It's Not Regression!

This is the time of year where parents all over the world are wondering, worrying and asking, “Why is my child regressing?” with a level of terror usually reserved for things like walking into your kitchen and finding your 4 year old has stuck the hose in the French doors and proceeded to turn it on, effectively flooding the kitchen with water – for the third time this week.

Oh, actually, that probably isn’t your life (the hose thing), just mine. . .

But the regression question is at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. Isn’t it?

Teachers, parents, therapists, are all watching as our kids, who normally can perform a certain task, or have acceptable behavior in a given situation, are now magically unable to.

And it scares us. The idea that all of the therapy and consistency is somehow erased one spring day without so much as a warning – that it will all be for not, because our child has regressed.

I hate the word regression. It is so permanent. It is so damaging. It suggests that our kids have LOST skills that took them months, maybe years, to attain.  But so you know, I don’t think what we parents see this time of year is true regression.  Ah, then what is it?

Remember how we talked with Dr. Roya Ostovar about the analogy of sensory information coming into the body as stress – just more stress on an already overstressed body?

I am going to use that analogy – but I am going to take it one step further.

Think of your child as experiencing all disruptions – things that throw them off, that cause confusion or that upset the delicate balance in their lives – as stress.

Time Change
Season Change
School Routine Changes
Home Routine Changes
OT/Therapy Routine Changes
Anticipation of Summer
Sleep changes
"Spring Fever" in the Air
Worry About Summer Scheduling
Worry About Next School Year
Worry About Not Seeing Their Friends
Worry About Leaving Their Teacher
and MORE.

Imagine if all of these things are coming into your child’s body as stress. Your child is probably too young to have any real skills in the area of self talk (where you tell yourself, “Don’t worry, it will be OK.”), so they are not truly processing any of these thoughts or phenomenon. Instead, it is all just a garbled stew of stress.

Now, enter his school teacher who normally just says, “You need to put that away, it is time for circle.” And your child screams. Then throws the toy.

“Little Tommy has regressed!” your child’s teacher says with pure exasperated annoyance. “He hasn’t done this since last fall!”

And you feel awful.

Or this example (stolen from SashaSays’s real life with her Wild Child).

You get a note home, “Your child was putting her knees on the table, and she refused to stop. So she was made to eat in the office.”

And you are at a loss for what to tell the teacher, because you don't know why your child doing something that they haven't done in ages.

Or this one, (stolen from Chynna’s blog).

Jaimie gets to school, just to realize her friend isn’t there. Big MELTDOWN.

And you think, "OMG she hasn’t done this since last September – I can’t handle her regressing!"

Do those sound familiar?  They probably do.  They are happening to everyone, everywhere, right now.  Including our family.


Then, what is it?

It is your child's way of handling stress.

This time of year (and usually the winter holiday season too) your child has so much stress coming into their body that they cannot access the skills necessary to react adaptively to situations that they normally don't have a problem with.

Example reasoning from the above scenarios:

Little Tommy: He can’t transition because he is stressed – Maybe the time change has him not sleeping well, his allergies are flaring up and he really just wanted to play with the toy. Enter flip out.

Sasha’sGirl: She was obviously in need of some input in her legs (duh!) and was attempting to get it in a fairly adaptive fashion (knees on table at my house would not be a problem). Why couldn’t she follow the rules (the teacher thought she wouldn’t, but we have all read Dr. Greene’s work, and believe that this darling little one would do well if she could )? Because the need for sensory input was just one more stressor and it put her over the edge.

Chynna's Jaimie: Why did Jaimie start to have the same behavior as she did at the beginning of the year? Because having her friend not there was just too much – as Chynna wrote, Jaimie was dealing with transition issue to 2nd grade, loss of her school routine with summer coming, and a myriad of other stressors.  The absence of her friend was just too much.

Here is my point:

Our kids take two steps forward and one step back. Every year. Every month. Every week. Every day.

It is more important that we realize this, lower our demands of them during the rough times, and allow them to continue to feel successful, until we can ramp back up to where we were before.  This isn't a 'loss of skills', it is more of an 'unable to access the skills' issue.

So the next time someone says, “Your child has regressed” or “He hasn’t done that all year!”

Ask them if they would be able to function seamlessly after just after being fired from their job, finding out that their MIL is moving in with them for the summer, and having their husband call to say he’d wrecked the family’s car – without insurance.

How focused would they be then? Would they blow up? Be irritable? Easily frustrated? Not feeling flexible?

Of course they would be.

Imagine how your kid feels now -- in their little lives, it really feels like that big of a deal.

I am going to start a petition on Facebook that says, “I bet I can find 10,000 people who are tired of hearing their child has regressed!”

Want to join?

Photo:  My three adorable children, ALL have 'regressed' this year.  And last.  And I expect it will happen again next year.  But at least there is some comfort in predictability.


Texjoyce said...


You have hit the nail on the head!! Some of those meltdowns are coming more frequently also. I just chalk it up to stress and end of the school year with recitals, last baseball games, lots of summer birthday birthday parties, day camp scheduling, etc.!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Hartley, came just at the right time!

Stacey,momof 2 said...

I was going to say that I chalk it up to growing-- I figure that if these kids are super sensitive to the enviorment-- then they react to growing-- and the aches and pains that follow!


I love your blog! Feel free to follow mine if you want!

Gina V said...

SIGN ME UP for your facebook group! They keep insisting at school that they haven't changed ANYTHING that it's all my fault or my son's fault for "regressing".

But they'd rather wrestle a pencil that he is tapping out of his small hands than ask if he needs a break then get pissy that he starts ignoring them.

They'd rather nag him to write more than he is capable. Or get frustrated that he can't finish a page of 28 problems. He can do the problems individually but not all crammed on one page. Too visually overstimulating. Yet I can get him to do the work IN MINUTES by chunking it.

His IEP is such a mess & confusing it's no WONDER they aren't actually following it!

Do you want to come to his school and explain that they are failing to address his skill deficits as they don't believe me? I need to get your book, maybe it will help me even more articulate my SPD/Asperger's son's needs. Heck I'll even review it on my blog!

Alysia said...

Thanks for posting this - so timely because some of us are talking about the lag time between school ending and summer session starting (almost 4 weeks) and the school saying they don't need to start it earlier because they don't see any "regression". My response is, I'm already seeing behavior changes and school isn't even over yet!
I like how you said it's the stress of change (which we all know our kids don't handle well) and not the actual loss of skills. I may use this with our son's school to help them understand the need for consistent routine.

Caitlin Wray said...

YES YES YES! This is so perfect and so perfectly needed Hartley. Could you work this concept into your NEXT children's book? And could you please promise to repost this every year at this time?

Knees on the table = isolation for lunch = teacher who STILL doesn't get it = child who is STILL made to feel like they have done something wrong when really they did something right for their body at that time.


Chynna said...

I H-A-T-E the word 'regression' too, which is why I used the term 'regression phase' in my post. (It seems to be a word that certain professionals use when they just can't give another explanation for why our kids react the SAME way in the SAME situations when they've been doing so well. Ugh.)It was to show that Jaimie's reactions to things stem from the same stressors. She does really well and trucks along then a little change happens (or a big one to her) and she flops on the floor and pulls inside of herself. That's how Jaimie calms herself so she can process what's going on around her. She's saying, "That's ENOUGH! Let me just deal with THIS for now, thanks!" It's just SEEN as 'regression' because she copes well as long as the routine is 'normal' then she turns to her usual methods of coping when things go out of whack. I 'get' that.

It still hurts to go through it with her but I know we'll be okay and she'll try again. =)

Thanks, Hartley.


Terri said...

When my son was young, I read somewhere -- I think it was Greenspan's "The Child With Special Needs," though I've never been able to locate the passage again -- that kids with neurological differences add new skills in a different way. With typical kids, it's like a stack of blocks -- you drop the new skill on top of the old ones and reach a higher level. For our kids, it's more like a pyramid -- you have to take everything apart and rebuild again from the base to get that extra height. For the amount of time when everything comes apart, it looks like the child is regressing, but when the new structure is built, it's higher and broader than it was before.

My son always has a really rough time around the third marking period in school, late winter through early spring ... but he always pulls out of it with new skills and control. Just gotta hold on ...

Hartley said...

Thanks for the comments everyone!

Teri - I LOVE the pyramind analogy, it is a great way to think about how our kids acquire skills, and I will be using it the next time I am speaking anywhere!


a Tonggu Momma said...

I call it the "Mother, May I?" game... two steps forward, one step back. It's been our life since day one with the Tongginator for everything - sensory issues, developmental delays, attachment. Thanks so much for this reminder.

Sasha said...

Hopefully my meeting today with our therapist and the teacher will go well- I'm taking the sensory download with me for us to go through together and choose things like "let her be line leader" etc.

Thanks for the encouragement! We are on our third teacher since her diagnosis, due to her refusal to stop aging (*Smile*), and it's tough to remember that WC may just be their first experience with SPD.

I will admit, however, that she does have some behavioral problems and sometimes it's tough to determine whether it's behavioral or sensory.... hopefully we can figure it out together!

Sasha, The Wild Child's Mom

K- floortime lite mama said...

LOVE this post
Our community does use the word regression a lot
But 99% of the time what I hear people describling is not neurological re-shuffle but a temorary reaction to stress or a compensation/soping mechanism for overload

Heather B said...

I'm with Caitlin on this! You need to repost this every summer as a reminder to all of us of the things that change does to our sensational kiddos! We've been to hell and back over here and it's all because of the anxiety that these changes have caused my little guy. Thanks for the reminder that he's not regressing - he's simply attempting to deal with everything that his little mind is going through.

Meghan said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Such a succinct and eloquent way to explain it!

jOi-C said...

wow...i've been so unbelievably exhausted and drained the last 2 weeks that I don't even know what to say...

but this is our family right now...i feel like i've missed something or went wrong SPD has always been high strung (what SPD child isn't) and he tends to be a grumpy kid coz he's a perfectionist. But th anger and frustration and rage in him right now is nuts....

Mia @ Finding Balance said...

Regression is such a bad word. I'm hoping I can keep him "up" enough to reduce the amount of regression when school starts again. Wait, is that a double negative? Reduce Regression?

danette said...

This is so true... *especially* at this time of year!

I have come to think of these "mini-regressions" as nothing permanent but just the normal cycles that go with life changes and sometimes actually seem to come just before mastering a new skill (as they focus so much effort on the new skill and less on the already-obtained skills).

And I think this year we've had the first inklings that there may be more of these to come as our boys get closer to puberty and the stressful changes that come with it... yikes.

Patty Mullins said...

Thanks, Hartley! You have no idea how much I needed that today... now I don't feel so "crazy"!

Dani G said...

This is an amazing post. We ALL go through these periods. And you're right- it's not really regression. These periods don't fit the definition of regression, but they feel like it. They're bumps in the road for me. But every time, it brings up the fears: is this it? will she ever come back? have we hit the ceiling? Of course I know there's NO ceiling. But, there is no logic applied to my fearful mommy heart.

Thanks for writing out this post and sharing it with the rest of us :)