What Quarantine Regressions Can Teach Us About Parenting in Tough Times

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, regressions can happen during uncertain times, and it's totally normal. Here are some things that helped.

Lynn Smith and her son
Lynn Smith and her son. Photo: Courtesy of Lynn Smith

In 2020, I 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 were 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. Then I did a segment about big kids regressing into toddler-like behavior during stay-at-home orders that put it all into perspective. My family was experiencing these regressions, too.

During the pandemic, my 4-year-old started drinking from a bottle each morning. Friends of mine described their 8-year-old needing to sleep with them at night. My colleague Jen Westhoven said her 6-year-old suddenly became terrified of bees, flies, and poison ivy. She observed that the behavior was "clearly the placeholder for all her coronavirus fears."

Exactly right, says Sheryl Ziegler, Psy.D., psychotherapist and host of Dr. Sheryl's PodCouch. During the height of quarantine, she shared that she heard from many clients that their children were regressing. "Parents [said] 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. Like many things in parenting, it was reassuring to know that I was not alone. The potty-training accidents, the baby talk, and the persistent meltdowns were all a part of parenting in a pandemic—and are lessons to remember if your child begins regressing during a tough time.

"What they are saying is, 'I'm hurting' or 'I'm scared;' 'Help me;' 'Make me feel safe again,'" explains Dr. Ziegler. Of course, in a pandemic, this made sense. Kids were stripped of everything they knew in their short lives, with very few coping mechanisms to deal with the big feelings they were having. But regressions can happen anytime your child deals with something stressful.

If you experience a regression with your child, and they've been cleared by a doctor to ensure there's nothing medically serious going on, your next step may be to look past the behavior.

The best thing to do, says Dr. Ziegler, is to 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 became shorter and less frequent.

Still, we had good days and bad while adjusting to life without his cousins, grandparents, friends, school, sports…the list went on. It was 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 noticed a difference, and I took any marker as an improvement.

Along with some of my dearest friends telling me that they noticed changes in their kids during the pandemic, others admitted that they were the ones regressing into their college selves by sporting sweats until noon and maybe a few more drinks and late-night eats.

And honestly, it's just a reminder that sometimes, as parents, you gotta do what you gotta do. For instance, during the pandemic, the two moms who run Cat and Nat, an online community bursting at the seams with support, reminded parents that there's no reason to beat themselves up about their habits or worry about having too much free time, not making dinner, or allowing their kids to eat snacks all day. Sometimes, whether it's a pandemic or a health crisis or just a tough time, survival is the only goal, and that's okay. "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" is always an impossible standard, but even more so in a pandemic. And showing ourselves, each other, and our little ones grace during tough times is essential.

Lynn Smith, formerly the host of HLN's On The Story, is a media expert and host of the StrollerCoaster parenting podcast.

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