Regression is the act of returning to an earlier stage of behavioral or physical development. A child who suddenly will not sleep by his or herself and a person with Alzheimer’s who begins exhibiting childlike behavior both may be regressing. Regression can be symptomatic of an illness or a normal part of development. Stress can also cause temporary periods of regression, particularly in children. In Freudian psychology, regression is the act of returning to an earlier stage of psychosexual development as a result of overwhelming anxiety or stress.

Causes of Regression
Children commonly regress to earlier stages of development, and thus regression can be seen as a normal part of development. Children are especially likely to regress during times of stress, such as the birth of a new sibling. Regression may also be a part of the learning process; some children regress a bit before fully mastering a concept such as potty training or reading.

Some illnesses can also cause regression. Neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, some brain tumors, and Parkinson’s disease may result in both psychological and physical regression. People undergoing extreme stress from mental health conditions may also regress. Anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, and depression may all cause temporary regressions, though the symptom is not characteristic of these conditions.

Treatment for Regression
Because regression is a normal part of childhood, it does not typically require treatment. When regression is extreme or long-lasting, a child may be evaluated for conditions such as autism, and parents may be advised to implement strategies to help their children deal with stress. When regression is caused by extreme stress such as the death of a parent, psychotherapy and medication can help. When regression occurs in adults due to illness, physicians typically focus on treating the underlying illness and helping the person establish coping skills.

Regression Therapy
Some therapists use regression therapy to help their clients regress to childhood, typically under hypnosis. This treatment was popular in the 1980s and is controversial because it has occasionally resulted in the uncovering of false repressed memories.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 08-20-2015

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