Theories About Age Regression and Trauma

Age regression is when a person reverts to a younger state of mind. Regression is a normal and temporary condition for children, and it can be a coping mechanism for stress and untreated trauma in adults.

This article reviews what repression is, its causes and stigmas, and age regression as a part of psychological treatment. 

What to Know About Age Regression - Illustration by Danie Drankwalter

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

What Is Age Regression?

Age regression is a temporary or long-term reversal of behavior to earlier states of development. It is normal and expected in children but does occur in adulthood as well. 

People sometimes revert to childlike behavior to cope with 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 their thumb as a child chews on a pen because they are stressed or trying to think. More severe regression can include crying in a fetal position and bed-wetting.

Age Regression Examples

Other examples of regressive behaviors include:

  • Baby talk 
  • Inability to self-soothe
  • Whining
  • Becoming mute (nonverbal)
  • Using a doll or stuffed animal for comfort
  • Rocking
  • Pacing
  • Physical aggression
  • Temper tantrums (outbursts, throwing things, kicking, holding their breath)
  • Inability to perform basic activities they could do before
  • Pretending not to understand

Age Regression in Children

Age regression is a normal part of development for infants and children of all ages, especially if they are overwhelmed or reach a new milestone. This is temporary and usually resolves in a few weeks. Toddlers frequently throw temper tantrums, especially when afraid, tired, or hungry. They typically grow out of this before preschool or around 4 years old.

Psychological Theories

Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory

Sigmund Freud is a well-known neurologist from the 20th century. He is considered the founder of psychoanalysis, a theory and therapy used to treat mental health disorders. 

Freud defined age regression as an unconscious defense mechanism that causes the reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development instead of handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult manner. He said that this defense mechanism helps a person protect themselves from the effects of trauma, stress, and anger.

The Ego, According to Freud

Freud’s use of the word "ego" means a sense of self that helps a person understand the world and what is real. This part of the personality includes judgment, tolerance, control, planning, and memory. 

Anna Freud’s Motivated Forgetting Theory

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, elaborated on his studies. Anna developed specific tools for psychoanalysis or therapy with children. Rather than focus exclusively on talk therapy, she also engaged children through play or drawings.

She proposed that people psychologically regress under stress to an emotional time period when they felt safer.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung, a psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology, saw age regression more positively. Jung defined age regression as an attempt to achieve childhood innocence, security, love, and trust. His theory was that people revert to an age when they felt safer.

Condition-Related Behaviors

Regressive behaviors can stem from neurological, medical, or mental health conditions and may be a symptom of:

Voluntary Age Regression

For some, age regression is a deliberate choice used as a coping mechanism for past trauma, anxiety, or depression. Others voluntarily adopt childlike behaviors because it’s a way to deal with stress.

Voluntary age regression might include:

  • Wearing baby clothes
  • Sucking on a pacifier
  • Being spoon-fed
  • Using a sippy cup
  • Playing with children’s toys
  • Creating a safe space with childlike objects to feel more at peace

Age Regression From Trauma 

Those who experienced trauma at an earlier time are more likely to regress, especially if the trauma occurred at a young age. The regression can be triggered by stressors or memories of trauma.

When It’s a Coping Mechanism

People learn ways to overcome, adapt to, or cope with stress as they mature. Coping mechanisms might include talking, journaling, or exercising. Age regression can occur when an adult is overwhelmed and does not have another way to cope or communicate their distress.

Working With a Therapist in Regressive Therapy 

In different forms of psychotherapy, the patient might regress in certain ways. This can sometimes be a helpful and necessary way to rework maladaptive (inappropriate) defense mechanisms (including regression and acting out) in sessions with a therapist. It also can lead to more mature functioning outside of therapy sessions.

There are times, particularly in the face of certain types of trauma and personality disorders, in which regression can be overwhelming. These times may require active interventions by the therapist to help the person manage these regressions in healthier ways.

Hypnotic Regression Benefits vs. Controversies 

The goal of regressive hypnosis therapy, a form of hypnotherapy (also known as hypnosis) used to actively help a person revisit memories and emotions from an earlier date. Some therapists feel this can help patients access repressed memories and help them deal with painful experiences from the past. There is considerable evidence, however, that memories accessed through hypnosis are not reliable.

Benefits of Hypnosis

General types of hypnosis may help with:

  • Fears and anxiety
  • Sleep disorders
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Post-trauma anxiety
  • Grief 
  • Smoking cessation (stop smoking)
  • Overeating

Hypnosis that focuses on regression remains controversial for several reasons, including:

  • False memory syndrome: Memories gained during hypnosis are not trustworthy and can unintentionally create false memories.
  • Preconceived ideas: The therapist may have ideas or opinions formed beforehand about clients that cause false or leading suggestions.
  • Lack of training: Opponents argue that people performing hypnosis are not all trained therapists. Without proper training, they may not have the tools to help if significant emotional distress occurs.

If hypnosis sounds like something you want to try, it is important to find a qualified mental health professional who has had appropriate training.

When Hypnotherapy May Not Be the Best Option

Hypnotherapy may not be appropriate for someone with hallucinations, delusions, or using drugs and alcohol.

Age Regression Stigmas

Age regression, whether voluntary or involuntary, is not considered sexual. It is a term used in psychology or medicine. This terminology refers to those who voluntarily or involuntarily regress to a younger state of mind,

Confusing Age Regression With Something Sexual

Age regression can sometimes be confused with a sexual fetish, or a type of kink.

A kink is a sexual activity that falls outside of what society considers conventional. Age play, a type of kink, is when someone pretends to be younger or role-plays during sexual activities.

Freud’s Definition of Psychosexual Stages

Some of this confusion may be due to how Freud defined childhood developmental stages as focused around pleasure-seeking energies. He developed his psychosexual development theory, where he said that personality development throughout childhood takes place during five psychosexual stages. In this theory, each stage focuses on one erogenous area. Erogenous areas are parts of the body that are especially sensitive to sexual stimulation.

Summary

Age regression, or when someone acts younger than their age, can be voluntary or involuntary. For children, involuntary regression is a typical and temporary behavior that is part of their normal growth and development.  

Psychological theories about age regression in adults differ among some scientists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. They propose a variety of possible causes, including a coping mechanism for stress, behavior related to certain medical or mental health conditions, and a state sometimes promoted in certain psychotherapies. 

A Word From Verywell 

It may be concerning when children experience age regression as part of their normal growth and development. However, it is normal and is usually temporary. If they regress for longer than a few weeks, it’s a good idea to check in with a pediatrician

If you or an adult loved one has signs of involuntary age regression, consult with your healthcare provider or mental health professional so they can help you determine and treat the underlying cause. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does age regressive behavior come and go?

    It depends on the cause of the age regression. Age regression from personality disorders or trauma will usually come with stress, traumatic memories, or triggers. Regressive behaviors can be more persistent when they are related to a neurological condition like head trauma or dementia.

  • What does "agere" mean on social media?

    "Agere" is short for age regression or age regressor.

  • Is it normal for toddlers to regress?

    Yes. A toddler often regresses when they are out of their comfort zone. This means that they stop doing things they’ve already learned. It might happen when they go to daycare or when a new sibling is born. Age regression is temporary. Temper tantrums last until around preschool. If other forms of regression last longer than a few weeks, check in with the toddler’s pediatrician. 

  • Is age regression considered a mental health condition?

    No, age regression is not a mental health condition. Involuntary age regression can be a symptom of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, or mood disorders. Voluntary age regression is sometimes used to cope or for relaxation. 

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