QUESTION: My daughter will be three
years old soon. She seems to have regressed lately. She has become
clingy and fearful. How can we discourage this babyish behavior and
help her to be the happy, daring, outgoing big girl she seemed to
be growing into a few months ago when she was potty trained and gave
up her bottle?
ANSWER: You clearly have a preference
for seeing your daughter as more outgoing and daring than she apparently
is right now. While controlling her bodily functions was a big step
in her development, simultaneously relinquishing her bottle may have
put her over the edge.
When children take a large developmental step, such
as becoming toilet trained, they often initially need more soothing
in other areas. Giving up the bottle, which is a self-soothing mechanism
cuts off her ability to comfort herself at a time when she has challenged
herself the most.
Regression is natural and serves to help a child adjust
to a new level of growth. For example, a four year old will temporarily
enjoy a bottle for a few weeks when a new baby arrives. Or a child
that has just mastered reading will want to return to an earlier mastered
activity, such as riding a tricycle. Some classrooms are based on
this concept, allowing a child to be challenged in the morning and
return to tasks already mastered in the afternoon.
Your daughter is clearly giving you the message to
slow down the push toward being a "big girl." Reflect on your own
values for autonomy. Are you critical of dependency needs your child
shows, or are you overly anxious for her to be more grown up than
she is ready to be?
If you find you place a premium on being independent,
you are not alone! Our culture values autonomy, often at the cost
of ignoring essential emotional needs. But our society's emphasis
on autonomy also results in an abundance of both anxiety and depressive
disorders. These disorders, in part, stem from early shame and disapproval
of our "babyish" needs for help and reassurance. Yet, these are needs
we never entirely outgrow.
Consider indulging, rather than criticizing your child's
dependency needs. Your daughter is not being babyish: She is being
two. Allow her to use a bottle if she wants to and even play at being
a baby for 10 or 15 minutes each day. Hold her in your lap, rock her
and make it into a game she can choose to play if she wants. All of
us love to be taken care of and your daughter is no different. If
you give her the opportunity to pretend to be a baby, she will let
go of these behaviors when she is ready. You may be amazed at how
much a three year old can enjoy this game, because you are making
room for all of the conflicting feelings. Find ways to sanction her
dependency and you will likely see her confidence and independence
return in the activities she once enjoyed.