While staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic, I noticed my 4-year-old wanting to drink from a bottle each morning. As it turns out, regression can happen during such an uncertain time and it's totally normal. Here are some things that helped.

By Lynn Smith
April 24, 2020
Lynn Smith and her son
Lynn Smith and her son
| Credit: Courtesy of Lynn Smith

I recently wrote a piece on parents giving themselves grace in these unprecedented times because we are being asked to do the impossible. Many parents reached out to me confessing they read the article hiding from their children in their closets/bathrooms/pantry and wept because we are all feeling just how hard parenting in a pandemic has been.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that we also have to show our kids grace too. My recent segment about big kids regressing into toddler-like behavior during stay-at-home orders put that all into perspective.

My 4-year-old has started drinking from a bottle each morning. Friends of mine describe their 8-year-old needing to sleep with them at night. My colleague Jen Westhoven says her 6-year-old is suddenly terrified of bees, flies, and poison ivy. She notes to me, “it’s clearly the placeholder for all her coronavirus fears.”

Exactly right, says Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D., psychotherapist and host of Dr. Sheryl’s PodCouch. “I’ve been hearing more and more from clients that their children are regressing. Parents are saying things like, ‘They’re talking like a baby a lot. They’re crawling around the floor now. They want to sleep with us at night. They’re not sleeping through the night anymore, or there are more accidents,” she told me on HLN’s Morning Express.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief in these words. I am not alone. The potty-training accidents, the baby talk, and the persistent meltdowns are all a part of parenting in a pandemic. “What they are saying is, ‘I'm hurting’ or ‘I'm scared;’ ‘Help me;’ ‘Make me feel safe again,’” says Dr. Ziegler. Of course, this makes sense. Kids have been stripped of everything they knew in their short lives and have very few coping mechanisms to deal with the big feelings they are having.

The best thing to do, says Dr. Ziegler, is ignore the behavior if you can and address the underlying meaning. “That's how you get a child through that regressive stage and back to where they normally are developmentally,” adds Dr. Ziegler.

I put her words to practice. I spent days talking back in baby talk and rocking my son like I did when he was an infant. I asked him what song he’d like me to sing and his tense little body would release in my arms and he’d say, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” For context, pre-pandemic we could not go anywhere in a car without the Batman or Spider-Man theme song. He’d also make those requests when I asked for a song choice. Now he prefers the same song I would sing to him when he was a baby.

Could it be that he remembers those early years subconsciously? I have no idea, but I know instead of hours of meltdowns each day, they are becoming shorter and less frequent. Still we have good days and bad while adjusting to life without his cousins, grandparents, friends, school, sports ... the list goes on. It has been gutting for a 4-year-old who doesn’t really understand the concept of “This too shall pass” or even anything past tomorrow. But I notice a difference, and these days I will take any marker as an improvement.

Along with some of my dearest friends telling me they’ve noticed changes in their kids, others admit they’re the ones regressing into their college selves by sporting sweats until noon and maybe a few more drinks and late night eats. The two moms who run Cat and Nat, an online community bursting at the seams with support, say there’s no reason for any parent to beat themselves up about their habits right now or worry about having too much free time, not making dinner, or allowing their kids to eat snacks all day. “It’s not a time to be hard on yourself,” Cat told me. “It’s OK; just survive it.”

Regressions will go away after the stressor passes, assures Dr. Ziegler. If they don’t, she says it may be time to see a mental health professional or consult your pediatrician. But for now, let’s all agree that parenting perfectly in a pandemic is impossible. And showing ourselves, each other, and our littles ones grace is essential.

Lynn Smith is the host of HLN's On The Story, which airs 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. ET.