The unconscious defense mechanism of reverting to immature behavior.When threatened with external problems or internal conflicts which they cannot cope with, some individuals return to reaction patterns which gave them comfort or relief at an earlier period in their lives. This tendency can be observed at any age from childhood to old age. When a new brother or sister arrives, the older boy or girl in the family sometimes reverts to bedwetting, thumb sucking, or baby talk in an unconscious effort to recapture the parental attention these activities elicited at an earlier age. Adolescents who cannot resolve their emotional problems sometimes regress to sulking, weeping, or temper tantrums as a means of getting what they want. Adults may become so helpless and indecisive that others have to solve their problems for them, just as their father or mother used to do. Many older people revive childhood memories and live in the past, in an unconscious effort to regain the satisfactions of their youth.Frequently, the tendency to regress is found in individuals who have “gotten away with” infantile behavior as they were growing up. The parent who gives in every time the child cries or pouts may be setting a pattern which will be revived every time the child meets problems later on. Similarly, regressive behavior patterns are often found in people who have failed to grow up in all respects—usually because their parents have been overprotective. They have been partially arrested, or “fixated,” at one or another stage of development, and return to that stage when they encounter difficulties they find hard to handle. Psychoanalysts believe that some people also tend to reactivate impulses which were denied sufficient expression early in life. According to this theory, an individual might regress, under stress, to thumb sucking if he did not have enough “sucking satisfaction” as an infant, perhaps as a result of hasty feeding or a large-holed bottle.We are all tempted to retreat to immaturity at times, and there are situations where it does no harm to yield to that temptation. The businessman who has been “thrown for a loss” may need to be babied by his wife for a while; and the wife herself may benefit from an extra dose of t.l.c. (tender loving care) when she has suffered a disappointment. But generally speaking, regression is an attempt to evade rather than solve problems, and immature behavior almost inevitably leads to greater difficulties than ever.The mechanism of regression can reach extreme proportions. Under the stress of the concentration camp, where all normal satisfactions were denied, some prisoners reverted to childish reactions:“The prisoners lived, like children, only in the immediate present. . . . They became unable to plan for the future or to give up immediate pleasure satisfactions to gain greater ones in the near future. . . . They were boastful, telling tales of what they had accomplished in their former lives. . . . Like children they felt not at all set back or ashamed when it became known that they had lied about their prowess” (Bettelheim, 1943). The term “hysterical puerilism” is sometimes applied to cases of temporary infantile behavior resulting from prolonged combat or other extreme stresses.The most striking and pathological examples of regression, however, are found in cases of severe personality disorganization. In chronic schizophrenia some patients return to a completely infantile level where they have to be washed, diapered, dressed, and fed. This process may even go so far that they curl up into a fetal position and remain in that position for months.Illustrative Case:A seventeen-year-old girl was brought to a psychiatric clinic by her mother with the complaint that for the preceding five months her behavior had become increasingly irrational and destructive. The history revealed that after the patient was about four years old her parents had begun to quarrel violently, making her early environment extremely contentious and unstable. At about this age she first developed various neurotic traits: nail biting, temper tantrums, enuresis, and numerous phobias. When the patient was seven the mother refused furthersexual relations with the father and left the marital bed, but the patient continued to sleep with the father until she was thirteen. At this time the mother suspected that the patient was being incestuously seduced, obtained legal custody of the girl, and moved away with her to a separate home. The patient resented this, quarreled frequently with her mother, became a disciplinary problem at home and at school, and acquired a police record for various delinquencies. Three years later, at the patient’s insistence, she and her mother paid an unexpected visit to the father, and found him living with another girl in questionable circumstances. In a violent scene, the mother denounced the father for unfaithfulness and, again contrary to the patient’s wishes, took her home. There the patient refused to attend school and rapidly became sullen, withdrawn, and noncommunicative. During her mother’s absence at work she would keep the house in disorder, destroy clothes her mother had made for her, and throw her mother’s effects out the window. During one of these forays she discovered a photograph of herself at the age of five which, incidentally, was so poorly lighted and faded that, for one detail, it did not show her eyebrows. Using this as a pattern, she shaved off her own eyebrows, cut her hair to the same baby bob, and began to affect the facial expression and sitting posture of the pictured child. When brought to the hospital her general behavior was correspondingly childish; she was untidy and enuretic, giggled incessantly or spoke in simple monosyllabic sentences, spent most of her time on the floor playing with blocks or paper dolls, and had to be fed, cleaned, and supervised as though she were an infant. In effect, she appeared to have regressed to a relatively desirable period in life antedating disruptive jealousies and other conflicts; moreover, she acted out this regression in unconsciously determined but strikingly symbolic patterns of eliminating the mother as a rival and regaining the father she had lost in her childhood. (Mas- serman, 1961).Dlnstrative Case:This woman was born shortly after the Civil War of a rather healthy family. She had been petted, spoiled, admired, waited upon, and had attained a fair education. From this sheltered unmarried life she had been lovingly transferred into the strong, protective arms of an adoring husband. He was a corporation official, intelligent, efficient, alert, but at the same time exceedingly gentle toward and proud of his rather fragile and beautiful young wife.Her husband provided for her a house, servants, comforts, and what luxuries he could afford. He relieved her from all responsibilities, smoothed out her annoyances, and managed her personal affairs even to details. She never made a move without her husband. He escorted her on all the trips she made, and he assisted her in picking out her hats and dresses.While still in his prime her husband died and she was faced with problems of handling the estate and the upbringing of three adolescent children.This situation seemed appalling to her although the estate was ample. She began to feel that she should be younger in order better to understand the children and to be more companionable with them. When the usual period of mourning was over she dressed and decorated herself as a younger woman would. She sought the companionship of young married couples and attempted to take up their activities.But finding that this still did not blend with the life of her children, she entered her children’s lives with even greater zest. She went out with them, adopted their friends, and dressed as her daughters dressed.It was not long before she gave the children considerable anxiety by becoming adolescent. They had to direct her goings out and comings in, to try to persuade her that her clothes were entirely too youthful for her and to induce her to converse less flippantly. But the mother continued to act younger at the rate of a year or so every few months.At the age of sixty-one she acted like a girl of seven. She behaved like a little girl in short dresses. She read simple things rather badly; she craved attention; she laughed sometimes and at other times she would cry a little. She talked with childish glee, or was mischievous and delighted in trying to play jokes or fool the doctors and nurses. She would play with objects as if they were toys. When her children came to see her she would act as if she were their child.A few months later she began to act as if she were four years of age. Her enunciation became less distinct, she was careless with her spoon, spilling food, and had to be assisted with her feeding. She would prattle at times and occasionally soil herself. She had ceased to read and would have crawled around on the floor had the nurses so permitted.In several months she was in bed moving her hands and feet aimlessly, often whining and crying like a very young child. The only articulation one could understand was her frequent crying for “mamma,” although her mother had died thirty years before. She would take a towel or any cloth, roll it up and hug it to her as if it were a rag doll. She now required liquid nourishment because she would not chew, and soon had to be fed liquids with a spoon, taking them with a sucking movement. She also would suck the comer of her gown or a bed sheet. She began to soil herself regularly and had to be changed without giving any assitance, the nurse using large cloths in the manner of diapers. She would eat, sleep, make peculiar noises, and cry. She liked to be fondled and handled by almost anyone. Her only recognition of her family was an expression of delight when they came to see her.She continued to regress until she assumed the fetal position, breathing gently being her only movement. She lived for a few months in this state and died. (Podolsky, 1953)

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "REGRESSION," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed August 9, 2022).


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