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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Regression

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Regression involves taking the position of a child in some problematic situation, rather than acting in a more adult way. This is usually in response to stressful situations, with greater levels of stress potentially leading to more overt regressive acts.

Regressive behavior can be simple and harmless, such as a person who is sucking a pen (as a Freudian regression to oral fixation), or may be more dysfunctional, such as crying or using petulant arguments..


A wife refuses to drive a car even though it causes the family much disorganization. A result of her refusal is that her husband has to take her everywhere.

A person who suffers a mental breakdown assumes a fetal position, rocking and crying.

A child suddenly starts to wet the bed after years of not doing so (this is a typical response to the arrival of a new sibling).

A college student carefully takes their teddy-bear with them (and goes to sleep cuddling it).


Regression is a form of retreat, going back to a time when the person felt safer and where the stresses in question were not known, or where an all-powerful parent would take them away.

In a Freudian view, the stress of fixations caused by frustrations of the person’s past psychosexual development may be used to explain a range of regressive behaviors, including:

  • Oral fixation can lead to increase smoking or eating, or vocal actions including verbal abuse.
  • Anal fixation can lead to anal retentive behaviors such as tidying and fastidiousness. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can occur including those that lead to cruelty, extreme orderliness, or miserliness
  • Phallic fixation can lead to conversion hysteria (the transformation of psychic energy into physical symptoms) which is disguised sexual impulses.

Regression is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

If the person with whom you are working is showing regressive symptoms, you can respond to their child state in several ways, including taking a parent position of authority (nurturing or controlling) or join them in their child place (thus building alignment).

See also

Transactional Analysis, The Drama Triangle

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