It is not uncommon for children to regress and act younger than their actual age. But to what extent is such behaviour acceptable? Here are some potential red flags and what you can do about it.
Children regress for a myriad of reasons. Your 6 year old may lapse into using incoherent language, or your usually independent 8 year old suddenly wants to sleep in your bed for the next few nights. Progression through developmental milestones is not necessarily linear. There can be developmental ups and downs or surges during childhood. Children under stress may revert to behaviour which soothes or gives them back control.
Transitional factors come into play as well. A change in environment (i.e. new school or city), the arrival of a sibling, loss of a loved one, and divorce, are examples of unfamiliar situations. Most difficulties are age-appropriate and reflective of a child’s developmental stage. Responses to stressful situations are normal, and in most children, the behaviour fades over time.
Dos and Don’ts
Dr Karyn Purvis, American psychologist, researcher and author of The Connected Child, advises parents to refrain from turning away their children when they come with needs, even if they are expected to be able to do it themselves.
Don’t say: “You are supposed to know how to do this, you are a big kid”, or “Aiden is also 7. He doesn’t need his mum to walk him, how come you do?” or “What’s wrong with you?”
Do: Acknowledge and accept the feelings underlying the behaviour. The feelings can be reflected by saying something like “Seems like it is tough to be X years old. I suppose sometimes you wish you were younger again” or “I wonder with all the attention the new baby is getting, does it make you wish you would like to be a baby again too?” Acknowledgment of your child’s feelings also provides insight for them into why they are feeling that way and may provide an avenue for expression in other ways.
It may not be always easy to decipher the reason for the regression but usually the behaviour is a call for attention and assurance. Parents need to appreciate that in times of need, your children turn to you. A balanced approach would be to patiently be with them and explain or guide through the situation.
You may worry that by responding, you are condoning or encouraging the behaviour. This is not true. By showing understanding, it may alleviate your child’s efforts to continue the behaviour. Ignoring the behaviour may exacerbate the situation and parents may miss out on the potential issue.
See also: Things you shouldn’t say to your kid
When Is It A Cause For Concern?
There may be times when such behaviours may require help. Ms Eliza Leong, Educational and Development Psychologist practising at the Thomson Paediatric Centre (The Child Development Centre), lists some helpful factors that parents should look out for:
1. Duration of the behaviour
Parents should consider whether this is a one-time behaviour or has been persisting over an extended period of time. If it is the latter, parents are recommended to seek support.
2. Intensity of the behaviour
This depends on the child’s age and temperament. If the parent has noticed that the behaviour is extreme compared to the child’s typical behaviour, and is not age-appropriate, they should seek professional help.
3. The impact of the behaviour on the child in various settings
Observe the impact of the child’s behaviour across various settings. For example, if the behaviour is impacting the child’s functioning across more than one area (e.g. personal, family, school), the recommendation would be to get professional help to see whether there are additional underlying issues attributing to the child’s behaviour.
4. Age appropriateness of the behaviour
Whilst it is normal for children to develop skills at different rates, extreme deviation from age-appropriate behaviour (e.g. having 2-hour meltdowns when a child is 8 years old) is a cause for concern.
See also: Dealing with toddler temper tantrums
Red flags to look out for are:
- Withdrawal from activities which the child used to enjoy
- Frequent temper tantrums which last for a long time, and is
- High in intensity
- Intentional defiance and refusal to obey rules
- Intentionally causing harm to animals or people
- Verbalized thoughts of self-harm or suicidal idealizations
Who Can I Go To For Help?
If something is developmentally wrong, Ms Leong recommends parents to seek professional help so as to get a better understanding of the child’s developmental delay. A paediatrician or a psychologist can conduct an assessment on the child’s developmental needs.
Depending on the assessment results, they may be referred for further intervention such as to a speech therapist, occupational therapist, psychologist or even an early intervention program. Early intervention has been found to be most effective in the long term and helps prevent further complications in the future.
By Som Yew Ya
This was first published in The New Age Parents e-magazine