If your kids are regressing, it’s normal

A pediatrician weighs in on why and what to do.

regression in children during pandemic

Are you noticing that everyone seems to have taken two steps back? Your baby used to sleep through the night, your preschooler used to be potty trained, your grade-schooler used to be less sassy, you used to get along with your spouse...but enter COVID-19, and all that seems to have changed. At least for now.

What's going on? Why do kids and adults regress during times of stress? Perhaps we are subconsciously asking to be cared for in a way. It's like wanting to wrap up in a blanket, huddled in the fetal position.

Regression is common in children during the coronavirus pandemic—and in a way, to be expected. Here's what to do about it.

Maturity requires increased inward "management" by the frontal cortex to ensure our behaviors comply with societal expectations and what we already know. During times of stress, all this goes out the window and we start acting more by instinct. This process can be physiologically explained in terms of blood flow changes in the brain during stress response system activation, but also, regressive behavior "works"—it serves an important purpose.

Even though regressive behaviors can be problematic—especially during a pandemic when our emotional resources as parents are already stretched thin—our subconscious has its own wisdom. Our kids whine or cry, our teenager throws a tantrum, our potty-trained child has an accident and we pay attention. This is partly what our kids are asking for right now.

But our kids don't just need our attention. Your child's inward emotions are asking for their attention, and need to be addressed.

So what do we do?

First of all, know this is temporary. And common.

Also, consider the following suggestions for how to respond when your child is showing regressive behavior during the pandemic—like moodiness, baby talk, potty accidents or sleep disruption:

Respond to emotions, not behavior.

Look for the message behind the emotion or the behavior and respond to that. For example, if your child has started wetting the bed again, sit down with them and say something like this: "I noticed you haven't been dry the past couple nights even though it's something you are really good at. It's okay. Sometimes this happens when there's extra stress hanging around, like there is with this pandemic. What are some things you're worried about right now?"

Teach your kids (and keep in mind yourself) that emotions are messages. If we can acknowledge our feelings with kindness and non-judgment, we can get to the root of what's needed and solve what needs to be solved.

Communicate with your kids.

Ask them what they know about coronavirus and what they want to know about it. Ask them what they're specifically worried about. Share information and news in a developmentally appropriate way.

Support your child + take time to connect with them in a meaningful way.

According to a large study about toxic stress in childhood, the most powerful buffer that improved physical and emotional health outcomes for kids was the presence of a supportive, caring adult. Even though it may feel that options for outings are limited, sharing the time is more important than the specifics of the activity. While maintaining social distancing recommendations, take a walk, have a patio picnic, watch a movie together.

Allow yourself to have boundaries, too.

Just because your child is stressed, doesn't mean you have to let them sleep in your bed every night if you don't want to. Meet your children's needs in ways that honor your own.

As parents we often find ourselves making accommodations based on our children's needs—this is part of parenthood. But when those accommodations cross important personal lines (which are individual to each parent), the cost outweighs the benefit, and stress is added, rather than removed. Pay attention to your own inward responses. If an important boundary has been crossed you may need to be creative about seeking solutions that meet your child's needs as well as your own—doing bedtime in a different way that encourages your child to sleep in their own room, for example.

Try yoga. Really.

Experts, such as psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, have taught us that we hold stress in our bodies, not just our minds. This is especially true for kids, who have a less sophisticated ability to communicate complex emotions through words. Yoga can transition us from one emotional state to another through physical movement. Certain poses evoke a sense of calm, like mountain pose or tree pose, while others evoke a sense of power, such as the warrior one and warrior two poses.

Learn + practice mindful self-compassion.

I teach my clients to use the reflective "NMLK" exercise. The acronym comes from a reflected segment of the alphabet. N is for "notice" the emotion, M is for "make room" for it, L is for "locate" the feeling in your body and "look deeper" to gain insight about it, and K is for respond with "kindness." Dr. Tara Brach teaches a similar practice but uses the acronym "RAIN."

Parents, keep up the great work. You have the hardest but most amazing job on the planet. This too shall pass!

My village lives far away—but my Target baby registry helped them support me from afar

Virtual support was the next best thing to in-person hugs

They say you shouldn't make too many major life transitions at once. But when I was becoming a mama for the first time nearly five years ago, my husband and I also moved to a new town where we didn't know a soul, bought our first house and changed jobs.

To put it mildly, we didn't heed that advice. Luckily, our family and friends still made it feel like such a magical time for us by supporting our every move (literal and otherwise) from afar. They showered us with love through a virtual baby shower (expectant parents nowadays can relate!) featuring the unwrapping of gifts they were able to ship straight to me from my Target registry.

Here's one piece of advice I did take: I registered at Target so I could take advantage of the retailer's benefits for registrants, which include a welcome kit valued over $100, a universal registry function and more. Fast-forward a few years and Target has made the registration perks even better for expectant parents: As of August 2020, they've added a Year of Exclusive Deals, which gives users who also sign up for Target Circle a full year of savings after baby is born on all those new mama essentials, from formula to diapers and beyond.

Honestly, even without the significant perks of a free welcome kit with more than $100 in coupons, additional 15% off coupons to complete the registry and a full year of free returns, registering at Target wasn't a hard sell for me: Even though the experience of shopping for baby items was new, shopping with Target felt like returning home to me… and the comfort of that was such a gift.

And of course, Target's registry plays a vital role right now, as expectant parents everywhere are being forced to cancel in-person baby showers and navigate early parenthood without the help of a hands-on village. A registry like this represents a safe way for communities to come through for new parents. If you're anything like me (or any of the other mamas here at Motherly), you certainly have emotional ties and fond memories associated with Target.

What to register for at Target was also an easy talking point as I began to connect with moms in my new community. I will always remember going on a registry-building spree with my next door neighbor, who had young children of her own. As we walked the aisles of Target back in 2015, she suggested items to add… and we laid the foundation for what has since become one of my most cherished friendships.

Even as I made connections in my new hometown, I was nervous that expecting my first baby wouldn't feel as special as if I were near family and friends. But my loved ones exceeded all expectations by adding the most thoughtful notes to gifts. They hosted a beautiful virtual baby shower and even encouraged me to keep the registry going after my baby made his debut and new needs arose.

In the years since, "community" has taken on a wonderfully complex new meaning for me… and, in these times of social distancing, for the rest of the world. I've come to cherish my newfound friends in our local community alongside those long-time friends who are scattered around the county and my virtual mama friends.

Now, as my friends' families grow, I'm so grateful that I can show them the same love and support I felt during my first pregnancy. I sing the praises of Target's baby registry—especially in light of the pandemic, since I know mamas can do everything from a distance thanks to Target's website and the added benefit of getting trusted reviews and helpful registry checklists.

And now that I'm on the gift-buying side of the equation, I've found new joy in picking thoughtful gifts for my friends. (Because goodness knows Target has something for everyone!)

For my friend who is a fellow runner, I teamed up with a few others to give the jogging stroller she had on her registry.

For my friend who is a bookworm, I helped her start her baby's library with a few books that are also well-loved in our home.

For other friends, I've bundled together complete "sets" with everything they need for bathing or feeding their children.

I know from my own experience that, yes, the registry purchases are so appreciated, but the thoughtfulness and the support they represent means even more. Because although my village may have been distant, the support they showed me was the next best thing to in-person hugs.

Start your own Target Baby Registry here to experience a Year of Benefits including a Year of Exclusive Deals through Target Circle to enjoy for a full year following your baby's arrival, a year of free returns, two 15% off completion coupons and a free welcome kit ($100 value).

This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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