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Ask the Expert: Regression – When Development Seems to Slip

“My son recently turned three and we have noticed a change in his behavior. While he is doing great at potty training, he has been acting more aggressively by hitting and pushing at school. My son has always been a daddy’s boy and recently has been hitting me, telling me I can’t play with him and that I don’t love him. Help!  Is it a phase?”

Dr. Kyle Pruett A

This mom has a three-year-old  son who is toilet-training, learning language, playing ‘I-wanna-be-a-big boy-like-daddy-right-now,’ and giving her and a few of his friends a tough time these days. This last development feels new to her. She asks, “Is it a phase?”

I titled this answer ‘regression’ to remind us that development is not a steady progression from young to old, unknowing to all-knowing. The road of development is full of speed bumps, potholes, slips backward and endless side streets. Why is it so rough? Development is a highly dynamic interaction among children’s genes, personality, environments and experiences. Three-year-olds are especially busy because of the high volume of traffic flowing across this intersection. Their vocabularies are exploding (100 words a month), their bodies are increasingly under their conscious control (toilet training and staying asleep are VERY complicated things to pull off with their abilities and wishes and your rules) and they are whizzing past emotional landmarks at blinding speed (envy, shame and embarrassment are new arrivals in their brains and in your homes).

Preschoolers are more powerful and impulsive than ever, and are just starting to learn the differences between girls and boys, mothering and fathering. By now, children have developed different repertoires of behaviors for mom and for dad. Moms are often aware that they are getting the toxic waste from the day on a regular basis (mouthy and aggressive pushback is more common around moms), while dads seem to get away with being Mr. Nice Guy and enjoying the playful, physical rough-and-tumble stuff and little pushback. These trends are normal. The child is learning how to be away from mom without needing her so much and feeling helpless (hence the pushback).

T. Berry Brazelton, the previous generation’s go-to pediatrician, taught us that a period of regression is common just before a child makes a big developmental transition (sleeping through the night, giving up breast feeding, learning to walk or talk, going to preschool, staying overnight with relatives without you). Often, these periods of regression are more obvious in retrospect (“Oh, that’s why he was such a mess the week before he slept at grandma’s.”). I compare it to trying to jump over a puddle on the sidewalk. In order to clear the obstacle, you might have to back up so that you can gather enough momentum to carry you safely to the other side. Parents usually miss this because we are so focused (if not preoccupied) with supporting constant forward and upward progression. Unfortunately, the brain and personality don’t work that way.

To handle a child’s apparent regression, back up yourselves, don’t change much (appropriately, the mother kept using her time-outs, to some avail), put your faith in your child, calm down the other adults in the circle of upset and let your child clear the puddle. If he continues to have difficulties, you should talk with your pediatrician. In the meantime, enjoy his baby pictures to refresh your spirits.