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Childhood Regression in Quarantine by Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

“Children don’t come with an instruction manual” makes it seem as if we brought our newborns home, then frantically began searching for the lost book of baby in our overnight bag convinced that its absence was a hospital oversight. We know they don’t come with a manual, which is what makes it so scary to be a new parent. It’s also why we are so thankful for the information on child rearing that we do find. Books, articles, blog posts, medical journals, our own mothers and friends are the resources we look to as a lifeline when we have questions about our child’s health and well being.

Sadly, there aren’t books or research studies on raising children during a global pandemic in the modern age. Our friends and parents haven’t charted a path for the world we now find ourselves in. We are the trail blazers now, and most of us have felt woefully unprepared to be such. Unprepared because we couldn’t, and still can’t, anticipate what happens from day to day and gage that against “normal.” Normal is ever shifting now.

I am not arrogant enough to tell you I have one clue what all of this means for ourselves and our children in the coming weeks and months. I can however give you insight into what we are seeing as a practice, how you can reframe some of that, and a few ideas on how to help your children (and yourself) cope with these unexpected changes.

With so many changes in your little one’s life lately you may begin to see some amount of developmental regression such as:

Potty Training Regression

Potty training is often externally motivated for young children. They choose to use the potty for reasons such as: their peers at school are using the restroom, adults they wish to please are happy with them (parents are excluded from this for various reasons), they are avoiding negative consequences of missing out on play time because they have to change, etc.

Many of these external motivators have been removed for them, and they fall back into old habits of accidents.

Try setting an hourly timer for “potty time” so they are routinely going to the restroom. Offer rewards for successfully using the restroom, and do not use anger or shame as a tactic when they have accidents. A gentle reminder that you believe in them and know that they will master this goes much further than angrily cleaning them up.

Sleep Training Regression

New routines and circumstances often lead to sleep regression. A new sibling, moving, attending a new school – these types of changes have often brought on some level of sleep regression.

The pandemic has had a huge change on their norm. Parents being home all day, lack of stimuli, and schedule changes can have a huge effect on their system. They may seek comfort from mom and dad in ways they hadn’t been before.

Disrupted sleep patterns, a desire to sleep in mom’s and dad’s bed, and difficulty getting to sleep are changes that you might expect while your little one is home in isolation.

First, take care of you. Sleep and nap when you can so that you have the energy to handle these difficulties. Go back to how you first successfully trained your little one. Maybe it is extra play time during the day, a solid unchangeable bedtime routine, and not making exceptions for sleeping in their own bed. These strategies will work again as they did before.

Emotional Regulation Changes

Tantrums may begin to reappear as well as unexplained meltdowns during this time. I know how frustrating this is, especially while you are trying to juggle working from home and your own heightened emotional state. This doesn’t make it easy to parent during isolation.

Young children have been in the midst of learning emotion regulation, and suddenly their newly implemented coping mechanisms have been shifted or removed for them. They are struggling to know how to process all of what they are feeling. Hell, I’ve been able to emotionally regulate for decades, and I still have moments I want to scream during quarantine.

Have grace with these little ones. Regulate yourself, then help them do the same. Hug them while practicing your own deep breathing, allow them to cry it out, and don’t try to change their feelings or reason with them. This moment of overwhelming emotion will pass for them, as it does for you.

Speech and Articulation Regression

Your child may experience a return to previous language patterns such as “baby talk” or poor articulation. They may appear to lose skills and words previously learned. This can be very scary for parents, as the cause of such changes can vary.

In some instances, this is due to a lack of typical stimuli they received at school or daycare. Another reason could be attention seeking.

Correct your child by using the proper term and articulation in a gentle tone. Use only the words they had already been using themselves, and don’t expect their articulation to necessarily improve beyond where they previously were during this time. If the issue persists and your concern mounts, reach out to your physician and get their input.

These regressive behaviors are most likely due to the drastic changes in your child’s routine, and no, that’s not because you have become lax with your own home routine. Everything about their lives has suddenly changed, and they have no way to understand why, nor do they realize it’s a temporary change.

The articles we write are typically inspired by a trend we begin to see in our practice. Five times this week I heard some variation of, “How bad am I messing up these kids?” You aren’t. They are struggling in their own way, much like we are as adults. Thankfully, us taller humans have the ability to articulate our concerns and work through them emotionally. Our smaller counterparts don’t, so they use whatever ways they can to process this new world. The best way you can take care of these little ones is to take care of yourself so you have the emotional bandwidth to care for them. Sometimes patience and peace feel in short supply, but remember we are a part of your village. We are here when you need an outlet!

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