By Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP:

“Why is my 9-year old smearing feces on the wall?” “Why is my 14-year old stealing food from the cupboards in the middle of the night?”

When my own children were small, I remember reading a passage by child expert T. Berry Brazelton MD describing the phenomenon that every parent has observed at one time or another: regression. He explained that all children “regress” to a slightly younger developmental age when they are stressed by ordinary environmental challenges.

Children who have experienced life as dangerous and frightening due to abuse or neglect often have sudden experiences of extreme emotional and behavioral regression. Francine Shapiro’s Adaptive Information Processing model can help us understand this. The model explains that traumatic events become stored in separate neural networks along with emotions, sensations, and perceptions present at the time of the events. Trauma-related material stored in this way does not become processed, so it remains very separate and isolated in the brain. Even after an abused or neglected child has been provided a new, safe life, a trigger of some kind can subconsciously light up the unprocessed traumatic memories, causing the child to regress to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were present at the time of the traumas.

Many traumatized children regress around certain dates or holidays, certain times of day, or certain types of people. An angry face, a scolding, or raised voices are particularly triggering due to stored trauma-related feelings of fear, shame, and powerlessness. A triggered, regressed child may suddenly urinate in strange places, wet the bed, play with feces, masturbate compulsively, steal shiny trinkets, throw tantrums, baby-talk, cling and cry, scavenge through cupboards for food, hide food, or run away. Regressed children do not have access to their higher order cognitive processes.

Many severely traumatized children have become “stuck” developmentally so that their behaviors resemble those of a younger child on a day-to-day basis. Behaviors caused by regression cannot be disciplined away. The antidote to regressed behaviors includes strengthening the child’s feelings of security and trust with caregivers, addressing trauma with effective therapy, and reducing environmental triggers. If you are a parent of a child who exhibits regressed behaviors, be kind to yourself. It is vital that you find the emotional support you need so that you can maintain your own emotional health while you provide attunement and connection with your challenging child.