Pandemic Causing Kids to Regress, Experts Say


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The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful no matter who you are, and children are no exception. If you have noticed your children acting out more than usual lately, or reverting back to old habits or behaviours that you thought they’d grown out of a long time ago, you’re not alone.

Many parents across the country have begun seeing changes in their children’s behaviour, whether they’re toddlers, preteens, or even teenagers, and experts are saying that the stress from the pandemic is likely to blame. 

How the Pandemic is Affecting Kids

Nancy Close, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine, says she is hearing from many parents that their kids are showing signs of regression, which is when they step back or regress in a skill they’ve developed or behavior they’ve mastered.

“What I’m seeing and what I’m hearing about is regression in everything from potty training and baby talk, to refusals to do schoolwork and other responsibilities, an upsurge in tantrums, aggressive and out-of-control behavior, and an upsurge in anxiety and difficulty around eating, sleeping, and managing one’s impulses,” she says [1].

While regression is a normal part of childhood, many experts are saying that the stress from the COVID-19 pandemic is causing this to occur at a much higher rate than normal. Close says that many children are struggling with this stress, which is causing them to have difficulty sleeping, and making them whinier or clingier than usual.

There are many different forms that regression can take, which will depend on the child, their age, and their circumstances [1].

Behavioural Regression

The first type of regression parents might notice is developmental or behavioural regression. Close explains that children are highly motivated to develop and master a new skill, to explore, manipulate, and master their bodies or their environment, but that this is still very exhausting for them.

Because of this, it is normal for them to occasionally backslide. When they do, experts say it is most likely a sign that they are having a difficult time managing strong emotions, or coping with stress, worry, or frustration.

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services, says that behavior is a child’s subconscious way of signaling to us that their brain is trying to handle a lot and they can’t cope with it as well as they normally can.

“More often than not, regression happens when something is stressing a child’s system and their brain is on overload,” she says [1]. 

The pandemic is causing children’s brains to work overtime trying to adjust to their new reality, which is why they are more likely to act out when asked to do even a simple task like to put their toys away.

“It’s not that they just became a bigger jerk overnight. They’re just being asked to handle more than they can in this moment,” says Hershberg [1].

While regression can be frustrating or worrying for parents, experts say it’s not generally a cause for major concern. Close says that as long as it doesn’t last for an extended period of time, or that your child is not continuing to lose skills that they’ve developed, you have no need to worry.

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How to Help Your Child Cope with Behavioural Regression

Hershberg says that when behavioral regression occurs, it is important not to punish your child, but to approach the situation with compassion and support. This is particularly important as children return to school amidst new pandemic procedures and rules when their stress levels are likely to increase.

“For older children, help them to anticipate exactly what’s going to be happening as much as you can, and problem-solve difficult moments and situations they might encounter in advance,” says Close [1].

Other ways to help your child when they’re experiencing behavioral regression is to follow a schedule as much as possible since predictability and consistency make children feel safe. It is important as well to acknowledge that this is hard, and offer more comfort to help soothe them and ease their anxiety.

Giving kids something to control can also ease their stress, and this can be accomplished by making sure they know the rules and expectations in the house, having a routine, and building choice into their day by allowing them to make small decisions like choosing what outfit they’re going to wear or what snack they’re going to have.

Children may also have difficulty expressing how they’re feeling, like that they miss their friends or their teachers, without an adult helping them to figure out how what they’re experiencing is connected to what’s happening in the world. For this reason, it is important to talk to them and help them make those connections.

Finally, it is important to stay positive and assess your own levels of stress, since children can be very perceptive and will pick up on and absorb how you’re feeling.

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Academic Regression

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted school for 55 million students in the United States. While it is normal for students to forget a portion of what they learned the previous year over the summer, many experts are concerned over how much many students will have regressed after missing out on so many months of instructional time.

Megan Kuhfeld, Ph.D., who studies student academic growth, and her colleagues at NWEA- a research-based, educationally focused nonprofit organization- has published a study projecting COVID-19-related learning losses among children.

The team projected that students returning to school this fall will have only retained 63 to 68 percent of the learning gains they made in reading and 37 to 50 percent of the gains they made in math from the previous school year.

Students from minority groups or lower income families will be disproportionately affected, which could worsen an already wide opportunity gap for those students. An analysis from McKinsey & Company has suggested that Black students could fall behind by as much as ten months, and Hispanic students by nine months.

Kuhfeld says that this highlights the inequalities that exist in the education system in the United States, and emphasises the need to invest in education and help kids catch up.

There are small things that parents can do to help their kids avoid academic regression as much as possible, like practising math throughout the day while you’re shopping or cooking, and reading to them or encouraging them to read.

“Reading is so important,” says William Lane, EdD, a special education expert in Delaware. “In terms of time, I recommend their age, plus 5 minutes at a minimum. Have the child read the book to you if they can, or have the parent read it and while you do that, work on sounding out words, identifying colors, anticipating what will happen, and those kinds of things.” [1]

He also encourages parents to reach out to friends or relatives to help out, especially if they’re trying to balance taking care of their kids with working from home. It may not be safe for someone to come over and be with your child in person, but you could instead ask them to hop on a quick skype call with your child while you work.

These things, he says, also helps everyone to feel more relaxed and subsequently more prepared for when the school year starts up again.

Read: Children Need Structure More Than Warmth, Says Child Psychologist

Social Skills Regression

Kuhfeld says that we should not just be focusing on student’s academics, but how we can help them more broadly, citing that kids learn a lot more than just math and english at school.

Without being able to see their friends and socialize for many months, it is likely that many kids will experience a bit of a regression in their social skills. This is particularly a problem for children with special needs.

Feda Almaliti, vice president of the National Council on Severe Autism, says that children with severe autism have regressed more in terms of social skills than other children.

“It’s really devastating to watch all this progress that our children have made and that we’ve worked so hard to advocate for through an appropriate education just slip away,” she says [1].

Parents can practice social skills with their kids at home, such as proper body language and conversation. Lane suggests watching movies, online videos, or television, and analyzing with your kids how the characters are interacting and conversing. Additionally, putting those skills into practice by writing letters to friends or family members can also be helpful [1].

How to Handle Regression During a Pandemic

As mentioned, Close wants to emphasize with parents that a certain amount of regression is a normal part of childhood development, and can sometimes give your child a chance to prepare for a movement forward.

During the pandemic, however, regression in children may be more extreme and long-lasting, and Close offers advice to parents who are trying to figure out how to support their child during such a difficult time.

The first step, she says, is being comfortable knowing that regression may happen, and to try not to be shocked when it does.

She then suggests acknowledging that your child is having a hard time, by saying something to them like “I noticed you are using a lot of baby talk, I wonder if it is feeling too hard for you to have all of these changes happening.”

Close says it is helpful to offer some extra cuddling time, and even suggests looking through baby photos with your child to celebrate how much they’ve grown and how far they’ve come. 

Ultimately, however, Close wants to assure parents that children’s natural motivation to explore, learn, and master new skills will re-emerge, and your child will continue to progress despite this momentary setback [2].

Keep Reading: Educators Believe ‘Parents Should Be Panicked’ About Schools Opening Back Up In The Fall

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