Childhood regression during the pandemic: What to watch for and how you can help

Virus Outbreak Child Care
Posted at 6:47 AM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-24 06:52:25-04

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. (WXYZ) — Are you noticing a lull, or even a step backward, in your child's development?

Are things that used to be part of their daily routine like using the bathroom or bedtime becoming more of a challenge?

It could be childhood regression; a normal process but one that experts are seeing more of right now, including in metro Detroit.

Given the immense and sudden changes the pandemic has thrown at kids, a spike in cases of regression shouldn't come as a major shock according to pediatric psychotherapist at Henry Ford Health System, Kelly Melistas.

For the Beyer family from Rochester Hills, this process looks like their son, 4-year-old Henry, taking a step back from his potty-training progress.

“He went from consistently using the potty-training toilet to not at all. Throwing tantrums," dad Wyatt Beyer told Action News.

It started in the winter, Wyatt said, about six months after Henry had learned to use the bathroom on his own.

“It’s an issue to get him to use a public toilet to the point where we have to cut activities outside short and maybe either run home or figure out something else," Wyatt said.

Melistas explained that regression occurs when things a child has previously mastered become difficult again. This can be potty-training, or using full sentences. For example, if a child reverted back to baby talk.

Things to watch for according to Melistas include if the regression impacts a child's ability to function day-to-day, causes them distress, or leads to significant behavioral changes.

Some regression she points out is absolutely normal, and generally children work through it on their own.

“It could be a child who was feeding themselves and now expects mom and dad to kind of spoon feed them," she said. “Kids who were able to go to bed by themselves at night and put themselves to bed and now all of a sudden they’re needing mom and dad to lay down with them or even winding up in mom and dad’s bed in the middle of the night.”

Melistas is seeing more cases of regression right now, due at least in some part she said to the stress and changes brought on by the pandemic.

“I think my youngest right now that I am seeing it in is probably 3. And we’re seeing this well into our young adult population. This is really concerning to parents, especially when they’re seeing it in the 8, 9, 10, 11 year-old kids," Melistas told Action News.

In Henry's case, his father Wyatt thinks spending too much time cooped up over the past year and a half may have contributed, or the fact that during the pandemic Henry switched daycare centers four times. However Wyatt said he and his wife aren't overly concerned, they're just keeping an eye on Henry's progress.

If you're noticing signs of regression in your child, Melistas suggests starting a lighthearted, age-appropriate conversation with your child. Allow them to do the talking, and tell them they're not alone by reminding them it's been a hectic year and a half for everyone. You can start by sharing with your child how the pandemic has impacted you.

Another suggestion Melistas shared is allowing your child to make some choices so they feel more in control, even if it's a small choice like selecting what the family eats for dinner one night, or choosing their outfit for the day. And always, Melistas said, keep the conversation focused on the positive.

So how long can regressive behaviors last?

“Sometimes it can take weeks, sometimes it can take months depending on the level of stress," she said. "These kids have been put under an immense amount of stress in a short amount of time.”