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Helping our kids where they’re at: Emotional regression can actually be positive


“Act your age!!” We’ve all either heard this, said this or been on the receiving end of this exclamation when we were younger. Perhaps we heard it from an exasperated parent to his or her child in a department store. Perhaps when, at the end of our rope with our child, we said it out of frustration. Some of us heard it as kids when we were exasperating our parents (I know I did!) But what do we do when our child does not “act his/her age”?


This week I want to speak briefly about some practical strategies and approaches for what I call those “non-verbal” types of regression. Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross, authors of the excellent book The Connected Child use the term “spontaneous regression” to describe these types of regression, which can include the following: 1) A child wants to be rocked even though she is 12 years old; 2) A 4 year-old prefers to be spoon-fed even though he is old enough to feed himself; 3) Your newly-adopted 8-year-old who is from another country refuses to go to sleep or take a bath unless someone is in the room with him; or 4) Your 16-year-old foster child habitually sucks her thumb.

Of course, responding to regressive behavior does not involve a one-size-fits-all formula. Every child is different. Our first order of business as parents is not to overreact. I recall my wife’s step-dad spoon-feeding lunch to our newly-adopted four-year-old daughter. I told him that she could probably do this herself, to which he complied. However, in hindsight, it occurred to me that this is possibly a developmental stage she may have missed early in life, and that it was actually nurturing and comforting to her to be spoon-fed. I would have not discouraged her grandpa for doing so if I had that knowledge 22 years ago. Then, I recall our newly-adopted seven-year-old son insisting that I sit in the bathroom with him while he took his bath. This went on for at least a year. So, I would dutifully sit down on the closed toilet seat and talk with him while he took his bath. Again, this has a soothing and nurturing effect on him—plus the fact that he had never even seen a Western bathtub prior--bathing in his orphanage involved soaping up and having a bucket of water poured over him!


Does your 12-year-old daughter want to be rocked in a rocking chair? Do it. Does your 10-year-old son want you to lay beside him in his bed and tell him stories for a half hour? Do it. Or does he want to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag with no pillow? Let him do so as long as he wants. Recently I read an account of a newly-adopted 10-year-old boy who felt most comfortable and safe sleeping in a pup-tent in his room. His parents made that happen.


In their book I mentioned above, Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross state that these type of regressions “Can actually be therapeutic because they fill in gaps in developmental growth . . .Accommodate your child’s needs during a regressive period, and do not suppress the process.” They add, “By going back to an early, unfinished developmental stage, the child is retracing steps to clear the way for further growth.”


More to come next week . . .