1. Why is my child acting like a toddler?
2. How should I react?
3. How can we ease the frustration?
Toilet training is successful . . . until he wets his pants. Thumb-sucking is over . . . until she puts her finger in her mouth. Now your child wants to climb into your bed after you swore she had embraced her big girl bed.
1. WHY IS MY CHILD ACTING LIKE A TODDLER?
Taking two steps forward and one step back is normal for anyone learning a new skill. Children are developing constantly, whether they are learning how to read or socialize with friends. As they master new skills, they may regress with others, which follows the progression of Brazelton’s Touchpoints, a series of developmental milestones categorized by noted physician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.
When you notice regressive behavior, what you may be witnessing is your child mastering another milestone, says Stephanie De La Cruz, clinical director for Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.
“If your child is trying to master a language or walking, they may regress with bed-wetting or by having tantrums,” she says. “They only have the capacity to do so much.”
Another trigger may be stress. Soothing rituals, such as thumb-sucking or increased desire for hugs, may be attempts to lower anxiety by returning to a comforting space.
2. HOW SHOULD I REACT?
To lower your own anxiety about your child’s behavior, you can try to manage their expectations of what is acceptable at certain ages. Behaviors that are considered normal can vary widely depending on the individual. In therapy sessions, De La Cruz helps parents understand their child’s spectrum of development.
“When a child is regressing, caregivers can become frustrated or impatient. Sometimes, parents internalize the behavior, thinking the child is doing it on purpose or being malicious,” she says. “Caregivers may also feel anxiety, wondering, ‘Is something wrong with my child?’ And parents also react differently; some yell or try shaming the child into behaving differently. Others become overly attentive, worrying whether the behavior will happen again.”
She reminds parents that, “Children are giving you a hard time because they are having a hard time.”
“Instead, ask yourself how I can reframe what’s happening to help my child get through it,” De La Cruz says. “View this is an opportunity to teach them the fundamental skills of how to manage stress. Otherwise, it’s going to keep happening as they get older.”
3. HOW CAN WE EASE THE FRUSTRATION?
From the youngest ages, children can learn how to self-regulate, meditate and simply de-stress. Even “Sesame Street” teaches them how. You can access episodes where Elmo and celebrity guests demonstrate how to belly breathe as a calming technique.
The same mood-shifting breathing can be done by blowing bubbles or pinwheels, or by taking deep breaths in between spelling out their name, says De La Cruz, who also recommends using music for stress relief. Additionally, you can provide behavioral cues by being understanding and patient when your child needs extra time to re-master a skill.
“Children look to their parents for how to handle big emotions, so how you respond to their temporary and normal regressive behaviors will set the stage for how they deal with similar frustrations,” she says. “So if you take a deep breath, so will they.”
• Stephanie De La Cruz, clinical director, Center for Child Counseling
• Brazelton Touchpoints Center