Regression In The Time Of Coronavirus: Why Children Take Steps Backwards In Their Development In Times Of Stress And What You Can Do

In this article Claire Lerner, Child Development and Parenting Expert, explores why our children’s behaviour may be regressing at the moment and how we can support them. The article is reproduced below and you can download the original or sign up to Claire Lerner’s blog here:

Madison used to be a great sleeper. Over the past few weeks, as the coronavirus lockdown has persisted, bedtime has deteriorated. It started with Madison insisting that I stay with her until she falls asleep. Now she insists on sleeping in our bed all night. –Father of a four-year-old

Marcus has been fully potty trained for two months. Since his school closed and we are all home together, all day, he has regressed to the point where he insists on wearing pull-ups all the time. All of a sudden he seems totally uninterested in the potty. –Mother of a three-year-old

Kids regressing—moving backwards in their development—is a very common reaction to stress. The same is true for adults. Experiencing this seismic shift in our worlds has sent many of us into survival mode. Our psychic energy has been diverted from higher level brain functions to just trying to cope day to day. Few people I know would say they are at the top of their game right now. Just like many of us are having a harder time managing everyday tasks and challenges, so are our kids. This can result in more challenging behaviors and regression to less mature levels of functioning. You may see your child get frustrated more easily, become more clingy, have more potty accidents, experience sleep disruption, and, have a change in their eating patterns.

Responding to regression: What not to do

Shame your child for acting like “a baby.” Shaming has a profound, negative effect on children. It is an attack on their sense-of-self which leads to more acting-out behavior. It also makes it much less likely they will rebound to a higher level of functioning.

Cajole, bribe, reward or punish your child to get her to “act her age.” These strategies tend to backfire for several reasons:

  • When children sense that you are trying to control them, it often leads to power struggles that only result in their digging in their heels more forcefully.

  • Your child is not regressing on purpose. She is acting on her feelings; so, using logic and trying to convince her to “get with the program” rarely works and can in fact reinforce her regression.

  • Regression is often an unconscious way to elicit the additional support and reassurance children need when they are experiencing stress. When you demand that your child act more independently—to use the potty, to be less clingy, etc.—it increases her insecurity which only leads to more regression.

Responding to regression: What to do

Validate your child’s experience. Because we love our kids so deeply, it is hard to see them struggle. We just want to make the “bad” feelings go away because we think it’s harmful to them to feel sad, angry, or scared. But ignoring or minimizing feelings doesn’t make them magically disappear, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors—like aggression and regression—that can lead to more, not less, stress for your child…and you.

So, start by acknowledging that your world has changed a lot over the past few weeks, and that change can be hard. Share that you are also adapting, and that you are all in this together.

Avoid the temptation to jump to reassurance that all will be well when your child expresses difficult emotions. If he says he misses his teachers and friends, instead of responding, “Don’t worry, you’ll see them again soon!”, start by validating his experience: “That makes a lot of sense. You love your school pals and teachers. It’s hard not to be able to play with them.” Then move to empowerment, for example, by brainstorming ways your child can stay connected to teachers and friends by scheduling videochats, or drawing a picture or dictating an email to send to people he is missing. If you skip the step of validation before providing reassurance or going into problem-solving mode, it doesn’t give your child the chance to work through the feelings that are driving his behavior.

When your child shares his deepest feelings with you, it is a gift. It means he trusts you. It also gives you the chance to help him cope with his emotions—one of your most important responsibilities as a parent. So, when your child tells you what’s on his mind and in his heart, tell him how happy you are that he is sharing his thoughts and feelings with you to reinforce that you will always be there for him and can handle whatever he is experiencing.

When you recognize and validate your child’s feelings, you let him know that he is not alone and that you understand and accept him completely. This helps your child gain the self-acceptance and self-awareness he will need to recognize, own and manage his feelings effectively, far into the future.

For guidance on how to respond to specific questions your child may ask about the coronavirus, check out ZERO TO THREE’s great resources.

Follow your child’s lead. If you’re like most parents, you believe that you have to do something to control your child’s behavior—to make her behave the way you think would be best for her. In fact, while it may feel counter-intuitive, following your child’s lead and giving her the space and time she needs to regain a sense of safety and security makes it more likely that she will return to a higher, developmentally appropriate level of functioning.

  • If your child is getting more easily frustrated with an activity or task, let her know you see she is having a hard time and ask whether she’d like some help or to take a break and try again later.

  • If your child is acting helpless and clingy, provide lots of love and connection. But be sure to provide similar attention when he is acting his age—snuggle up with him to read some books and give him big, spontaneous hugs throughout the day. This signals to him that you will provide nurture and support even when he is behaving more independently.

  • If your child has regressed in using the potty, don’t push it. Let her know that it is her body and only she can decide how she pees and poops. She can wear underwear if she wants to use the potty. If she is not going to use the potty, she wears pull-ups. When she has accidents, don’t shame or punish her. (Shaming makes the whole potty experience fraught with anxiety which leads to an increase, not a decrease, in accidents—however paradoxical that may seem.) Take a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental approach. Acknowledge that accidents happen, then help your child get cleaned up and move on. Remember, elimination is all about control. When kids feel out of control on the inside, they lose control on the outside. The more you try to control your child, the more likely she is to resist. Following her lead and not making a big deal out of it makes it more likely that she will choose the potty again, sooner rather than later. (For more guidance on potty learning, check out these blogs.)

  • If your child is becoming more clingy at bedtime, acknowledge that during times of big changes like this, it’s harder to separate for sleep. To provide more support and connection at this juncture in your day, consider expanding the bedtime routine by adding a few books and some cuddle time together. But try to stick to the limits you have already established, for example, that your child sleep in his own bed. You want to avoid setting up a dynamic that will be hard to undo. Further, letting your child sleep in your bed inadvertently sends the message that he isn’t okay in his own room at night—increasing, not decreasing his fears. Instead, consider letting him know you will check in on him periodically to provide reassurance. (For more guidance on dealing with sleep challenges, check out these blogs.)

Most of all, be patient. This too shall pass. Have faith in your children, they are often much more resilient than you think. With your support and acceptance—giving them the space and time they need to regain a sense of security in this changing world—they will return to their higher level of functioning.

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Safer Internet Day takes place next Tuesday, 7th February 2023. Sadly more than 1 in 4 young people in Ireland have experienced cyberbullying, yet only 60% of victims tell their parents. As teenagers and children spend more time on the internet, ensuring it's a safe space is ever more important. To encourage conversation about life online and help parents keep their children safe, I'd like to share a free resource created by It's a comprehensive guide which includes things like:
  • How to reduce the risks online
  • How to recognise cyber bullying and grooming
  • How to educate children on cyber safety
  • How to set up parental controls on devices
I thought it may be useful to share the link to the guide - - which you can include on your website ahead of Safer Internet Day, to help parents and children who may need some extra support. We've also put together some handy top tips you can use on your website: 10 tips to keep your children safe online
  1. Talk about it:Make time to chat about online risks and how to use the internet safelyas soon as they're old enough to go online. Encourage your children to speak to you about what they view online and empower them to act if they're worried about anything.
  2. Recognise the risks: Educate yourself about the potential dangers children could face online so  it’s easier to spot warning signs. Get to know what platforms your children use, and learn about dangers such as phishing, grooming and cyberbullying.
  3. Teach the do's and don'ts: Be clear about the non-negotiables.  For example, teach your child not to share personal details or photos with strangers and instruct them not to click on links to unknown websites or texts. Do encourage your child to question what they see and only accept friend requests from people they know.
  4. Spot the signs: Pay attention to your children's behaviour whilst on and off their devices. Being alert to changes in your child can help prevent problems from escalating. Some warning signs are withdrawing from friends or family, sleeping and eating problems or losing interest in previously loved hobbies or interests.
  5. Set boundaries:Let your children know what they can and can't do on the internet from the get-go. Agree on what devices they can use, when, and how long they can spend online. As they get older, explaining and negotiating boundaries may be more effective.
  6. Take 'parental' control: These ready-made boundaries put parents in control of what children can see online. They can be set up through your internet provider at device level to block specific websites and filter out inappropriate content.
  7. Be social media savvy:  The popularity of social media apps like TikTok and Snapchat makes it harder to keep track of what your child is accessing online.  Fortunately, each social media platform has its own privacy settings and safety tips for parents. Check them out before you let children have their own accounts.
  8. Protect from harm:Install antivirus software on family devices to minimise the risk of cyber attacks or scams. Use two-factor authentication (2FA) for extra security on your online accounts. This can also stop children from signing into services they're not allowed to use.
  9. Set a great example:  You're the greatest 'influencer' in your children's lives when they're young.  Limiting your time online, discussing dangers you've come across, and questioning what you view can help reinforce the rules you are setting for your children and, in turn, influence their online behaviour.
  10. Seek support:The more you learn about online dangers, the better equipped you'll be to handle them. There are some great resources like  webwise.ieinternetmatters.organd to help you recognise and reduce online dangers and seek advice if you think your child is experiencing cyberbullying or is at risk online.
        Short videos on the Importance of Play have recently launched which was a collaboration between North Central CFSN and Lifestart Services.   Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3 Volume 4 Volume 5 Volume 6

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week runs from June 13th-19th.           

This week provides an opportunity to focus attention on the wellbeing, social and emotional development of our babies and young children. It highlights the importance of early relationships and a relationship based approach to interventions with infants and families. As our understanding of IMH and its evidence base develops, so also does our knowledge of how to apply this knowledge and an ‘IMH lens’ to interactions with infants, parents and caregivers in health and social services. 

What is infant mental health?

Infant Mental health (IMH) refers to the healthy social and emotional development of Infants starting at conception up to three years of age.

The first 1000 days of life are recognised as a critical period of opportunity to support infant mental health. Decades of research have shown that it is the quality of the early caregiver relationship that is a significant determinant of the infant’s healthy social and emotional development and in turn physical health, right up to adulthood.


The National Healthy Childhood Programme has embedded IMH as the foundation of the development of its resources and in the approach of the delivery of the universal child health service. This embedding of key messages can be seen in the My Child suite of books ( and also on  where key messages around bonding and relationship building have been embedded for the parent/caregiver.


In clinical practice the topic of IMH has been included for the first time in the National Standardised Child Health Record. To build on this, the National Healthy Childhood Programme have just completed a suite of three eLearning units which are now available on HSEland for healthcare practitioners / caregivers who are working with children and families.  


Throughout the week you will see videos and key IMH messaging being promoted on the HSE MyChild social media pages ( Facebook / Instagram ). Keep an eye out in the National Newspapers for articles from our experts also. (IrishTimes article)  


In addition The National Healthy Childhood Programme have developed a series of ten practical videos with HSE expert advice which are now available on YouTube and on the relevant pages on the website.

These videos (2-3 minutes each) are aimed at parents/guardians of children (0 – 3 years).

These new video resources are available here while lots more expert advice for every step of pregnancy, baby and toddler health can also be found at

There are a suite of posters available focusing on the promotion of IMH messaging to order from

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