Age Regression: When Your Inner Child Comes to the Surface

Survivors of child sexual abuse often face some of these recurring questions: Why did I act that way? Why did I blow up? Why was I triggered? Why can’t I seem to connect with people as easily as everyone else? Why do I take self-destructive actions again and again? Why can’t I seem to handle things like other people? Why is everything so hard?

Some survivors go a step further and question specific behaviors they find themselves engaging in as adults. It’s a question that some survivors don’t want to face – Why do I act like a child when I am a full-grown adult? In these situations, survivors may feel embarrassment or shame over behaviors they logically recognize as age-inappropriate, but they don’t know how to control it.

The phenomena, the reason, and the resolution are far more complicated than can be explained in a blog post, but we provide an overview and strategies to overcome this obstacle.

What is this behavior called?

According to Bryan Bruno, a psychiatrist and Medical Director of Mid-City TMS (a transcranial magnetic stimulation center treating depression), age regression is defined as “an individual’s reversion of their mental state to a younger one. Age regression may only set the individual’s mind back a few years, but in some cases, it may take the individual’s mind back to childhood or even infancy.”

Symptoms may include:

  • Crying
  • Not speaking
  • Using baby talk
  • Rocking
  • Pacing
  • Whining
  • Dressing “childlike.”
  • Curling up in the fetal position.
  • Speaking in an “immature” manner or using language typically associated with children or teenagers.
  • Avoiding adult concerns or responsibilities.
  • Hugging a comfort object like a stuffed animal or a blanket.
  • Having an inappropriate or overreactive “temper tantrum.”

It’s important to note that if someone experiences some of the symptoms above, it does not necessarily mean they are experiencing age regression. Crying or overreacting emotionally from time to time is not uncommon.

What Causes Age Regression?

Age regression can be temporary or long-term. It’s common to see this behavior often in children with a new sibling. A child who is potty trained may suddenly want to go back into diapers or wet the bed. Subliminally, the child wants to return to a time when they felt safer and received more attention.

Sometimes, age regression is a coping mechanism for trauma, stress, severe illness, or mental health disorders. Age regression can be unconscious (involuntary) or conscious (voluntary) behavior. A subtle example is when a person who sucked on their thumb as a child now chews on pens when they are stressed or trying to think through a complicated problem. More severe regression can include crying in a fetal position or bed-wetting.

Childhood trauma disrupts the typical developmental process, often leading to underdeveloped coping skills or unhealthy coping strategies. Without healthy adult coping strategies, a survivor under stress can “regress” into behaviors that represent a time when the survivor felt safer or when their “world” was simpler. The regressive behavior gets attention (whether positive or negative) and may result in survivors getting the additional care or love they desire.

Science is just beginning to understand how childhood trauma directly affects brain development. The technical term for the study of this development is “epigenetics,” and describes how trauma can turn specific genes on or off that help the brain develop, manage stress, and maintain overall health. Age regression can be one of the ways that a survivor adapts to their body and brain being overwhelmed.

Trauma is not the only reason a person might regress. Illnesses such as dementia, depressive disorder, and mood disorders can also cause regression. In addition, alcohol and drug abuse—especially chemical abuse that begins before puberty is complete— can cause an individual to regress. This is due, at least in part, to how drugs and alcohol can stunt a person’s ability to develop psychologically in a healthy way.

Treatment for Age Regression

The best way to treat age regression is through professional counseling. Counseling will address the cause of the behavior and help the survivor develop healthy coping and resiliency strategies.

However, since many survivors are unaware they are suffering from age regression, they often don’t seek help. This is where a survivor’s support network can come into play.

If you think you know someone dealing with age regression, you should:

  • Encourage them to seek professional help.
  • not your job to “fix” them; do your best to be supportive and guide the survivor toward healing.
  • Talk to a medical professional or counselor about resources and support groups in your area.

If you are a survivor who thinks you may be experiencing age regression:

  • Talk to a medical professional or therapist and discuss what you are feeling and how you are acting.
  • Ask for help and support from your friends and family.
  • Join a support network for survivors of abuse.

The most important thing a survivor can do is to get help for the root cause of age regression. Age regression is typically a symptom of another cause – often medical, emotional, and psychological. The faster the root cause is addressed, the faster healing can begin.