Shout Out for Going Backwards

As this summer ended and autumn began, my office phone rang off the hook. The perfect sleeper was suddenly up at 3 am, the previously potty-trained was back in pull-ups, the former fair sharer was biting his best friend. Each parent calling had a kid facing a new challenge. Whether it was going to school for the first time or walking for the first time, a new home or a new baby sister, a new social or physical skill. Understandably many parents were troubled by these regressive slips, worried their kids would stay stuck in problematic behavior forever. But what occurred was perfectly normal. In fact, in almost every case these kids needed to take a few healthy steps backwards. They needed to retreat to the safety of their younger selves before moving forward once again. And here are some reasons why.

Down and backwards is part of the developmental process.
Healthy child development is best thought of as an ongoing spiral looping through time, up and back around repeatedly as it moves along a steady plane, not an upward progression with the apex as the goal. Kids almost always spiral down and backwards during times of transition, when they face new challenges, or when new demands are made of them. Some parents don’t know this fact. In the heat of the moment even parents who do know forget and worry that their kids are not thriving. Often parents get impatient with kids who are appropriately regressing. But hold on! There’s great value to going back to old familiar ways as long as kids don’t get stuck there.

Down and backwards slows the developmental process.
We live in a culture focused on speedy skill mastery, achievement and competition. What parent hasn’t praised their kid with exclamations like “what a big boy/girl you are!” after their kid has reached a much anticipated developmental milestone. Even a benign “Good job” can send a kid dipping backwards. You shouldn’t stop praising your kids, but every now and then let them step away from the competence spotlight to the nice comfy corner of regression. It may seem paradoxical, but in that comfy corner kids are unconsciously processing and ultimately accepting their forward strides.

Down and backwards gives kids an opportunity to re-experience parental love and support.
Kids need to feel loved however they are. They need to know it’s not all about being a big boy, a helpful sister, a great reader, a fabulous dancer. That’s why it’s so important to cultivate patience and understanding during backwards cycles. It’s best not to comment critically on regressive behaviors and often it’s better to temporarily indulge them. For example, a child who has been feeding herself for years suddenly wants to be fed like a baby. Perhaps it’s because there’s a new baby sibling around, or you’ve gone back to work, or she’s made the transition from crib to big kid bed. If possible, try not to say, “Silly girl. You’re not a baby. You can feed yourself”. Instead try something like, “Oh, so you want to be a baby right now. Okay Baby.” Hopefully her need is not terribly inconvenient, and you can play along. At some point between spoonfuls later that day/week/month you can interject a gentle, “Gee, I wonder when you’ll want to be big kid again.” Float the message and leave it at that. She’ll come around eventually.

Down and backwards is a great way to re-do.
Some kids walk as if they were born to, others struggle to get to two feet. Some kids talk at nine months, others don’t utter a word until they’re two. Some developments are a breeze, others are an ordeal. Stepping backwards allows a kid to do-over certain ordeals with speed and confidence.  This kind of stepping backward can be especially curative and ego-enforcing if there were stressors in your home environment that made first developmental attempts emotionally or physically challenging.

Down and backwards is nurturing for parents also.
If you’re a nostalgia junkie like me, you’re probably saying things your own parents said when you were a kid, phrases you rolled your eyes at by the time you were a teenager. “I don’t know where the time has gone.” “ I already miss the baby phase.” “It goes too quickly.” “ I wish I could bottle this time forever.” Welcome to the unavoidably corny side of parenting. When family life feels too focused on your kid growing up and growing away regressive moments are great opportunities to enjoy deep bonding, not just for your kid but for you as well. So go ahead and indulge the occasional plea for a middle of the night snuggle, a babyish game of patty cake, a picture book instead of those word-heavy chapters ones with no visuals.

Accept the down and backwards.
Maturity cannot be forced, but it can be nurtured.  If a kid has mastered a biggie, there will probably be collateral regression soon after. Remind yourself between deep breaths that all kids want to grow up eventually. But sometimes we need to let them take their time. If you feel your kid is regressing for too long check in with your pediatrician, child’s teacher, your friends, or a professional parenting expert like me. But in most cases, remember: Most regression is a pit stop at the bottom of a spiral. With a little love and a gentle push your kid will be back on their merry way up the loop soon enough.

Originally published in A Child Grows in Brooklyn on February 17, 2011