Why Children Experience Pandemic Related Regressions

During the current worldwide pandemic, it's quite common for children to experience behavior regressions. How can parents respond? 
Why Children Experience Pandemic Related Regressions
María José Roldán

Written and verified by the psychopedagogue María José Roldán.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

The pandemic isn’t easy for anyone, no matter what your age. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the entire world seems to have taken a step back–especially children. In fact, it’s quite common for children to experience regressions as a result of the current circumstance s.

Maybe your baby used to sleep well at night? Or your toddler had stopped using diapers? Your elementary-aged child enjoyed reading, or you and your partner used to get along great? But since the appearance of COVID-19, all of that seems to have changed. The truth is, we’ve all experienced certain regressions–be they temporary–as a result of everything that’s going on.

What exactly is going on? Why do adults, especially children, experience regressions during times of stress? Maybe these setbacks are, in some way, an unconscious cry for help. If we’re honest, we’ve all had moments where we’ve wanted to curl up in the fetal position under a blanket, until this is all over. We all want to feel safe and protected.

Maturity requires better internal “management” by the frontal cortex in order to guarantee that our behaviors meet social expectations. In moments of stress, this disappears and our instincts begin to take over our behaviors.

We can explain this process physiologically in terms of changes in the flow of blood to the brain during the activation of the system in response to stress. But we must also point out how the regressive behavior “works”. In other words, it fulfills an important purpose.

A child afraid in bed.

While regressive behaviors can be problematic, our subconscious has its own wisdom. Our children complain or cry, and our teenagers shout and slam doors. Perhaps your child hadn’t had issues in previous months and is suddenly having frequent bathroom problems. And as a result of these regressions, your children earn your attention and concern. In other words, in some sense, your children get what they’re asking for in those moments.

Regression: internal emotions when children seek attention

But our children don’t just need our attention. The internal emotions of our children are looking for answers … they want a response. So, what can we do?

Firstly, you need to remember that it’s common for children to experience regressions during peculiar times like these. And, what’s more, these regressions are temporary.  Also, you should pay special attention to how you respond to your child’s regressive behavior and mood swings. Make sure you respond to the emotions and not the behaviors.

Try to figure out the emotion behind the behavior, and respond to that. For example, perhaps your child has started wetting the bed again. In this case, you can say, “I saw your bed was wet this morning. Don’t worry, things like this can happen when we’re stressed. Do you want to talk about something that’s worrying you right now?

Tips for handling regressions during the pandemic

Teach your children that their emotions are messages (and remember that for yourself as well). If you can recognize what your children are trying to say without judging them, then we can get to the root of what they need. And in doing so, it’s much easier to solve problems and handle whatever it is that’s emotionally upsetting your child.

  • Communicate with your children. Ask your child about coronavirus and what they want to know about it. Ask them if there’s something in particular that worries them. Share information and news in a way that’s appropriate for their age.
  • Connect with your children. Connect in a meaningful way and support them in their emotional changes. Spending time together is more important than the specific activity you’re sharing. Take walks together, have picnics in the yard, or watch movies together. Make the most of this time.
Adolescente tumbada en el sofá sin motivación sufriendo una regresión durante la pandemia.

  • Maintain limits as well. The fact that your children are stressed out doesn’t mean that you should let them do what they want. For example, you don’t have to allow your child to sleep in your bed every night if you don’t want him or her there. Meet your child’s needs, but honor your own as well.

As parents, we often find ourselves making adjustments based on the needs of our children. That’s just part of parenthood. But sometimes these adaptations cross important personal lines which are different for every parent. When that happens, the cost is greater than the benefit. Rather than eliminating stress, they add to it.

Pandemic regressions: pay attention to your own needs and internal responses

Pay attention to your own needs and internal responses. If some important limit has been crossed, then you may need to be creative in finding solutions that satisfy the needs of your children, those of your partner, and your own as well.

And, once again, remember that this is temporary and that, like everything else, this too shall pass. Be understanding with your child if they fall back into old behaviors or act in ways that seem inappropriate for their age. And, above all else, give them the affection they need–because right now, they need it more than ever.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.