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When Kids Don't Act Their Age

My son, Max, was always a pretty independent guy, but when his sister, Sarah, was born, our 4-year-old bundle of directed energy suddenly became helpless. If I asked him to do something, his first response was "You help me!" He even wanted me to feed him. I found myself biting my tongue to keep from yelling "Grow up!" After all, the cause of his behavior was fairly obvious: He was used to being top dog in our house, and the birth of his sister caused at least a partial demotion. Fortunately, this stage was over in a few weeks.

Other times, a sudden change in behavior can not only be more puzzling but also last longer. Nancy Bernstein's daughter, Maddie, never fussed when Bernstein and her husband left for an occasional evening out  -- until she was 4. "We'd used the same sitter since our daughter was born," says this Denver mom, "and Maddie adored her. But out of the blue, she started falling apart when we left."

Bernstein wonders whether it was because she and Maddie had been spending more time together than usual  -- that this "Don't leave me, Mom" routine was a response to Maddie's being used to having her mother all to herself. Whatever the reason, it was hard to deal with.

Frustrating as it can be, both kids' behavior is perfectly normal. The way children progress through developmental milestones isn't linear, say experts. "It's more like the stock market," says Vivian Friedman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in the department of psychiatry at the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Medicine. "They gain, they lose, they gain  -- until they master a skill." To deal with the zigs and zags without losing your cool:

Try to Understand the Cause

Kids under stress may return to behavior that soothes or makes them feel more in control, which is often something they did when they were younger. A new sibling, starting preschool, and changing caregivers are fairly common causes of regression. Less subtle factors could include anything that disrupts the usual routine  -- a visit from a grandparent, an illness, a family vacation.

Even developmental progress can cause a temporary backslide. When a child can reach for her own toy or go to the bathroom herself, she no longer needs  -- or gets  -- as much attention from Mom, which can create anxiety. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the so-called terrible twos. "A two-year-old is just beginning to confront a world that's making demands on her," says Jack L. Herman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pace University in New York City. "She's in a constant state of conflict between wanting independence and wanting to be cared for."

Admittedly, it's not always easy to figure out what's going on, since young children can't articulate what they're feeling, so it's important to realize that regressive behavior is usually a cry for some extra reassurance. When Laura Baldwin's daughter, Erika, was 3, she started calling her mom in at night to rearrange her pillow, fix her blanket, and get her a glass of water (after going to bed easily for a year). Rather than fight her daughter, Baldwin decided to help her through this phase by going into her room, doing what she requested, saying a few comforting words, and then leaving. "I let her know that if she needed something, she could ask," says the Greenfield, Wisconsin, mom, "but I also reminded her that as a big girl, she needed to go to sleep so she wouldn't be tired the next day."

Make it real
Another way to head off trouble is to talk with a child about awkward or upsetting events when they occur or even identify potential sources of anxiety before they happen. So if you anticipate a major change, such as a new preschool, you and your child can create a picture book of the transition, with him as the main character. Put in pictures of the old teachers and the new ones. And read it together often. "The reason this will help is that a child thinks about things in a very concrete way and will understand what he can see or touch rather than just words and ideas," says Vicki Kelley, child-life specialist at Cook Children's Medical Center of Fort Worth, Texas. That's why the more specific examples or details you can give, the fewer concerns he may have.

Try Creative Indulgence

Tempting as it is to snap at your suddenly clingy child, or tell her to act like a big girl, don't. The more anxious you are, the more you'll exacerbate her anxiety. Focus on reassuring her. If your child wants a bottle, for instance, don't say, "You drink from a big-girl cup now." Instead, tell her she can decide whether she wants a bottle or a cup. And maybe offer to hold her on your lap while she drinks from the cup. But choices also come with boundaries. "It's okay to tell a three-year-old 'No bottles outside the house,'" says Kelley. Be tolerant, but not so tolerant that babyish behavior becomes a habit or a crutch. When Angela Stewart's son, Ben, started preschool, he wanted to bring his security blanket "Bump," even though he'd long stopped carrying it around. Stewart, of Evanston, Illinois, wanted Ben to have Bump's comfort but didn't want his runaround style cramped by carrying a blanket. She cut a few strips off the blanket and fastened a piece inside Ben's shirt each day so he could feel it when he needed to. It worked like a charm until, after a few months of this, he simply forgot to ask for it one day. When his mom mentioned it to him later on, even he was surprised.

Tolerating some childish behavior doesn't mean you're creating a bigger baby. It can actually have the opposite effect. "It allows your child to become less childish because she's free to use her coping mechanisms to deal with her anxiety rather than spend all her energy trying to get someone to pay attention to her," says Herman. Still, while it's obviously okay to respond to a child who says "Hold me," because that's just common sense in most cases, you needn't feel compelled to bring everything to a halt every time your child demands physical affection. Instead, consider including her in what you're doing. Ask her to help you with the laundry, or suggest one of her favorite activities.

Show the advantages of being a big kid
One of the ultimate goals of parenting is to help kids see that they can cope with life on their own. So be sure to show why babyish behavior isn't in your child's best interest. Remind him that big kids don't have to take naps, that they get to choose their own clothes, and that if they're cooperative they can pick out treats at the store.

For Jodie Johnson Engstrom of Whitesboro, New York, that meant showing daughter Paige that acting like a 3-year-old had many more benefits than acting like 1-year-old brother Derek. "Paige was great about having a baby brother until I had to start watching him all the time because he was crawling and getting into everything," she says. "Then she wanted me to feed her and started having accidents and wanted to wear diapers." Frustrated, Engstrom decided to put away Paige's pretty underpants and Barbie dolls. When Paige asked for them, she said, "Babies can get hurt playing with Barbie dolls, and I'm sure you don't want to mess up your pretty panties." A few days later, Paige told her mom she had just used the potty herself and was ready to have her panties and dolls back. "I wanted her to figure it out for herself," says Engstrom, "and she did."

Keep Expectations Reasonable

Julia Moore, an Indianapolis mom, still feels guilty about becoming irritated with her daughter when she started using baby talk the summer she was 5. "Natalie has always been fairly mature," says Moore, "so when she began mispronouncing words and said, 'Me want milk,' I thought she was just trying to get my attention." It wasn't until Natalie started to ask questions about going to kindergarten that Moore realized her normally self-assured daughter was very nervous about starting school in the fall.

This lasted all summer, but because the cause was so obvious, Moore didn't worry, and the babyish behavior ended shortly after school began. Still, experts say a normal regressive episode typically lasts from a few days to several months. If it's any longer than that, with no obvious (or not-so-obvious) triggers, you might want to talk to your pediatrician.

Take care of yourself too
Dealing with regressive behavior can test a parent's mettle, and no one has patience when she's exhausted. It helps to have your husband, a friend, or a sitter give you a break. Laura Baldwin enlisted her husband to help meet Erika's bedtime demands. "I'm usually tired by the time the kids are in bed," she says, "so when Erika started calling out to me, he and I took turns going in to reassure her. That way, neither of us got too frustrated."

Regression is ultimately a child's way of coping with a world that is, at times, scary and uncertain. It passes, and your child will move on to the next phase  -- and new levels of maturity. Eventually, he'll be able to tell you when he's upset without demanding any more special attention than just listening to him and understanding. It's almost enough to make you long for the good old days of baby talk.


Sally Stich, a mom of two, writes regularly for Woman's Day and Time magazine.