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By UNICEF Australia
28 June 2021

Most children have a very strong urge to move forward in their development. However, along with the excitement of being able to do new things comes stress. This stress can cause regression: temporary steps back in development.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world for everyone, but for little ones it can be particularly difficult to understand. Whilst we have been fortunate in Australia, young people have experienced disruptions to school, playdates, extra curricular activities, sports and more.

These changes can see regressive behaviours become increasingly more common. But what is a regressive behaviour? Essentially, it's when your child has difficulty with skills they might have formerly mastered, such as toilet training or sleeping, and difficulties managing their feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety.

Our team spoke to Nancy Close, PhD, an Assistant Professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine and Associate Director of the Yale Program in Early Childhood Education, about what you may be experiencing with your children (from toddlers to university students) and how to – with kindness and understanding – get through it together. 

Child cleaning teeth
Safe sanitation is vital to health, child development and social and economic progress. It is also a human right - essential for the fulfilment of child rights and achievement of good physical, mental and social well-being.
© UNICEF/UN0353541/Ijazah

What behaviour changes are we seeing in children during COVID-19?

We’re also seeing a lot of behavioural challenges. We notice children getting really sad over not being with their friends or their teachers and demonstrating exaggerated emotions and behaviours around the shifting in what school looks like. All of these uncertainties are so much more prevalent and so much more frustrating because we are all striving to reach something that is normal and predictable.  

We are discovering that consistency and predictability have been more difficult to achieve during COVID-19.  

This can lead children to feel anxious and frustrated which can certainly result in behavioral dysregulation.

Some parents are seeing tantrums in their teenagers. How should they respond? 

Support them to figure out ways to regulate their emotions – going for a walk, running, deep breathing, drawing, painting. Find ways for them to be in touch with friends and family.  

However, they will not be able to use any of these strategies during the tantrum. Once regulated a parent can say, “You were really upset. I wonder what is going on.” It can help to perhaps speculate about connections between their underlying feelings and the tantrum. Typically, these feelings are mixed – anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, etc.  

"It can help to acknowledge how difficult and different life is during COVID-19 and how hard it is."

Teenage years are challenging for parents and children as the main developmental task is to take those giant steps towards independence – a process that began in early childhood. This process is fraught with excitement, pain, struggle and anxiety for both parent and the adolescent. 

Other parents are noticing that their toilet-trained toddlers are now wetting the bed. What would you recommend to them? 

This can be a very typical regression. Notice whether there are changes at home or school that may be impacting this. If it is something that may be making your child feel anxious, you can work to support your child.  

At this age, it might be helpful to have them put on a pull up/diaper for sleeping. Keep track of your child’s fluid intake and limit it before bed and note to yourself how often the pull up/diaper is dry in the morning. That would give you an indication of your child's growing nighttime control.  

Let your child know you will help them to eventually stay dry at night. At the same time, support children to grow independence in dressing and undressing, washing hands, eating and doing small age-appropriate jobs like clearing their plates from the table (as long as they are capable).  

Supporting and growing age-appropriate independence in other areas supports growing competence and self-esteem and can help lead to mastering all aspects of toilet training. 

Daughter and father doing exercise during lockdown
In 2020, Indigo and his father Will did exercise every morning at 8 am in Melbourne, Australia. This ticks a box for both of them as they both have some fitness before the day begins.

Many children are being affected by the disruption to their ‘normal’ school setting, childcare, play and/or learning environment. What would you recommend to parents who are dealing with this at home? 

 We know that children often do, or emulate what their caregivers do, so I think parents need to find supports around managing their own stress as this can ultimately help their children’s wellbeing. My children are grown up, and I cannot imagine having to juggle what parents with growing children are doing now! They are having to help with virtual or in person school, many have to handle childcare at home and at the same time they’re worried about their jobs and their health as well as that of their family. 

Parental guilt has intensified during COVID. Parents are concerned about their children’s social isolation. They worry about their children’s social skills, play opportunities and their learning. Children have great antenna for their parents’ worries, so sometimes giving voice to that is reassuring to your children. Let children know what you are feeling worried about in a developmentally appropriate way, such as: “This is hard for mum and dad too and we’re trying to do our very best to help you learn and play the best way we can.” 

Parents are feeling very alone during these difficult times. Many find it helpful to hear that other parents are feeling the same way as they are.  

Parents feel comforted in knowing they’re not alone, but the stress and anxiety can quickly return when children are not doing the work that the teacher sent, not listening to the virtual lessons and maybe even refusing to attend virtual school. I do not have a magic solution here.  

Just know you are not alone, and you are going to feel helpless, frustrated, guilty and worried. It is really hard. 

Many parents worry about their children catching up after the pandemic. Do you think children can catch up? 

I do not have the ability to predict this. By staying hopeful and appreciating children’s natural curiosity, motivation and resilience, I would say yes, they will. In the meantime, read to your children and find ways to be together. Think and talk about what is going on outside. Play together and try to learn and grow together. Always remember the greatest thing you can do for your children is to provide them with love and care. 

What advice would you give to parents right now? 

Hang in there! We’re all doing the best we can.  

Not everyone parents in the same way, so do not compare yourself to other parents or your children to other children.  

You know what your values are, you know what you want for your children. We’re doing what we need to get through this. 

Nancy Close, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at the Yale Child Study Center; Associate Director of the Yale Program in Early Childhood Education; Lecturer in Psychology and the Clinical Director of the MOMS Partnership® and the Yale Parent and Family Development Program. She is a mother of two and grandmother of two.  

Interview by Mandy Rich, Digital Content Writer, UNICEF. 

>> Read more: Why is my child regressing?