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Children Regressing During Quarantine Is An Expected Reaction, Experts Say

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Has your big kid suddenly started throwing temper tantrums that rival their toddler days? Does your preschooler constantly babble in a baby voice that you haven't heard them use in years? The world is completely upside down right now, and children regressing during quarantine can absolutely happen.

Drew A. Pate, M.D., chief of psychiatry at LifeBridge Health in Maryland, tells Romper, "It is not uncommon for children who were experiencing stress or frustration to exhibit regressive behavior." Pate explains that regression can happen as a normal part of childhood development where a child experiences "a temporary loss of recently acquired or established developmental milestones."

When a child exhibits a behavior they have already grown out of — such as thumb-sucking or whining — what you see is a natural response to the massive amounts of uncertainty swirling all around them.

"Regression is an unconscious defense mechanism caused by stress, frustration, and/or a traumatic event," Linda Snell, a therapist at New Method Wellness, tells Romper. "Children usually manifest regressive behavior to communicate their distress, especially if they are unable to articulate what they are feeling because they do not understand what is happening or because they are experiencing uncertainty. Regression is a way for children to express that the are feeling insecure, angry, or scared, but lack the communication skills to share and/or understand these feelings."

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Their normal routines have been replaced with what feels like endless days staring at the same walls hour after hour. Sure, your kids might have schoolwork to do, can have Zoom calls with their friends, and can play outside in the yard, but their lives are drastically different than just a month or so ago. This type of radical change might result in behaviors that are more along the lines of where they were development-wise several years ago as a cry for help.

"Regression is a child’s way of saying, 'I’m in distress,'" Snell tells Romper. "Parents and other caregivers need to spend time with the child demonstrating extra love and attention. The child needs to feel heard, even though they are not verbalizing their distress."

Helping your child feel heard is easier said than done when emotions are on high alert thanks to fears over contracting coronavirus, uncertainty about schoolwork, financial stress for parents, being away from extended family and friends, and a myriad of other unknowns. But Pate explains that it is crucial for parents to help children cope.

"As parents, our most important role is to understand and acknowledge the stress that our children are experiencing and allow them, through play or discussion, to express themselves and their perspectives on the stress," Pate tells Romper.

Aside from your kiddo being out of sorts, you might also be feeling an onslaught of overwhelm during this time of uncertainty. It's important to take care of your own emotional needs so that you can better handle your child's regression behaviors. If you're frustrated by their actions, that's pretty normal, but experts say staying calm and reassuring can best address their behaviors.

"It is important that parents model healthy coping skills and be patient with kids (and themselves) right now as everyone tries to cope with these new challenges," Lauren Clary, Ph.D., psychologist and director of Endocrine and Diabetes Clinical Psychology Services at Children’s National Hospital, tells Romper.

Clary encourages parents to — in addition to validating their child's feelings — limit media intake, maintain a routine, and help a child focus on something they can control, such as an activity like drawing or walking outdoors. Consistent exercise and movement can also be helpful. Clary says providing positive feedback for desirable behaviors is another helpful tactic to address regressive behavior "as opposed to punishing or scolding, which may intensify strong emotions."

Like any behavioral health issue, sometimes professional help is necessary to assist parents and kids to get back on track. "If behavioral or emotional problems do persist or intensify, it is important to seek support from professionals such as a pediatrician or mental health professional," Clary tells Romper. "Many are able to offer telehealth support at this time."

Experts:

Drew A. Pate, M.D., chief ofpsychiatry at Lifebridge Health in Maryland

Linda Snell, a therapist at New Method Wellness

Lauren Clary, Ph.D., psychologist and director of Endocrine and Diabetes Clinical Psychology Services at Children’s National Hospital