Four year old regressing and becoming more dependent
May 10, 2021 1:03 PM   Subscribe

My son has been taking a few steps backwards in terms of things he used to do independently and my wife and I aren't sure what to do about it.

I have a four year old son and have some questions about recent behavioral problems he's been having. In case it's relevant, this is his first year in school and he entered junior kindergarten in Fall 2020. Like many other areas, we've been doing online learning for a few weeks in January 2021 and for a few weeks starting in April 2021. Me and my wife both work from home, so we take turns sitting with him during his classes. In the past weeks, we've noticed some changes in his behavior. He refuses to use his potty unless either me or my wife (usually my wife) is with him. In the past, he would go by himself without any trouble. He refuses to wash his hands afterwards on his own. Recently, he's had a tantrum when my wife wouldn't help him put on his pants (something he is able to do by himself and often does). He's also recently become very afraid the toilet water will "go everywhere" (i.e. overflow) when he flushes it. This seems to be coming from an instance where he saw the toilet get clogged and my wife unclogged it. At first, it seemed like that was the source of him regressing and needing us to be there when he went to the potty. But the other things are less clear to us.

We've tried explaining that the toilet won't overflow, talking to him about how even if something did happen, it would be fine and we'd clear it with towels, pointing out how he's used the potty (and done the other things - washing his hands, putting on pants) without problems before. Nothing seems to work. Usually he starts crying and it turns into a lot of frustration from everyone.

I'm wondering if part of it might be coming from a place where his routine has been upset - transitioning from being able to see his friends and play regularly and going to the other extreme where he has to sit at a computer to learn and can't go outside as much (we're in lockdown in my area - Ontario, Canada - and outdoor activities are restricted).

Does anyone have any advice for what to do about this? Is this something we should bring to our pediatrician to ask about? It happens frequently enough that my wife and I are losing a bit of sanity about this. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.
posted by NoneOfTheAbove to Human Relations (10 answers total)
Best answer: I know it's so frustrating! With my kids it oftentimes seemed like 3 steps forward, 1 step back. I would try to put aside your irritation and lean into the fact that he just needs some extra comfort right now. My guess is that he wants the connection that comes from being taken care of (don't we all like to be taken care of?).
Logic and reason rarely worked with my kids at that age and the more you fuss at him, I think the more fraught you are going to make the situation.
I would try to chill for a few weeks and honor his requests for extra help and connection.
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 1:14 PM on May 10, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: This is going back quite a few years now but we often found that ours would regress like this around the time of any changes. Once they'd reassured themselves that we were still there for them they would often take a step forward in their independence
posted by crocomancer at 1:29 PM on May 10, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm wondering if part of it might be coming from a place where his routine has been upset - transitioning from being able to see his friends and play regularly and going to the other extreme where he has to sit at a computer to learn and can't go outside as much (we're in lockdown in my area - Ontario, Canada - and outdoor activities are restricted).

That seems a likely contender. I'd trust your gut with this.

As for what to you and your wife have it in you emotionally to him a little for the next month? Little kids actually do want to be big kids and eventually you'll see him move away from his little kid needs again. But if you could pick a finite amount of time (like a month), where you coddle him in specific ways that you decide on, it might not be as frustrating to you, because there's an end in sight. And it might be what he needs to move on again. After the month, regroup, see where you stand.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:40 PM on May 10, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with the others here re: seeing this as a request for reassurance and comfort and offering a bit more support for now (knowing that, yes, regression is normal, and that your son will be back to putting on his own pants soon enough).

Re: the Covid lockdown, this crazy year is definitely affecting my (7y.o.) child's personal emotional ecosystem at times. That said, the year's stressors are nebulous and weird (and include my own stress, which my kiddo can of course feel). As a result it's pretty difficult right now to draw a link between stress cause and emotional effect.

Sometimes, for example, my child will be tooling along as if everything is great, and then out of the blue collapse into tears over something he would normally find totally unimportant. Are these sudden upsets due to Covid-related stress? Maybe probably not exactly, in other words, who knows! But when a seemingly bizarre upset arrives, I've taken to reminding myself that this is a hard year for everyone. That takes the pressure off any worries about learning/development. And releasing the worry, in turn, frees me to simply offer love and support.

In sum, it is probably useful to assume that the stresses of this year are affecting your son, to expect that this will show up in random ways; and to be extra nurturing in response.
posted by marlys at 2:15 PM on May 10, 2021

Best answer: Sounds to me a little like he may have developed a fear of drains and being sucked down by them -- which is kind of a thing, especially with bathtubs, sewer gratings, and pool drains. And the toilet overflowing could be like the monster coming for him from this point of view.

Even putting on your pants faintly resembles being sucked into something.

Might be worth trying a bit of casual reassurance about nobody ever going down a drain, and some such.
posted by jamjam at 2:30 PM on May 10, 2021

Best answer: My oldest (currently 6) had a couple major regressions like that. It always seemed to proceed major growth in an unrelated area. He unlearned potty training in his threes right before his vocabulary blew up. His letter/number skills disappeared as his hand/eye coordination got better. Eventually everything went back to normal but it was nerve wracking at the time. Now, I fully admit there might not have been an actual correlation and we’re imagining a pattern but it really felt like there was a link. Either way, I think regression— especially during a time of major upheaval — is totally normal.
posted by not_the_water at 2:41 PM on May 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I do think you should talk to your ped, because you are framing normal development as "behavioral problems" and it sounds like you guys could use some support so you can better support your little guy's development. I'm sure your pediatrician has great recommendations for both children's and adult's media on emotional regulation, plus just an overview of childhood development so you better understand not just what's going on now, but what's coming up, so you can feel more ready when those things arrive.

It's normal to not understand physics when you're four, and it's normal to be scared by a lot of things you don't understand because you're a little alien philosopher-astronaut who hasn't been on this planet for very long and the primary inhabitants barely speak your language. It's hard to grow a body and a brain at the same time and sometimes one of them has to take the back seat. Learning emotional regulation and trauma processing is a real uphill slog when you are already teeming with feels and daily life-altering experiences. I know every second of parenting feels the most high-stakes but this period really is a big deal for your child's emotional future. Knowing how to best help them is not any more innate for you than it is for them, so it is okay to work with supplemental materials to give you guidance.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:23 PM on May 10, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I’d talk to your pediatrician and maybe even a pediatric OT. Yes, it’s very likely this is all normal regression and stress, but it’s always good to rule out anything else going on. Toileting issues can be a sign of constipation, refusal to wash hands can be sensory defensiveness, etc. Talking to a professional can give you the confidence that you’re doing the right thing and not missing anything - and even if it’s normal behavior, both a good pediatrician and/or a good pediatric OT can give you tools for your toolbox to help manage it.

My kid is 3.5 and has both chronic constipation and sensory issues, so I may be biased, but I tend to be in favor of ruling out possible issues rather than worrying about missing something, if only for my peace of mind. I personally think a lot of kids can miss getting the help they need because their behavior is considered within the range of normal even if they individually are struggling, and I tend to think it’s worth making an appointment and talk it through with a pro.
posted by bananacabana at 3:56 PM on May 10, 2021

Best answer: When my son was that age, I found that making up stories together gave him a way to let me know what was on his mind and then let me help him find a satisfactory resolution.We had a lot of stories about babies: baby pirates, baby monsters, baby plumbers, one time a baby Supreme Court Judge.Baby would go along with the big pirates and the big monsters and the big ones did very bad things and the baby would tell them not to and then everyone would all work together to fix things and make them right. Or there would be a huge water problem and the big plumber didn't know what to do and the baby plumber saved the day.

Or in your case, maybe the hero falls into the toilet and gets sucked into the sewer but he finds out he can breathe underwater and he meets nice fish, or mean monsters or whatever your son wants his hero to meet and then whatever happens, the hero always lives happily ever after.

If you haven't done this before, maybe it would help to say it is a little like being a dungeon master in D&D but without the dice. You give a little structure, your kid tells you what happens next and then you fill in the details of setting and NPCs and then it's your kid's turn totell you what happens next.

This isn't going to solve things, but it might help your kiddo release some tension and feel like you understand his world while you get to provide some reassurance without the risk that he hears that he is wrong to be scared.
posted by metahawk at 9:56 PM on May 10, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all those who posted kind, supportive and reassuring comments. My wife and I are feeling a lot better about things now.
posted by NoneOfTheAbove at 3:46 AM on May 12, 2021

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