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Emotional Regression

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President Andrew Shepherd: She didn't say anything about me?
A.J.: No, but I could always pass her a note before study hall.

For the most part, as someone grows older they become more mature and grounded in reality. They pass by the immaturity of their younger days and become an adult.

But there is a phenomenon where in a specific situation a person may turn from their confident adult personality and revert into a nervous teenage (or younger) incarnation. It may be because of interacting with an old friend and they reminisce about all their old activities they did together. Or maybe they have found themselves re-enacting a situation from their past they thought they had grown past, such as breaking up with a long-time partner and finding themselves back in the dating pool. Then there are the supernatural and "bump on the head" reasons.

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Overall, the more grounded instances of this trope are Truth in Television. In psychoanalytic psychology, this is simply known as "regression" and refers to one of the many defense mechanisms humans use when encountering a troubling situation. Lacking the means to properly and consciously process a given situation, one's subconscious may take over and result in them instinctively utilizing more childish or even infantile mannerisms in response.

A common gag with this involves a Parental Substitute where a "more mature" friend may have to be the voice of reason and they bicker with things like "You don't understand me!"

Compare Personality Swap, Helpless Good Side, Manchild, and One of the Kids.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Casca from Berserk emotionally, and mentally, regresses to the stage of a very young child after the events of The Eclipse. She went from a headstrong and stubborn Lady of War to an Empty Shell, completely incapable of speech and only communicating with sounds and pointing. She returns to her Lady of War personality upon her sanity being restored.
  • Expelled from Paradise, Angela Balzack (and 98% of humanity) has been digitized, quickly followed by the death of her original physical body, when she was about 2 months old. When she has to go back to the real world, she isn't patient enough to wait the whole 36 hours required for a new body to be cloned and aged to her chronological and mental age. So she has the computer cut the time short, resulting in her body having the physical age of 16. Upon landing in the real world, she shows remarkably decreased maturity, possibly because the virtual world she spent her whole life in doesn't simulate hormones, and since she's a teenager now... yeah. Add in that the virtual world probably doesn't simulate periods and she's stuck IRL forever now, she's gonna have fun in a couple weeks.
  • Maison Ikkoku when Kyoko returns home to stay with her parents. Kyoko, who has always been a mature and feminine character, gets into arguments with her father, and begins sitting and speaking in a boyish fashion. Apparently Kyoko was quite the tomboy in her teenage years.
  • The main premise of Nanaka 6/17 involves the title character hitting her head and then waking up with the mental age of a six-year old.
  • Happen in one episode of Sket Dance. In the episode, Bossun got his body reverted back to a five year old's after drinking Chuuma-sensei's potion. At the end of the episode, Chuuma-sensei made another potion that returned his body to normal... but now it's his mind that reverted to a five year old's.
  • In Hamatora, Honey has the power to see ten minutes into the future after biting down on a lollipop. For much of the series she can use this power without repercussion but later her ability develops a side effect that causes her to mentally regress to childhood for a time after her power runs its course.
  • In Noir, Mireille is walking down the street when she hears someone call out her name. She reflexively tenses up and turns around with her typical Ice Queen expression, being a professional assassin by trade and clearly expecting the worst, but as soon as she sees it's her Uncle Claude her face lights up and her body language becomes much more relaxed and open as she talks to him. Since he took care of her ever since the death of her parents she's likely reverting to her childhood persona.
  • Leone Cass from SHWD has a bright personality but secretly suffers from infantile regression (due to losing her young daughter to a Dynamis attack) that can only be staved off by carrying a handgun. The one time it's suddenly taken from her, she has a meltdown, starts bawling like a child, and, upon being given her gun back, attempts to turn it on herself.

    Comic Books 
  • In The Batman Adventures, one story arc revolves around Hugo Strange building a Laser-Guided Amnesia device and using it on Batman, leaving him with the mind of a seven-year-old. Catwoman then takes advantage of this and tricks him into helping her with her burglaries, until Batman realizes what's happened and gives her a "The Reason You Suck" Speech that sounds more like he's uninviting her to his birthday party. Fortunately for her, he remembers none of it when he gets his memories back and returns to normal to her delight.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Briefly poked at in The American President, where widower President Shepherd found himself attracted to a lobbyist and sought to find some way to pursue a relationship with her without causing too much attention. His attempts at finding some information out of his Chief of Staff (and best friend) ended up making him sound like a middle-school kid wondering if a girl liked him.
  • Discussed in Elf. The doctor believes that Buddy acts like a Christmas elf because Buddy is "reverting to a state of childlike dependency" due to having grown up without his birth parents. The doctor doesn't know that Buddy actually was raised by Santa's elves in the North Pole.
  • In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one of the patients is chronically shy and soft-spoken, an emasculated young man with an intense fear of his mother and an unrelenting stutter. With the help of McMurphy, he manages to have sex for the first time, losing his virginity and gaining the confidence of a man. However, they were supposed to escape from the mental hospital and ended up falling asleep. When the emasculating and manipulative head of staff, Nurse Ratched, returns, she calls him out and attempts to shame him. He says in perfect and unhesitant English that he's proud of himself and isn't having any of it. Then she says she's going to tell his mother...
  • Played for Laughs in Black Widow (2021) when the fake family the protagonists had as sleeper agents in the United States reunites in the present day, and the four of them find themselves falling back into their family dynamic, with Melina turning into a nagging mother, Alexei a bumbling father who backs his wife up, Natasha a focused older child, and Yelena a younger child who really doesn't want to be dragged into all this.
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    Literature 
  • In the Aunt Dimity books, Lori's husband Bill says that when he was twelve years old, his mother died, and he reacted by starting to suck his thumb. Dimity tells Lori that's a common reaction to stress in a child that age.
  • Happens to multiple characters in the Discworld book Hogfather. Justified as the characters have essentially crossed over to Another Dimension that the tooth fairy runs, (really) and this is making them regress somewhat to their childhood. It also has some deadly side effects, like making their childhood fears come to life and come after them...
  • In Dragon Bones Oreg, who looks like seventeen, but is Really 700 Years Old often acts like a frightened child. Justified, as he has spent his entire not-life as slave, which makes his seemingly childlike "Please don't be angry with me" Fridge Horror.
  • P G Wodehouse's older characters often carry on like juvenile delinquents. It might be possible to regard this as an aversion of the trope, however, since such characters are usually perfectly aware of how they are regarded, and are simply too self-confident to care.
  • In Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox, during a Time Travel trip, Holly is turned into her younger self. Her emotions are affected too, such as getting jitters on a mission that her older, more experienced self wouldn't have.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Addressed in full in Home Improvement where a college friend of Tim's was in town, who was not liked at all by Jill. Tim realized that all their time together is spend reminiscing about their "glory days" and trying to re-enact them. Since Tim had a family now he couldn't go off to a bar like his friend wanted to do and the overall message was that true friends grow up with you, which his college buddy did not.
  • How I Met Your Mother:
    • Made into a major Running Gag when Robin's first boyfriend came to visit and despite still being in the same band with no music label backing them and working at a water park to support himself, Robin reverted to her starstruck teenage personality. This lead to a discussion among the group about others who do the same thing, such as Ted having a playful push-fight with his high school buddy Punchy and Lily speaking in heavy street-slang when she meets up with her friend Michelle.
    • After his father dies, Marshall goes back to Minnesota and lives in his old room for a while. He quickly starts acting like a teenager: playing '80s and '90s video games, calling to his mother to bring him chocolate milk and snacks, and so on. Ted goes to Minnesota to snap him out of it (and avoid making a big decision, but that's another story), and ends up acting exactly the same way. It takes a visit from Lily to snap both of them out of it.
  • The second-to-last episode of The Prisoner (1967) features this when, as a last resort to wring out the reason for Number Six's resignation, Number Two makes Number Six undergo regressive therapy, forcibly reverting him first to infancy, then progressing through his childhood and adulthood, with limited communication.
  • An episode of Titus had Titus talking with Erin's teenage niece Amy and trying to console her over a break-up (and subsequent suicide attempt). Knowing there is only so much adult wisdom he could give her, Titus in the "Neutral Space" dug deep to find his teenage self and the long haired, flannel wearing, 17 year old stoner version of him narrated from then on.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "A Piano in the House": A player piano with Mind Control abilities causes a woman's personality to revert to that of a little girl.
  • Angel
    • In "Spin the Bottle," an attempt to fix Cordelia's amnesia resulted in the entire group sans Lorne thinking they were 17. Thus Cordelia reverted to her Alpha Bitch personality on early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fred started craving pot. Angel was 17 years old some 200 years ago, and it was a serious culture shock.
    • Wesley has Took a Level in Badass over the course of the series, but when his father turns up for a visit, he reverts to The Klutz we knew from Season One.
  • An extreme example in the United States of Tara, one of Tara's "alter egos" is called Gimme ("give me")—an animalistic, greedy, flighty child-like version of Tara that comes out any time she feels emotionally cornered/blackmailed. It does such immature things as scream like a baby, or pee on her sleeping parents. There's also "T", the teenager alter ego, who does things like make out with her (gay) son's date.
  • By and large Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is already a Manchild, who refuses to drive or shop for his own food (which is really best for all concerned, he is easily distracted and insufferable when it comes to getting his way). But in particular moments he very much becomes a kid including when he is playing with trains or regressing when Leonard and Penny fight because it reminds him of his parents fighting all the time.
  • While Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia displays a lot of Manchild traits, he becomes very pathetic whenever his parents are involved and starts talking about things like having a catch with his dad and wanting his parents to get back together so that he could be a happy boy.
  • Mako Mermaids: An H₂O Adventure: Mimmi and Sirena try to make a moisturizer that prevents their skin from drying out on land and doesn't force them into mermaid form. Instead, it makes those who use it mentally regress to childhood, which causes problems when Rita goes from "straight-laced principal" to "reckless mermaid hatchling" in public. Mimmi and Ondina are affected as well, and end the episode childishly arguing over who gets to play princess.

    Video Games 
  • Lymle from Star Ocean: The Last Hope is actually 15 years old by her race's standards, but is both physically repressed and shares the mentality of a 6 year old as a result of her symbology magic briefly opening up and sending her into a Hell-like realm of fire.
  • Spirits of Anglerwood Forest: Implied to have happened to Ezra before his spirit is corrupted. His memory is set back to when he first went to Angler's Maw and he starts acting much younger. The next time we see him, he looks like he did when he was a child.

    Web Comics 

    Web Video 
  • A particularly disturbing example from Alien Abduction Role Play. As Ackt descends into her second feral episode, not only does she start thirsting for the blood of her crewmates and the surviving human on board, she also screams out some childish things like demanding where her mother is, and complaining about having a bad dream.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!: In the episode "Hayley Smith, SEAL Team Six" Hayley realizes that her Soapbox Sadie tendencies have alienated her from the rest of her family and that she hasn't been truly happy since she was six years old, which is the last time anyone liked her. At Hayley's request, Roger hypnotizes her into believing she's "Happy Hayley" again and she regresses into behaving, talking and dressing like a six-year-old. Stan and Francine are thrilled, but Jeff (her husband, who is unhappy because Hayley no longer wants to have sex with him) and Klaus (who is frequently tortured by Happy Hayley) are not. Roger tries to hypnotize her back to normal, but it doesn't work. Instead, he, Jeff and Klaus are able to snap her out of it by having Jeff attack a seal and Roger hypnotize the jury into finding him not guilty (the reason why Hayley became such a downer in the first place was because she saw seals being clubbed to death on TV as a child).
  • Elena of Avalor:
    • Elena's cousin, Chancellor Esteban, can act rather immature for a fifty to sixty-year-old politician, such as being willing to mess up Elena's negotiations with a visiting kingdom to be petty or dismissing Naomi as an uneducated and untalented commoner. In the pilot movie (released after the show premiered), we're shown that he wasn't always like this. Given that the pilot ends with his grandparents and cousins essentially returning from a magical coma without having aged for the past four decades (not to mention a possible Inferiority Superiority Complex), it makes sense.
    • "Snow Place Like Home" even addresses this, where Esteban's lack of maturity gets called out on. He reveals that this stems from guilt over whether or not he could have prevented his parents from dying in an accident in his youth and he fears losing the rest of his family as well.
  • A variation occurs in the Justice League episode "Kid Stuff". Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman are physically reverted to pre-teenage bodies and accompanying personalities, but otherwise retain their memories of their adult life. Thus Wonder Woman becomes a Team Mom, a role she otherwise doesn't fit, and was flirty towards Batman, Green Lantern struggled to contain his childhood imagination and Superman was even more naive and farmboy than before. Amusingly, Batman is the only one who retains the same basic personality and when challenged, he points out "I haven't been a kid since I was eight."
  • There was a Popeye cartoon where Popeye started acting like a baby himself after Swee' Pea was kidnapped.
  • In the Recess episode "Bonky Fever", Mikey gradually regresses into infantile behavior, fueled by anxiety over growing up and losing his close bond with his mother as his tenth birthday approaches. It starts as him playing with toys of Bonky, a character parodying Barney & Friends, and devolves into throwing a tantrum in public when denied a second serving of pudding for his Bonky doll and having a Bonky-themed birthday party to which kindergarteners have been invited. His mom has to stop the madness and reassure Mikey that just because he's growing up doesn't mean he's going to lose the connection they shared.
  • Parodied in the "Toy Story 4" sketch of Robot Chicken, where a college-aged Andy turns Buzz Lightyear, a Living Toy based on an adult character, into a makeshift bong, lobotomizing him to an infantile state in the process.
    Lobotomized!Buzz: (Simpleton Voice) Hello, Woody! (gasp) Do you know what my daddy did? (Beat) Poop! He pooped! Poop-de-doop doop poop! Ah, somebody left some poop in his pants.
  • Star vs. the Forces of Evil: In "Tough Love", Eclipsa attempts to stop Meteora's rampage by approaching her with her old teddy bear Bobo and speaking to her like a small child. It actually works, but when Eclipsa refuses to take the throne of Mewni alongside her, Meteora stomps off like a child and Eclipsa shouts after her like a scolding parent.
    Eclipsa: Young lady, you turn right back around!
  • Played for Drama in Star Wars: The Clone Wars with Darth Maul's return. The Dark Side kept him alive after Kenobi left him Half the Man He Used to Be but destroyed his mind, leaving him a Psychopathic Manchild who hides himself from Savage behind boxes and can only be lured out by Mother Talzin's bright, floating energy ball, which he chases after in a way you would expect a small child to. Sure, he gets "better", but the effect is still fairly tragic and quite disturbing.

 
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In a last-ditch effort to extract information from Number Six, Number Two makes him forcibly undergo regressive therapy, reverting him to a childlike state with limited communication.

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