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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Why do parents feel so much frustration when a child’s development suddenly goes backward? When we have a child who

  • has adjusted to school suddenly doesn’t want to go

  • signed up for soccer and starts throwing tantrums

  • insists on talking baby talk on the way home from preschool

It’s often hard to connect the facts that an advance in maturity in one area of development (taking two steps forward) often results in a child suddenly reverting to younger behaviors (taking one step back) in another. A common example is the baby who loves the newfound independence of walking upright but starts waking at night and acting clingy.

It’s easy to feel frustrated and impatient in response to backtracking these behaviors. We often don’t know why they’re happening or how long they’ll last. “I thought we were through with that stage.”

It helps to understand a principle of human development that applies at almost every age. The process of reaching for new growth creates internal stress, and regressing can provide us with a mechanism for stabilizing.

Since children often don’t have the tools to understand and communicate that they feel stressed, regression signals us that they need extra support. Shaming them for their backward steps – “That’s what babies do” or “Why would you get upset about that?” – actually increases their anxiety because children who are regressing need connection.

Of course, we don’t want to give a child negative attention for tantrums or sibling fighting, but we can address the need for nurturance in other ways. “I know you want to be babied right now, but you’re too heavy for me to carry. I can give you a piggy-back ride.”

As we provide reassurance, we also want to help children to move ahead. “I understand you feel like staying home today, but we’ll be able to do something fun when I pick you up.” Giving in to children’s fears can add to their confusion.

Sometimes regression alerts us that intervention is needed.

Starting the learning the learning curve of a new grade and a new sport simultaneously may be too overwhelming, and we need to simplify the child’s schedule to provide more down time.

Sometimes a situation is too stimulating, and we have to reflect on whether it is working.

Backward steps are normal throughout life. However, when a child regresses over several weeks and seems unhappy, parents and teachers benefit from conferring with each other to see if more support for the child is needed.


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