Why do some kids regress in times of crisis?

By Robert McKenzie, Youthrive Psychologist

Have you noticed your child taking steps backwards in their development during COVID-19? Maybe there’s more moodiness, baby talk, potty accidents or sleep disruption than usual.

Know that regression is temporary, and common in times of stress.

What is regression?

Regression refers to when a child displays a behaviour that is developmentally younger than they are. Typically the child will have already grown out of this behaviour, such as thumb sucking.


In what ways might kids regress during times of stress?

Parents could see a general increase in physical, emotional, and behavioural difficulties. For example, an increase in general anxiety levels and possible safety or health concerns, clinginess or separation anxiety in younger children, an increase in attention seeking, increase in irritability, sibling rivalry such as arguments and fighting, and tantrums or meltdowns.


Responding to regression

Children are aware at varying levels that something negative is happening and are responding to this stress. Children are often sensitive to changes in their parents or peers behaviour and emotions, and will mirror this. There is a degree of emotional contagion, where people’s emotions impact and influence the people around them.

What to do:

  1. Do not shame your child for acting ‘like a baby’
  2. Validate your child’s experience
  3. Model calm behaviour
  4. Try to keep perspective
  5. Provide reassurance and warmth to ensure children feel safe
  6. Keep children occupied
  7. Set up structure and daily routines
  8. Spend quality family time with children
  9. Encourage some physical activity and getting outside
  10. Limit exposure to news or distressing content

Parents should, for the most part, stick to normal routines and continue with normal developmental activities, such as toilet training. However, it’s important that parents be mindful of their expectations and don’t place any undue pressure on the child.


What impact is COVID-19 having on kids’ mental health?

Behaving developmentally younger than they are can be a warning sign for parent’s that children are feeling distressed.

It’s important that parents look out for and protect children’s mental health during these tough times. Disruption of normal routines, increased uncertainty, restrictions on normal activities, a degree of social isolation from extended family and friends, and a general undercurrent of stress impacting on parents and carers behaviour can all impact how children are currently coping.