Regression and the Child Within

The psychological defense mechanism of regression was investigated. A defense mechanism is an unconscious psychological process that provides relief from intra-psychic conflict and anxiety. Regression defends an individual from assuming adult responsibility of her life by allowing her to regress to a more infantile state of mind and relating to the world as would a child. Reasons for the operation of regression in subjects and an exploration of its operation were delineated using current psychological theory. Also explored were the effects of regression on her family and friends.

Regression and the Child Within Sigmund Freud, physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist and father of psychoanalysis, distinguished three structural elements within the mind– the id, the super-ego, and the ego — as mentioned in his book, “The Ego and the Id”. The id is the pleasure-seeking site of instinctual sexual drives requiring satisfaction; the super-ego contains the ‘conscience’, a socially acquired, internalized control mechanism usually imparted first by the parents; and the ego is the conscious self, created by the dynamic tensions and interactions between the id and the super-ego.

It is the job of the ego to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id and super-ego within the requirements of external reality. Freud believed that in order to defend the ego from negative elements such as the id, the outside world or real danger and the superego, certain defense mechanisms had to be in place. His daughter, Anna, expanded on his theories in the 1930s, summarizing several ego defenses in her book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. These mechanisms minimize anxiety, protect the ego and maintain repression of uncomfortable emotions.

The ego defenses are successful only so long as the conscious part of the ego is unaware that another part of the ego is defending itself. Regression, one such defense mechanism, eases an individual’s anxiety by returning her to a more premature stage of development, a stage that sharply contradicts her usual level of adjustment. 1 By regressing, she abdicates adult responsibilities, reverting to a role of helplessness and dependence, when clearly capable of more. Regression may sometimes be seen in the case of graduating University students, leaving the security of academia to finally enter into the adult world.

Confronted with a newfound independence and freedom, they are forced to take on more adult responsibility in their lives and confront their future alone. This overwhelming life event can unduly stress the ego, torn between the desire to move forward in a socially-expected way and the desire to remain sheltered and taken care of. In this case, regression occurs in relation to the need of security. The student might attempt to move back in with his parents and expect to be looked after, even though part of him realizes the behavior isn’t entirely suitable.

Sometimes regressive behavior is less “childish”, in that it is immature and inappropriate, and more “child-like”. Adults are most susceptible to this after severe traumatic experiences, sometimes curling into the fetal position, sucking their thumbs or playing with dolls. As in the example of graduating University students, their security is threatened and the ego seeks to defend itself from by reverting to an earlier state of development. The individual relinquishes adulthood, embracing an earlier time when their intra-psychic elements were in a more balanced state.

By regressing, the individual temporarily self-medicates but stands to prolong their suffering by not directly confronting the source of their conflict and anxiety. Regression, as every other defense mechanism, leads to a distorted perception of reality and to the elimination of conflicting self-aspects to prevent the self from fragmentation (Aeschelmann et al, 1992). For example, a child confronting divorce might feel torn between the desire to accept his parent’s decision and please them by adjusting well and the more selfish desire for his parents to stay together.

In order to resolve the conflict, he represses it and regresses to an earlier stage of his development when the marital relationship was more positive. Perhaps he starts wetting the bed to unconsciously draw the focus away from his parent’s split toward his own needs. However, repression of unacceptable wishes, ideas and images does not guarantee ego protection from anxiety because repression does not eliminate repressed wishes and ideas.

Repression only protects an individual from the conscious awareness of those ideas and regressing may actually serve to increase and prolong suffering and may also place undue stress on those around him. Because one’s behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum, an individual’s defense mechanisms will surely affect those around him. In regression, a common demand is for other people to become ‘mother’. The level of regression taking place is determined to a large extent on the willingness of others to play the mothering role.

As in the previous example, if the graduating University student attempts to reassert her childhood position in the family home and is quickly dismissed, her regression might be shorter lived than one whose position is entirely welcomed and supported. Inherently, the regression defense involves diminished self-restraint and immoderate actions, and people frequently become dismayed or disgusted with a person who persistently fails to assume more responsible behavior (Firestone, 1990).

New conflicts may arise as a result of the regression. 2 In the case of the University student, the internal intra-psychic conflict may meet with conflicting views of reality by the student’s family concerning the forward path of her life. Her stress is thus compounded and perhaps even further repressed, strengthening her regression. Regression, as a defense mechanism, refers to the automatic and unwilled reversion to modes of psychological functioning characteristic of earlier life stages, especially the childhood years.

3 This tendency to go back to earlier modes of functioning occurs when an individual is faced with some serious conflict in the present. The symbolic return to the former years enables a person to avoid the present adversity and treat it as if it has not yet arrived. It reduces the sensation of fear and fosters an illusion of security. 4 In regressing, the individual attempts to block out genuine feeling reactions appropriate to the present, while at the same time, childish feelings or heightened states of emotionality may prevail.

Regressive trends often manifest themselves in self-destructive and careless actions that elicit concern and worry from loved ones. Though the regression serves to temporarily defend the ego from anxious pain, it eventually hinders the sufferer from positive mental development. This is not to say that all regression should be frowned upon. Periodic regression is not only observable in the behavior of normal people but also is essential for the maintenance of psychological health.

To be able to retreat from reality in dream thought seems essential to effectively face the demands of the day. Similarly, most adults need to retreat periodically into daydreams where events that occur in their imagination are completely under their control and can be managed as they wish. For example, if someone has experienced a slight or a humiliation at the hands of a coworker under circumstances in which he cannot fight back, daydreams of triumph over his adversary greatly assist in processing the stress of the trauma.

This healthy regression is under his control and has been aptly designated by Kris (1952) as “regression in service of the Ego. ” It is something he allows himself to do and lies in sharp contrast to the unwilled and involuntary nature of regression when used as a defense mechanism.


Aeschelmann D. , Schwilk C. , Kachele H. , & Pokorny D. (1992): Defense mechanisms in patients with bone marrow transplantation: a retrospective study. Israel J. Psychiatr. Relat. Sci, 29: 89-99.

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