Dr. Mike,

Our 6 year old daughter needs to sleep with us every night now.  It’s 100% because of the coronavirus since she’s been sleeping by herself for years with no issues.  She started by coming into our room at night crying about “nightmares” and “scary dreams” a few weeks ago and now she needs to stay with us every night.  When we’ve tried to get her to stay in her own bed, she cries non-stop.  She’s also resorting to baby talk when expressing herself, which is a new thing for us.  When we try to correct that, she also gets upset.  Am I doing the right thing by sandwiching her in between my husband and me for now or am I causing more harm?  Should we just ignore the baby talk too?  Help!

Upset in Loudoun

Dear Upset Parent,

Regression, as a defense mechanism, is not uncommon for children when upsetting and/or traumatic events become too much to handle directly.  Based on what you’ve written, your daughter is regressing to earlier stages of development to avoid the strong, negative emotions she’s currently experiencing.

How to fix it?  First, don’t overreact or be too concerned inasmuch as these behaviors will happen and should go away with your support and in time.  Second, regarding the baby talk, I recommend that you warmly point out and interpret what she is doing.  You could say something like, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been speaking more in baby talk lately, and I wonder if it’s because of all of the changes with the virus.  This has really been hard on you for sure with not being in school and with not seeing your friends and we understand.”  By warmly acknowledging and clarifying the regressive behavior, you will be giving your daughter a mental space for her to begin to make sense of and correct her thoughts and feelings.  Third, as far as her sleeping with you, I would also supportively acknowledge and clarify what is happening.  I would let her know that you understand her need to be with you at night now, but as a big girl you are going to help her to feel better.  I recommend that you put a plan in place where one parent stays with her in her bed until she feels that she is ready to sleep there by herself again.  You can gradually stepwise things toward her having greater independence over time – e.g., you can later agree with her that you’ll stay with her until she falls asleep and then leave the room, and she can always call you back if she awakes and needs you.

Lastly, I recommend that you provide your daughter with activities and opportunities that will support her sense of agency and her natural motivation to grow, learn and master tasks and moments again.  I’m hopeful that things will get back to normal for your daughter with these tips.  If, however, her problems do not improve or worsen in time, I recommend that you seek to help of a child psychologist.

Child sleeping with parents

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703 723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn, VA 20147.