Like many kids feeling the effects of the pandemic, my children’s stress has manifested in regression. They are acting out in ways they did when they were younger. Some of their big, “babyish” emotions and defiant reactions add to the stress we are all experiencing, but I know my kids don’t have all of the necessary tools yet to manage what they are feeling. When they are clingy or looking for more physical affection, I do my best to be present with them.
After lunch one day, I rocked in a recliner with my 75-pound and very long nine-year-old daughter draped across my lap. She needed some snuggles, so we settled in for a few minutes. I rubbed her back and we chatted until she was ready to see what trouble her younger siblings were getting into. My kids are also reverting to simpler and more predictable games, books, and toys. I am indulging their need for comfort and normalcy in items either I or they believed they had outgrown.
My kids’ latest rediscovery was the backyard sandbox. When I was a stay at home parent, my twins (now almost seven) played for hours each day in the sandbox. I would either sit beside them in a lawn chair or pop inside to clean up the kitchen or prep dinner. I could see them from the window, and despite cringing each time they flung sand into the grass, I was grateful they were happy and entertained. Yet, last summer as I mowed around the square sandbox each week, I wondered if it was time to pass it on to someone else—they didn’t play in it anymore. I’m glad I didn’t have the heart to get rid of it, because recently my kids ran to the sandbox as if it was their favorite location and asked if I would get some trucks and sand toys from the garage. Absolutely.
I grabbed shovels, buckets, diggers, sifters—anything I could find to spark their interest. They have plenty of stuff to do but have been restless. Their emotions have been all over the place since we had to physically distance ourselves from their friends, our routines, and their normal. They miss their buddies and are mourning school, spring sports, and the ability to go to the park. They don’t seem to want to create their usual imaginary and elaborate worlds during play time. They get easily frustrated with card and board games they are used to playing. They have very little patience for the follow-along art tutorials they love on YouTube. Their mental energy seems to be zapped.
They are playing with their stuffies more often, pulling out old picture books, and building sand castles again. While it’s sweet and nostalgic to see my kids return to forgotten or neglected toys, it’s also a little heartbreaking. I know they are struggling.
Regression in children happens in part because they want attention from the people they find stability and comfort in—their parents and caregivers. They retreat back to that metaphorical womb of safety while also trying to gain control over the unknown. It’s also about going back to a time when everything felt familiar and easy. And what is easier for a child than to dig out old toys and watch cartoons from a time when everything felt safer?
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, physician, child development expert and mom of four tells Scary Mommy this is a safe coping mechanism and shows insight and self-regulation skills. “For the same reason that a lot of adults are re-watching shows or rereading books that have brought them joy in the past, kids often — in times of uncertainty — seek out familiar objects or experiences with known effects. Trying a new game or activity is not as certain to soothe.”
Other parents are seeing this in their children too.
LEGOs are making a popular comeback for tweens and teenagers. “My kids, 15 and 17, dragged out the LEGOs—even convinced me to purchase them each a new set,” says Jennifer, mom from Vermont. Kelly (CO) says her 14-year-old just ordered a set for themself and Jennifer (WI) tells Scary Mommy her 10-year-old is free-building again. Minecraft is making a reappearance in many homes too. Jennifer (NJ) says her 13-year-old son, “plays Minecraft now under a different login than he did when he was little and the other night he asked his dad to look up his older username and password so he can see what he built when he was five and six years old. He is that kid who does not want to grow up… now more than ever before.”
Baby dolls and Barbies are getting second lives. Forts are being rebuilt and old movies are being watched again. Valerie (SC) says, “My son, who has spent the last year or so begging to watch horror movies and generally acting ‘big,’ is suddenly into little kid movies again. He watched Secret Life of Pets 2 with me last night and he was genuinely enjoying it. I think we are all seeking comfort for sure.”
Sadie (CA) says she and her soon to be 16-year-old son have started to re-watch Clone Wars. “We watch together at 1:30 am. We are both awake and he tells me the things he remembers from being five and different things he felt then versus now. It’s been nice to hear him open up about things. Some episodes make him emotional so he holds my hand. Oh, and we make mac and cheese cups while we watch. It’s the best part of my day.”
Siblings are finding comfort in each other too. Kids are having sleepovers and sharing space in ways parents never thought they would see happen again. Jessica (TX), “My teens have been popping popcorn and holing up in one of their rooms to watch anime together on a tiny laptop screen into the wee hours. They haven’t done that in years and I love it.”
While the pandemic is causing a lot of uncomfortable and scary feelings, it is also creating some really beautiful moments. Our children are seeking comfort and it’s reassuring that they can find that in the spaces we provide for them. If your kids are entertaining themselves the way they did years ago, let them. It’s totally normal and pretty sweet.