When Your Child Acts Like A Baby

Children of all ages regress -- act like a younger child than they really are -- from time to time. From the toddler who picks up the baby bottle that she gave up a year ago to the sixteen year old who suddenly has to have a hug and kiss from Mom before leaving for school in the morning, regression to an earlier stage of life is a normal part of childhood. Yet parents often panic when their child exhibits behaviors that they thought were extinct. The worry that accompanies even a mildly panicked state may lead parents to demand that the child "grow up" and "act their age". Also likely is the possibility that a parent will ignore the behavior, often making it worse in the process.

Children regress for a variety of reasons. The most common explanation is that throughout childhood children undergo developmental "surges" -- a sort of internal "pushing" towards independence, maturation and psychological growth. When they act on this urge and take more responsibility by becoming more independent their action is often accompanied by a mild feeling of fear. Think of it being similar to the toddler who walks away from you on the playground without looking back, then suddenly realizes when she's at the opposite fence that you're not with her, turns around and runs back. She scared herself a little with her newfound independence. Throughout your child's life she will be walking away and in the process may get a little ahead of herself and need to come back for comfort and nurturing.

Another time children may regress is when a new sibling enters the picture. The "oohing" and "ahhing" that family and friends do over a newborn, the attention, the holding and cuddling are all desirable to the older sibling, who may then operate from the mistaken belief that if he acts like a baby, he'll get the same attention as the baby.

One other explanation for normal regression in children revolves around the crises that can occur in families. From a planned move to another apartment or city to the unexpected and devastating crisis of a death in the family, it's not unusual for children to act younger than they are for a period of time as they adjust to new circumstances.

So, given that regression is often a normal response to either internal or external change, what's a parent to do?

In general I recommend that you take a relaxed and empathetic approach when your child regresses. Acknowledge and accept the feelings behind the behavior. For example, you might say something like "Seems like you're feeling a little left out right now. I wonder if you're whining to get my attention" or "Sometimes it's hard to be three (or five, or eight or ten.) I guess sometimes you wish you were younger again." When a new sibling is the trigger, you might respond to regression by saying "I guess you see all the attention the new baby is getting. I bet you're feeling like you'd like to be a baby again too." If an exact feeling comes to mind when you see your child exhibiting the behavior of a younger child, definitely name that feeling. For example "You seem sad" or "I guess you're worried about your exam tomorrow." This non-judgmental acknowledgement of the feelings behind your child's behavior does a couple of things. First, it allows your child to feel understood by you. When she feels as though you understand how she's feeling, then there is no need for her to continue the behavior. Second, it gives your child insight into what may be a subconscious response to the circumstances she finds herself in. Once she has this insight, it will allow her to express herself in a different manner.

Some parents worry that by acknowledging a child's feelings, they're condoning the "babyish" behavior and are running the risk of inadvertently telling the child they can continue to behave in this fashion. This is simply untrue. The truth is that when parents ignore or berate their child for regressive behavior it is far more likely to cause it to continue. Acknowledgement almost always relieves the child's feelings, causing the behavior to dissipate.

In fact, I even recommend that parents indulge the behavior to a certain degree. Saying "Seems like you'd like to play at being a baby. Let's do that. I'll play with you", or cuddling your child, allowing him to have a bottle or giving him the hug and kiss at the door before school without commenting "What's this about?" in a puzzled voice all seem to have the same effect that acknowledgement of feelings does. A small amount of indulgence allows your child to return to the feelings of safety and security he had at an earlier stage of life. Once he feels safe and secure again, he'll return to his normal developmental stage with exuberance -- having been fortified by your understanding and love.

While most regression is normal and short lived, there are times when a child may need help giving up the behavior they displayed when much younger. For example, if your child exhibits extreme sadness in conjunction with babyish behavior and it continues consistently for a month or more, you might want to seek professional guidance. Likewise, if a child turns to aggressive behaviors -- hitting, kicking, scratching etc. -- or if she loses control of her bladder or bowels consistently for a number of weeks, then there may be something going on that you're not aware of as a parent. Just as it's important to relax about the normal regressions, it's also important to be observant and conscientious when your child's behavior falls out of what you consider to be the normal range. A professional who works with children is the best person to determine if your child needs a little extra assistance in moving forward into the next stage of development.