A parent describes the stress her family has been experiencing over the past several months and believes her 4.5 year old son has been particularly affected. “He was in Montessori and becoming very independent. Little by little, we’ve seen a huge regression in his behavior.” She describes a number of issues where she sees her son regressing, including hitting, kicking and throwing things; disrespecting her body with unwanted touching; and an unwillingness to wipe himself after using the toilet. This last issue recently caused a physical altercation which this mom truly regrets. She wants to know how to encourage her son’s developing independence “without resorting to negative and hurtful parenting tactics.” Janet offers her advice.
Transcript of “It’s Not Regression”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be addressing an email I received from a parent whose major concern is that her son, who’s four-and-a-half years old, seems to be showing what she describes as a huge regression. There are a lot of upsetting elements in this family’s life, and she notices that her son is being disrespectful of her body and seems to be regressing in other areas as well, and she’s resorted to hitting him, which she feels terrible about. So I hope to offer this family some perspective and help.
Here’s the email I received. It’s kind of long, so please bear with me, because I think all of these details are important:
Hi, Janet. I’m grateful for all your podcasts and support. I hope I am becoming a better parent as a result, but today I am certainly questioning that. It has definitely been a stressful time for parents everywhere. Our family lives half a block from the Minneapolis riots, and we’ve been navigating a lot from the pandemic, including working from home with pre-school closed, and now having tough social justice conversations. On top of it all is the trauma of recent events, feeling unsafe at home for nearly a week, and our city having so much grief and recovery ahead.
My son is four-and-a-half years old and before the pandemic hit he was in Montessori and becoming very independent. Little by little, we’ve seen a huge regression in his behavior. Little things that he’d left behind, such as hitting, kicking, throwing, or destroying things when he’s mad, are now daily occurrences. He consistently is disrespectful of my body and daily I have to tell him multiple times that he’s not allowed to touch my breasts, but he persists with that behavior.
He will no longer wipe his own butt after using the toilet. This particular issue created a straw that broke the camel’s back this morning. For 30 minutes, I coached him with encouragement that he could do it himself, and if he needed help, I was right here and after he had a turn, I’d take a turn. He’s extremely persistent and resistant. None of that positive coaching seemed to work on him.
Finally, after a major emotional escalation for both of us, me feeling like I’m getting nowhere and needing to get back to work, I said, “You have two options: you can wipe your own butt, or I’ll do it, but then you’re going to get a smack and it’s going to hurt and you aren’t going to like it.”
What I did next is horrific. He didn’t choose to wipe his own butt, so I did it, and I slapped him too hard. I’ve never hit or spanked him before, and I don’t know why I resorted to this tactic, except that I can’t remember ever feeling so stressed in general.
My son and I are both in therapy to try to manage this time, and have been since the pandemic hit. I’m engaged in daily stress reduction activities, so I show up more resourced, but it’s apparently not enough. I don’t want it to get to this point ever again, where I feel my only option is to use physical force. I feel horrible, and I know this is incredibly damaging psychologically. I’ve apologized, but that also doesn’t feel like enough. How do I help get through this stressful time without giving him a pass on learning to be independent in the ways he’s able to be, and without resorting to negative and hurtful parenting tactics? Thank you for your help.
So I feel like she gets to the crux of the issue at the end here, where she says, “How do I help him get through this stressful time without giving him a pass on learning to be independent in the ways he’s able to be and without resorting to negative and hurtful parenting tactics?” And then in the beginning of the note, she talks about regression. I want to get to that first. I actually looked up the dictionary definition just to confirm my thoughts around this. And the first definition I saw is: “a return to a former less developed state.” And I want to assure this parent, or anyone else that has noticed that their child seems to be regressing, this is not regression.
Returning to a former, less developed state is impossible for a neurotypical young child, in that, they literally can’t go backwards and erase development. They can’t unlearn what they have learned.
Children are developing emotionally at the same time that they’re developing skills. But what happens is that children become easily overwhelmed with stress and emotion that makes it impossible for them to do things. And this is a temporary issue. It is not falling backwards. It’s more like a pause, where they need our help or they need to do it differently.
So let’s take the example of an infant learning to walk. Let’s say this infant who’s been crawling on their knees (or some people call that creeping), has taken some steps and we were excited. And they were excited that they were able to do that. But now the next day, or several days later, we see our child is on their knees again, moving around that way, crawling.
There are a number of reasons that our child is doing that, one might be that they really want to get to that toy over there or that object or that person and they get there more quickly on their hands and knees. So that’s the way they go. It’s easier for them to crawl there.
Another reason could be that our child is working on something else that day, and they’re not thinking about wanting to work on that skill. They’re working on, maybe, fine motor skills or understanding the relationship between objects. They’re working on language. They’re just not working on walking that day.
Another reason, that is more in line with what’s going on with this parent and child, is they are maybe exhausted and maybe they sense that their parent is overwhelmed and uncomfortable, unsettled. So now, as this child, I want to stay close to that parent and I don’t have the energy or motivation to be practicing skills. And I’m rattled, too, because my parent that I look to to set the tone for whether I’m safe, whether everything’s okay, is clearly not okay. I’m reading that. So now as this infant, I’m going to want to be right next to my parent, on his or her lap. I don’t want to get up and go walk, even if my parent is trying to coax me to do it. I’m just not feeling it. I’m not able to in that moment.
So this parent is describing some very upsetting, stressful situations that she’s dealing with. And even if her son didn’t have his own reactions to all the disruption of his life with the pandemic, disruption in his routines, even if he didn’t have any stress of his own around these situations, he’s totally feeling his mother’s, and he’s feeling it in every cell in his body, the way children feel their feelings. The feelings take over them. They haven’t developed that ability to easily self-regulate.
This parent makes a couple of interesting statements around this. She says her child is extremely persistent and resistant, and then later that, “He didn’t choose to wipe his own butt, so I did it and I slapped him too hard.” And she doesn’t know why she resorted to this, what she calls a tactic.
What I would like to point out to this parent is that she wasn’t making a conscious choice when she hit. This wasn’t a tactic that she sat with and reasonably decided was going to be helpful in this situation. It was an impulse that came out of her own, very understandable, frustration and overwhelm.
And just as that was not a choice, her son’s behavior that he’s showing right now, believe it or not, is not a choice. Just as this mother wouldn’t choose to do something that she feels terrible about, he is not choosing to be getting his mother so angry with him, frustrating her, being incapable. It’s not a choice.
So what I think I can help this parent with, or any other parent going through anything like this, is her perception. Because it’s her own perception of this situation that is making her so upset.
What she said about being frustrated, that it’s understandable. It is understandable because of the way that she’s perceiving her son and her role with him in these situations. She feels like she’s giving him a pass on learning to be independent if he doesn’t do these skills that she knows he can do at other times.
So she’s taken on this job that… I don’t know if she’s misunderstanding the Montessori school’s advice or if the school might be misunderstanding Maria Montessori’s teachings, which were not just about achieving skills, but also understanding the emotional state of children. Yes, they are amazingly capable. They can achieve all these surprising things when they’re feeling up to it, when they feel safe and calm enough in their home. But when they can’t, they can’t, and it’s not a failure on their part.
So I would encourage this parent to see that there’s nothing wrong going on here with her child behaving in these ways. She hasn’t failed in helping him to be independent and capable. Take that pressure off of yourself. This is a time to get through, when there’s stress. This is a time to just help him when he can’t do these things and not waste your precious energy trying to coax him and coach him and, “Come on, you can do this. You can do this.”
Because what happens there is she gets more frustrated and he gets more frustrated because he doesn’t feel understood, he doesn’t feel seen, he feels he’s doing something wrong, disappointing his mother. And all those feelings in him make it even less possible for him to wipe himself. He’s too stuck.
I would give herself a pass from being the teacher and coach that needs to get him doing things. And I would give him a pass on what he’s able to do right now.
Independence and skill building are a choice that a child makes. Our job is to hold space for it, but not try to push it and make it happen. Holding space for it means we’re going to give a moment. We’re going to see. If my child want to do this, we’re going to offer a chance, “Do you want to do this yourself? Or do you need my help?”
But when we see that they can’t, even though they’ve been doing it for months, when we see that they can’t, that they pause, then we say, “Okay, you know what? I’m going to do this.”
And then I would be ready to do it again the next time, because my child is showing me that this is an area where they’re getting stuck. They’re not regressing, they’re pausing.
So let’s talk about practical advice here for how to handle what’s going on. Meditating on a clear vision of our child and what’s happening right now is the key and the basis for everything that we do. And it does change everything, because it changes the way we feel about things. We’re not going to get as frustrated when we realize: I’m dealing with a basket case right now. I’m feeling it and he’s feeling it. And whatever I’m feeling, he’s going to be reflecting in some way. But I, as the adult, can understand this and he can’t, so this part’s up to me.
And the part that I haven’t brought up yet is where she says that he’s hitting, kicking, throwing and destroying things when he’s mad and that he’s disrespectful of her body. Daily, she has to tell him multiple times that he’s not allowed to touch her breasts.
So again, if we see this as: My child is just very impulsive right now, he’s really having a hard time containing himself and controlling himself. Even if he looks very together and conscious, he is dysregulated. Just like this mother might’ve looked conscious when she slapped him, but it wasn’t a choice.
When we see it that way, we’re going to help him by not putting him in situations where he can easily throw and destroy things. And when we see something starting, we’re going to have a safe response. We’re going to be the safe person instead of getting mad at him for making this choice, because we realize it’s not a choice. We’re going to say, “Oh, oh. Whoa, whoa. Yeah, buddy, I can’t let you do that. You seem so frustrated, but I’ve got to stop you.” And you’re going to stop his hand right away.
So when you’re saying these things, it’s while you are physically stopping him. Ideally you’re emitting safety and calm, so you’re not adding to his overwhelm with your own feelings. And the only way to do that is for you to perceive that you’ve got a dysregulated child on your hands. And there’s a reason, there’s always a reason, and one of the main reasons is that we’re feeling upset ourselves, or we’re very stressed.
So if he’s trying to hit me, I’m going to be holding his wrist, I’m going to be stopping his hands, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yeah, I can’t let you do that.”
And in my mind, I’m seeing: Whoa, this guy is really feeling overwhelmed. Something big going on with him right now. I’m not seeing this as, that I’ve failed or that this is my problem, I’m interested in how I can help.
And if he’s disrespectful of my body… Again, I’m not going to waste my energy telling him multiple times not to do something as if he is making a reasonable choice in his head and thinks: Oh, my mother likes this when I grab at her or touch her. He knows very well that she doesn’t, but he’s doing it anyway. He can’t stop himself.
So, just stop him. Don’t worry that he’s regressed or doesn’t understand that it’s not okay. He does. He’s showing you that he needs help. He needs safety. And I would have my hand there right away, being safe, making as little a deal out of it as I can like, “Nope, that’s not okay, got to stop you.”
I have a period at the end of my sentence. I’m not asking him, “Can you stop? Stop! What are you doing?”
I’m confident, but I’m not emotionally charged, because that’s only going to create more problems for me the rest of the day. So don’t let his hand get anywhere near you, especially if you see him in that grabby state. You can see.
I think I bring this up a lot, but it’s important to tune into your child. Usually we can see when they’re in a state where all bets are off and they’re not going to be able to contain themselves. We can often see that. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes they look very conscious and they’re smiling and they look very together when they’re doing these defiant-seeming things, but often we can see that their frequency is — that it’s a rocky frequency.
So I’m going to be ready. Yup, he’s going to grab at me. He’s going to do all the things that I’ve gotten angry about in the past. Because he’s in an impulsive state. So I’m ready. Bring it on. “Uh-uh buddy. Nope.” There goes the hand. “Oh, very funny. No, we’re not doing that. Nope. I’m not going to let you do that.”
Much less talk about it. In fact, very little talk about it and just more safe, protective action, but not protective as a victim: “Please stop. Don’t do this to me.” Really feeling your power here because we have a lot of power. And when we have power, we don’t have to push it. We can be on top of things.
Yeah, sometimes it’s going to get away from us and we’re not going to see it coming. And there it goes, and he grabbed me. “Wise guy. No. Uh-uh.” Comfortable. I’m comfortable because I see where this guy is. He’s not threatening to me. I’m not worried that he’s losing something and I’m losing something and I’m failing something. It’s just this temporary thing that’s going on.
And the more you can respond in the ways that I’m suggesting, the sooner it’s going to go away. Because a big part of it is that I’m reacting to it. And every time I react to it, it creates more discomfort in my child, and there’s less chance that he’s going to be able to exert some self control.
So this isn’t blaming anybody. It’s just understanding the power dynamic and how aware our children are of us, how affected they are by us.
And it’s interesting… children often, I’m going to say, seem to regress in these ways that are about caregiving. I have a lot of parents that ask about their child dressing themselves. Their child knows how to dress themselves, but there’s a new baby in the house or a toddler that’s becoming more of a person and a rival for that older child. “And suddenly my older child can’t get dressed in the morning. And I’m telling them to, and I’m asking them to, I’m talking to them about it and they still can’t do it. And I don’t want to give them a helping hand because then I’m worried that means that they’ve lost their skill.”
They haven’t lost their skill.
Just give them a helping hand, especially with caregiving. If, right away, this parent was ready with the wipe and, “Okay, let’s wipe your butt now,” her son will very soon want to do this himself. Because he’ll have gotten what he needs, which is my mom sees me, she accepts me, where I am right now, there’s nothing to be afraid of, I’m just a little overwhelmed. And sometimes I need my parent to carry me through.
And then this parent won’t be getting herself frustrated trying to get him to do something. That’s making it so much harder for both of them. The amount of energy it takes to wipe him is so much less than the coaxing and the pushing and the threatening, and then doing something that she regrets that only makes her feel worse and makes it harder for her to proceed with confidence in herself as a parent.
She can totally do this.
It’s good that she’s in therapy, but it makes sense that the stress reduction activities aren’t completely helping because she’s taking on so much here that isn’t her job: to get him to achieve skills, to get him to be back where he was before he was stressed out. If she can release that, she’s going to have a lot less stress herself.
And when she sees her child reacting to her stress this way, she can remind herself: Oh yeah, of course he’s doing this, because of how I’ve been feeling. And that doesn’t make me a bad mom or that I’m doing something wrong. It’s just important to know so that we can see clearly.
I really hope some of that helps.
And by the way, if my podcasts are helpful to you, you can help the podcast continue by giving it a positive review on iTunes. So grateful to all of you for listening! And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.
And both of my books are available on audio, please check them out. Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. You can even get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks again for listening. We can do this.