Regression Frustration: Being Compassionate about Learning Setbacks

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

Help! I seem to have had a yogic regression.

I’ve been dwelling on the topic of regression. Baby Evie had been sleeping for longer stretches, even approaching five hours some nights. The four month old ‘awakening to the world’ phase began and Bam! Suddenly two hours unbroken sleep seemed like a luxury. Over the last two years, Rosie has been having months of successful toilet learning, where she goes dry panted for weeks. Each time we breathe a sigh of relief to have this potty stuff sorted out. Then the accidents start up, often to the point we run out of clothes to put on her. A general welling up of frustration over regression has been a familiar sensation these past few years. Especially with Sam, who according to some websites, had a bad case of four, five, seven, nine, and ten month sleep regression.

The concept of regression rankles with me. It suggests that we learn skills in a linear fashion, in isolation. We pretty much begin as newborns, and go from A to B to C to D with sleep, toilet learning, driving, and so on, until we have all we need to function as adults. The regression comes in when we get ‘stuck’ at point C and need to return to B before we can progress again to D.

I tend to prefer a more holistic view of behaviour and abilities: that when and how we learn one skill is affected by our mastery of others, and that what appears to be an isolated ability can be broken down into a matrix of sub skills. Learning is not like creating lonely footpaths, but building a sprawling metropolis where the new gets built around and on top of the antiquated, and it’s all connected by various transport systems.

I don’t need to look very far to find articles which support this latter idea, such as this excellent one by Jean Mercer.

As Mercer states, regression is often cited as a consequence of psychological struggle, even trauma. This means, there is an inevitable hammering on the parental guilt button when your kid seems to be backtracking in an area of development. Happily, regression can also be seen as a consequence of developmental progress. In which case, you can embrace apparent potholes in the road to success as a sign of your child working out how to do something better.

As long as your child is as happy as a 4 month old baby at 3 in the morning (Let’s play Mum!Look! I have feet!), your main worry is that unless you take action of some sort the ‘regressive behaviour’ will  be with you forever. There is much to be gained from acceptance that you cannot make your child sleep or urinate on cue, and that attempts to try will be, at best, futile; at worst, detrimental to your child’s eventual success. At times, it is possible that mums and dads struggle because we need to go through some sort of development in the way we parent, rather than attempt to change our child’s behaviour.

Mercer concludes that it is best to relax about regression. There is no real back and forth going on. We should accept what our child is doing or not doing at the present moment and leave it at that. It is easy to forget this advice when you are told that your baby will not learn to sleep unless you do X, Y, Z, or that your child will still wet herself when she’s 20, because you didn’t start potty training at 8 months (ok, that’s a mild exaggeration).

An encouraging point that Mercer makes is that when children learn to control bodily functions, such as sleep or urination, they can only master them by learning to a) let go when they are in the correct place to wee or sleep, and b) to hold their urges when it is the wrong time to wee or sleep. These are two separate skills and when it seems they cannot control their urges, they may well be practicing the art of the sudden release. A baby must learn how to override the urge to sleep, just as a child learns to override the urge to wee. However, the baby must be able to fall into slumber, as a child must open the floodgates when the time comes. It’s no wonder it takes them a while to sort it all out.

If your child is not a happy little sunbeam at the time of regression, then it tends to be more worrying. However, the scientists who wrote the bestselling book, The Wonder Weeks report that development spurts in young infants have a consistent form: a fussy, clingy phase in which the baby needs a lot of support, is followed by a some kind of new leap in development and a period of comparative ease. I love this book, because now I can see that these changing phases are normal and more importantly, not my fault. Being reminded that, no matter what I do, ease and difficulty are temporary is a comforting thought, in that it makes me appreciate the good moments and know that the bad ones will not last. When Evie is wailing for no apparent reason, there’s a puddle on the floor, and we’re headed into some sort of toddler/ older child meltdown contest, it helps.

In my experience, these ideas apply to grown ups too. When I regress in my ability to do something, there is a related struggle involved, and often a frayed temper: My yoga practice is not what it was. On the one hand, I’m less flexible and carrying some extra baby weight. I have bigger boobs from breastfeeding that never seem to be in the right place. On the other hand, my arms are stronger from lifting infants, and I am more grounded in my body after going through pregnancy and birth several times. One challenge is that I need to find a new way of doing yoga, which is in tune with the mind and body I have now. The main reason I’ve let my yoga slide though, is that I have been too busy learning to balance life with a baby and two older children, to find the time and energy for working out. I find my mood is far from soft-focussed calm and part of me resists even trying to change that because it seems like too much effort! Now that things are settling down a bit, I can get back to a regular practice and banish the urge to sit on the sofa and eat chocolate instead.

Mercer says that children’s development is more like weather than a path: sometimes parents get to bask in the sunshine of our child’s facility, and sometimes we hang onto the coattails of their personal whirlwind. I think we can apply this to the ups and downs of our own lives too.

So, the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves is to be compassionate about setbacks. To see them as a natural part of a learning process. Hell, of a living process. Be kind to yourself and others. Take a deep, resolute breath, and know that the only way is, not forwards or back, but up and down and up again. Except for wee. Always encourage your child to wee downwards.

Having said all this- I would welcome any tips and hints for helping kids learn to conquer the loo once and for all! What can parents do to empower their children in acquiring new skills?

Sent from my iPad

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