Age regression is an unconscious return to an earlier stage of behavioral, emotional, or social development. It can be a sign of distress, trauma, or a mental health condition.
Temporary age regression is fairly typical in children as they grow and learn new skills. However, when the regression is not temporary or affects older children and adults, it can be a sign of a condition that requires support and treatment.
This article discusses age regression, including the signs and symptoms, causes, treatment, and how it differs from age regression therapy.
Age regression is when a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior revert to an earlier stage of development. For example, an older child might begin behaving more similarly to a younger child.
The early psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud defined age regression as an unconscious defense mechanism. This means it is an unintentional way the mind tries to protect itself from situations or feelings it does not want to face.
However, not all theorists have the same perspective. Carl Jung thought that age regression could be a positive step toward someone getting a need met, such as a need for trust or care.
Age regression may be temporary or long term, depending on the cause, and can affect children or adults of any age.
The symptoms of age regression are specific to the individual and the situation that caused it. Behaviors may include:
- quiet baby talk
- needing a comfort object, such as a stuffed animal
- lying in a fetal position
- sucking on objects or a thumb
- not talking
- verbally abusing others
- aggression, such as hitting, biting, or scratching
Many of these behaviors, such as rocking or needing a comfort object, are ways that children try to soothe themselves when upset or how children react when they are scared or angry.
Age regression can be mild and temporary. For example, an adult may unconsciously revert to sucking a thumb when they are stressed. It can also be more severe, affecting many aspects of behavior and a person’s ability to take care of themselves.
In children, temporary regression at key stages of development is typical. When children learn new skills or venture into new environments, this can cause stress, even if they are excited about it. The stress may cause children to temporarily revert to an earlier stage.
However, when the regression is not short-term, or it occurs in older children and adults, it can be a sign of an underlying problem. Actual or apparent age regression may be a result of:
- Stress: For some, age regression may be an unconscious way of coping with difficult situations or feelings of helplessness. For example, a teenager struggling at school may engage in childlike self-soothing behaviors to cope.
- Trauma: Traumatic experiences are events that a person perceives as threatening. When people develop post-traumatic stress disorder, they can relive traumatic memories. If a person experienced childhood trauma, this may look like age regression.
- Dissociation: Dissociation can be part of the trauma response. It causes a person to feel disconnected from themselves or reality, which may confuse their sense of time. Some people with dissociative identity disorder also have an “alter” who is younger than they are.
- Psychosis: Psychosis is when a person has a distorted perception of reality. They may have delusions, or false beliefs, that they are a child or baby.
- Neurological conditions: Some neurological conditions, such as dementia, can also result in delusions or alter a person’s sense of time.
- Delirium: Delirium is a temporary and reversible change in a person’s consciousness, and it is common among people in hospital, those with infections, and other conditions. It can cause agitation and disorientation.
Short-term age regression is not always cause for concern, particularly in young children. If it lasts longer, affects a person’s sense of reality, or affects their ability to perform daily tasks, they require medical attention.
Treatment for age regression aims to address the underlying cause. For example, if a child has regressed because they are scared of starting school, getting support for this anxiety may help.
Other examples of interventions doctors may suggest include:
- Parent education: If a child is showing signs of age regression that do not improve by themselves, caregivers may be able to help by providing reassurance and helping the child feel safe. Punishing age regression will not help.
- Psychotherapy: Talk therapy may help some people discuss how they feel, process traumatic memories, and learn healthy ways of coping with stress, dissociation, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) triggers.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This involves asking people to pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or a sound while thinking of a traumatic memory. This reduces the intensity of the memory.
- Medications: Those with mental health conditions may require medications to improve symptoms. Similarly, if the cause is physical, medications may be part of the treatment for the root cause.
Generally, unconscious age regression is a sign of distress of some kind or a health condition. However, there are some situations where people use temporary age regression for therapeutic reasons, such as:
Age regression therapy
Age regression therapy aims to help people revisit the past on purpose. It uses hypnosis to guide people through old memories and experiences.
During age regression therapy, people may revert to a younger state of being temporarily during the session, but a therapist will bring them back out again at the end. There is little scientific research to support this therapy.
Recreational age regression
People can engage in intentional age regression for fun or relaxation. For example, a person might revisit a childhood hobby or enjoy something nostalgic. Unlike regular age regression, though, this is a deliberate choice.
Recreational age regression is not necessarily harmful, but if a person finds it is interfering with their life, it is still something they could potentially discuss with a therapist.
It is best to seek advice and support if a person has any persistent mental health symptoms. This could include signs of age regression, feelings of being helpless or overwhelmed, or symptoms of PTSD.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Age regression is when a person displays signs of an earlier stage of development, such as temper tantrums or the need for a comfort object. When it is mild or temporary, it is not necessarily harmful, but it can be a sign of an underlying condition or distress.
Treatment varies with the cause. Some people with age regression may benefit from talk therapies, trauma therapies such as EMDR, or medications.
Anyone who is concerned that they are showing signs of age regression should speak with a mental health professional for advice.