Regression

No, this isn’t an article about the statistical method of linear regression. It’s about something much more complicated than that. This is about the curious situations that occur when a child regresses, i.e. returns in body and mind to an age that can be much younger than they are now. A ‘timehole’ as a therapist once explained it to me.

When you adopt you go through a preparation course (far too short a course in my opinion!) and regression is touched upon, but not really expanded about. The most common illustration used is a brick wall. In our case it was literally a toy brick wall built from those large plastic blocks you’d normally see in a nursery. Each brick had a word stuck on it, words associated with raising a child, such as love, food, shelter, rules, hugs, education, structure, consistency etc. With ‘love’ being the foundation stone. Then in a graphic demonstration the social worker literally pushes bricks out of the wall one by one and tells you that for adopted children they simply don’t have this solid edifice of child development. The previous parents will have not met at least some (probably most) of these needs. The wall eventually crumbles and falls. It is our job to put it back together.

OK, so a bit corny, but it certainly stunned my prep group into silence when they did that. And of course all a prep course does is ‘prepare’ you. It doesn’t have time to explain how you put the bricks back or what in a practical sense it means for the child when they’ve lost those bricks. At points in a child’s life a hole in the wall will become all too apparent. They’ll suddenly need that hole filling, and will need it just like they would have needed it as a baby or toddler. They regress to the age that, under normal circumstances, a parent would have provided that need. A timehole.

I don’t mean they entirely regress, it is a bit more complicated than that. It might only be one missing brick that they are feeling at that moment. So it is just that part that goes back in time. So for instance if the birth parent had regularly starved the child they are likely to be always a bit controlling around the issue of food, but a regression would mean that they literally want to go back to eating baby food and being fed with a spoon by the parent, even as a teenager. Everything else might be fine at that moment. But they need to eat baby food for a few days. Or if the birth parents had never played with them you might get a 14 year old suddenly wanting to play peek-a-boo or hide and seek. Yes it is odd superficially, if you didn’t know why.

Some regressions only manifest at home really, as they are looking for input from you as their parent, but others are a bit more public. For instance a loss of physical ability such as the sudden inability to throw or catch a ball can be frustrating to friends and of course also to your child as they may not realise why they can’t do it. The unpredictable ability to manage anger can be particularly worrying for other kids, teachers or members of the public, or a sudden lack of resilience resulting in unexpected crying can also make others concerned or even upset themselves.

All of these timeholes require acceptance of course, but adopters aren’t perfect and some regressions for me are more difficult to deal with than others. Especially ones that revolve around toileting and separation anxiety. I personally find those very stressful and am very relieved once the period has passed. Others, such as baby play or food stuff, I don’t mind so much, but I know they can be particularly annoying for some adopters. Whatever pushes your buttons I suppose.

The first thing that springs to mind when a regression is happening is ‘what caused this?’, which is only a natural question. Obviously something will have triggered it, but you are lucky if it is obvious. There might have been a sensory trigger, an event, a period of anxiety or uncertainty, or maybe just a hard week at school. You may have been paying them slightly less attention than usual due to work or caring for other relatives. Or it may simply be accompanying a step forward in development. Two steps forward, one step back is not an unusual pattern.

As it is not always an obvious trigger it can also be hard to spot when it initially manifests and can get dismissed as ‘just playing up’ or being an arse. This playing up will just get worse and worse if it is a regression though, as you are not meeting that unmet need at that point. It can also be frustrating if it is the nth time that they have regressed in the same way. The temptation is to wonder just how much more you need to give to fill this hole. There isn’t a useful answer to that I’m afraid.

However those holes do get filled eventually, if you keep working at it. Social workers often tell you to provide ‘whatever the child needs at that point’, which is true to a certain extent I suppose, although sometimes the kids really are just being an arse; it is important not to mistake ‘need’ for ‘want’ and I sometimes think that social workers often do that. Which is where a bit of understanding about your child’s personality and the things they’ve missed out on when younger comes in handy. After all, if you don’t help them out of a regression then they come to expect that from you all the time and feeding them baby food becomes a ‘thing’ or ritual that is hard to shake — a separate problem from regression. That has happened to a social worker family member of mine. Still, at least social workers practice what they preach. Even when it doesn’t appear to work.

‘Reparenting’ is sometimes another term for helping kids with this kind of thing, which understandably annoys some people as it sounds like an implicit criticism of the previous parents (and God forbid we tell birth parents that they weren’t doing the right things), or that we are trying to wipe the slate clean. ‘Reprogramming’ rather than reparenting I guess. However it is really about providing what they’ve not had enough of before. And it is the child that tells us whether they need ‘reparenting’ through their behaviour; the adult’s opinion is irrelevant.

Once you’ve identified what the regression is this time then the way to help is actually quite simple. You just treat them as you would if you were helping the baby or toddler through this challenge for the first time. And yes, I have taught a seven-year-old how to walk, even though he was running around just the day before. Took 1 hour. He was very proud. And so was I.

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