babies tend to get a lot of attention, don’t they? That’s because they are so helpless. Those of us who are older can help them get to know this new world. Want to help?”
    • If someone in the family is seriously ill or there has been a recent death, you might say, “This is a scary time. It’s understandable to feel worried. Does a little extra pampering help you feel stronger?”
  3. Set limits or express concerns. Some aspects of regressions can be a problem for the parent. After acknowledging your child’s feelings, and only after you’ve done that first, you can express your feelings, concerns or set some limits. Just be firm and kind about how you state your intentions. For example, when your children “play baby” allow them to, but put limits on when or how often they do it, such as only at home or at bedtime. This allows your children to “get it out of their system” so they can move on to more age-appropriate behavior.
  4. Redirect behavior. Regressions are usually unintentional misbehavior that results from a lack of internal skills. So rather than simply distracting children, which teach them to avoid their feelings and problems, help children develop the internal skills they need to move through their scary feelings and feel empowered, capable and confident.
    If your children seem to regress while learning a new skill, focus on a different skill or aspect of that skill they have already mastered or in which they can succeed. This restores their confidence, so they’ll be ready to retry the new skill or move on to new child development stages.
  5. Reveal discipline. Discipline is often misunderstood as being the same as punishment; that’s not what it really is. Discipline is simply teaching children that they have choices ad each choice may get a different outcome. Even young, pre-verbal children can learn cause and effect. So these are actions you can take that will help your children learn or practice the skills you taught in the previous steps, while being firm and loving.

Throughout the child development stages, children can experience a lot of changes all at once, which can be scary for them. That’s why each child may progress at a different rate or in a different style than other children.

Encourage your children and be patient if they do not grasp skills as quickly as you would like. Children need to progress in a new skill when they are ready, not when you are ready. It can be hard to be patient or realize you can’t control nature, but if you push too hard they may regress even more. 

For more information about child development stages or helping children work through their feelings, discover The Parent’s Toolshop®‘s unique Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system. Take the 30-Days To Parenting Success Course. You will be less frustrated, respond more calmly and feel more confident in any parenting situation.

The best part is the 30-Day Course is free!  So what are you waiting for?  Sign up for the 30-Day Course today!

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Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. Currently, she hosts the Parents Tool Talk radio show and is a parenting expert columnist for Chic Mom magazine. She has produced almost 100 multimedia resources, which are available at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.org.  

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