Have your children ever seemed to go backward in their development? Suddenly, it seems, they are unwilling or unable to do the things they had learned to do for and by themselves. In addition, they may suddenly seem cranky about being expected to do those things. What happened?
The behavior described sounds like that of a child who has been sick and needs help re-taking the developmental steps that had already been mastered. The march from dependence to independence, which in any case seems to involve two steps forward and one step back, is in fallback mode. Why does that happen?
I have been giving much thought to this question having just been through a period of enforced dependence as a result of a medical issue. As an adult, the issue of one’s responsibilities rears its head, serving as a reality goal post to be reached. On the other hand, the messages from one’s body are a counter weight creating its own reality.
Even as an adult, there are benefits — even pleasures — to be derived from enforced dependence. And we are light years away from having been taken care of. For children, who are just emerging from the state of having all their needs met, and for whom the conflict between dependence and independence is an ongoing challenge, it is easy to sink back to an earlier time.
Not feeling up to snuff physically turns the body into a co-conspirator in resisting adult expectations. How nice to once again experience the pleasures of being cared for with the attention that brings from mom or dad. No struggling with things that are hard, or demands to get dressed, or wash-up, or sit at the table for meals.
The conflict around dependence and independence continues in some form throughout life. For children, it emerges as part of developing new skills, both physical and cognitive. It is a real high to discover you can climb up and reach the cookies, or run and jump, or figure out how to do a new puzzle.
Along with the new skills comes a push for autonomy. As masters of the universe it seems they should decide for themselves whether it is bedtime, or time to come home from the park, or a cookie before lunch. Developing language provides the word “no!”, which children often use even when they really mean yes. It seems as though everything is about asserting independence.
But conflict arises because in reality children are still dependent on their parents. Pushing mom or dad away causes some anxiety about the possible loss of love and of the caregiving that is still needed. The memory of bottles and diapers, of being carried and of not being expected to do some of the things that are less pleasant about growing up is still fresh enough to want to regain them in some situations.
We all enjoy being cared for from time to time. Becoming ill and bedridden can give permission to have that kind of care. For children, other stressors such as travel, parents away, move to a new house or unusual changes in routine can bring with them the need for old comforts.
At times, it is obvious that children are reacting in their behavior to such changes, but parents can become concerned with the seeming regression. At such times, it is helpful to know that the setback is only temporary and may require picking up where children are at the moment to help them regain the skills that may seem to be lost. Ultimately, the wish for independence wins out.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.