When I joined the staff of Children Today, one of the first things that caught my attention was the number of preschool-age children with obvious language delays and who were still in diapers. My first conclusion was that they perhaps were experiencing developmental delays as a result of lack of exposure to rich language and toilet training opportunities, or other undiagnosed issues. I soon learned from speaking with parents and caregivers that many of these children had language and were toilet-trained prior to becoming homeless.
Regression is the act of returning to an earlier stage of behavior or physical development. Exposure to trauma, whether it’s one traumatic experience, or a more prolonged exposure to stress, can result in the loss of acquired developmental skills, especially in language and toilet training. Other typical characteristics of regression include separation anxiety, fear of the dark, fear of strangers, and the inability to sleep by his or herself. Many of these expressions happen when children have overwhelming anxiety or stress.
While it is not uncommon to see a typically developing child regress to earlier stages of development (bed-wetting, sleep problems, unexplained fears), children are especially likely to regress if they have anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, or depression.
We have learned that the best way to address regression in children experiencing the traumatic effects of homelessness, which can be extreme and long-lasting, is to have the children evaluated and support the staff and parents in implementing strategies to help children deal with stress. We have surrounded ourselves with very talented community partners that on a regular basis conduct speech assessments or developmental and mental health screenings at our facilities, enabling both staff and parents to learn intervention skills that can be readily applied.
These strategies and interventions have taken us years to develop. However, the most important lesson I learned during the first weeks on the job, was that my role was to protect children from situations that are over-stimulating and frightening and to do all I could to restore a sense of safety in the world, even if it was just during our hours of operation.