Child's Fear of Being Alone

Archived Q&A and Reviews


4 yr old suddenly afraid of being alone in a room

Dec 2010

My 4-1/2 year old son has suddenly become very afraid - afraid of a fire at home, afraid of being alone in a room at home. Basically fearful. So he now follows me around the house and plays in whatever room I happen to be in at the moment. At bedtime, he used to be able to go to sleep by himself. Now, he wants one of us to lie with him in bed, or at least be in the same room (he shares the room with his 18-month old brother). I don't know of anything that has happened to him to suddenly bring this on. Any thoughts on what phase this may be and how you've handled it would be greatly appreciated. Anon

My son went through this around the age of four. For him, it was caused by a knock on the door at bed time by someone selling newspapers! For some reason, this triggered in him the realization that the world is not safe (i.e. there are people we don't know knocking on the door at night, and so on). It triggered in him the realization that he is not 100% connected to his parents, 100% of the time. He had severe anxiety about not being able to see us, visually (like you child, needing to be in the same room). For several months, he would freak out at preschool and the teachers would have to call me at work for me to assure him that I was fine, that he was fine, and so on. It was heartbreaking.

I finally called the pediatrician, because his reaction seemed so severe, and was causing ME so much anxiety! She assured the that, in fact, this is a normal phase for many kids. She suggested that I stay as calm as possible, and just gently assure him that he is safe, and leave it at that. I let him be with me when he wanted/needed to, and did not make a big deal about it. I always assured him that he was fine/safe. It finally went away, though I am sure it lasted a few months. He is now an awesome eight year old! Hang in there!

My daughter went through this, from 4.5 to 5 years old. She wouldn't come out from under the bed, or the kitchen table, or the toy drawer, unless someone came into the room. Then she was fine. She is now 5.5 yrs, and no longer does this. We just calmly did our best to stay with her. She often dressed as a lion to scare the monsters/other lions, but that didn't seem to do much. It was stressful, though, for us. Anon


5yr old afraid of being alone

May 2010

My daughter hid under the bed twice today, under the table twice, and called me into her room after bedtime 4 times because she says she is afraid of monsters. She won't seek out me or my husband, but just calls out for us, or cries, or stays silent, until we come. Even when she doesn't hide, she asks me to ''come here because I'm scared'' (also happened countless times today.) It started about a month ago, and it's escalating, becoming a real handicap for doing anything in the house without being in the same room with her. Even if she can see me from where she is, by looking through a door, or even just looking across the kitchen/ dining room, she still asks me to come because she's afraid. Help! Do any of you have any experience with this? I am not looking for therapist recommendations, but for feedback from your own experiences. Thank you! Losing my empathy

Thank you for reaching out and asking about how to help your daughter with hear fears. Often when our children are going through a developmental change, or have had some interaction or seen something that was very scary to them, they cannot work it out directly, as they do not have the cognitive development to even refer back to what scared them initially. So, they reenact their fears to bring healing or closure to them. What's really happening is their nervous systems, which have stored those fears sub-consciously and are now triggered and flooding their systems with old fearful feelings, are bringing the fear up to be released and healed (ever wonder why you marry someone like your parents? why you get in some of the same situations over and over? The nervous system really WANTS to heal, and will sub-consciously re-create situations UNTIL they heal!!) I recommend that you check out this article from hand In Hand Parenting about healing children's fears.

9-year-old does not like to be alone in our home

Sept 2004

My 9 year old son does not like to be alone in our home. We have a small house, 1000 sq. ft., and he wants his brother to be in the bathroom with him; brings a dog down the hall with him if he forgot a sweatshirt;and follows me from room to room if we are the only ones home. If I am in the bathroom, he is waiting outside the door until I come out. This has been the case since he was a preschooler. We have not drawn attention to it, as he can manage his anxiety(?) by enlisting someone's support. But it does get tiresome at times... Will he outgrow this fear? Does he need professional help? I need a moment alone

Sounds exactly like my child. We did (at age 8) start taking him to see a therapist, and that has helped some. We also did a lot of negotiating/compromising, like agreeing to watch him go down the hall to the bathroom, without actually going with him, keeping up a conversation rather than always staying in sight, etc. I think it's good to ask for tiny incremental changes, rather than forcing a big change at once (I know others would disagree, though); some kids really are more anxious, and I think we should respect that - not ridicule or deny it. anon.

5-year-old has become very afraid in our house

Oct 2003

Over the past 6 weeks, my five and one-half year old daughter has become very afraid in our house. I know some of the causes but am looking for help in figuring out the best way to bring her out of it. She has shared a room with her 9 year old brother since birth. He now needs his separate space, so we fixed up a ''princess'' room for her to entice her into it. It is down the hall, further away from him and us. She started out saying she was scared of sleeping in her room -- her brother slept on the floor next to her for a few nites and then my husband and I have been taking turns lying down with her until she goes to sleep. Then she started expressing fear of being in any room by herself -- and asking someone to go with her into any other room in the house, including the bathroom. She has heightened sensitivity to noises and keeps asking what that ''booming'' sound is coming from outside, whatever room she is in. She also is waking up every night and wailing that she is scared. We have sometimes gone to lie down with her and last night, because of the fatigue-factor, my husband let her take her sleeping bag into her brother's room. Now I am afraid we are stuck. Any suggestions? Linda

Move her back into her old bedroom and move her brother in the new one. He's younger and won't know the difference. anon

Be Unimpressed by Fears!

This is the title of a chapter in my favorite parenting book Children the Challenge by Rudolf Dreikurs. His line, which seems appropriate in your daughter's case, is that children discover that fears are a powerful way to command attention. This does not mean that she is not really afraid, or that she is being consciously manipulative.

Paraphrased/quoted from Dreikurs: A small child, suddenly faced with a new and surprising situation that seems threatening (say, having a room all to herself) has several choices open to her. One of them is fear. Children are natural hams. They constantly play to the gallery. THey have no inhibitions, because they are as yet ignorant of the consequences of their behavior. The possibility of using fear as a technique was probably discovered accidentally. When she realized the benefits she could attain this way, naturally, she capitalized on it. Now she is enmeshed in a web of her own making. THe most useless thing parents can do is to tell her that her fear is silly. This is a challenge to uphold her position of being terror-stricken. If mother and father can be unimpressed by her screams (ie, ignore and redirect), they eliminate the purpose of the fear. *********

My take on the subject:

If she screams that she needs company in the bathroom, don't react at all to the fear, don't discuss it, try to reason with her, or any of that. Simply say. ''I am busy right now. If you'd like my company in the bathroom you'll have to wait until I have a spare minute.'' Have her wait a bit. With luck, she'll go on her own. If not, cheerfully announce that you've got some time for reading stories today. Tell her, ''We can read one in the bathroom if you'd like, or you can run quick to the potty and join me on the couch.'' If she starts talking about being afraid, ignore all that and say, ''Pick out a book, or I'll pick one, and we'll read in the bathroom.'' Staunchly refuse (by silence and redirection) to discuss fears. Read the book, resume what you were doing. Try to give her plenty of non-fear attention and no attention for her fears whatsoever. If she says she is afraid to go into a room without you, say, ''Well, I'm working in the kitchen now, you'll have to wait.'' Your tone should be matter-of-fact. No cajoling.

Bedtime: camoflauged bribery is in order. But you have to reward her with time with you. You want to move her away from getting attention for her fears to getting attention for something positive. Toys and candy won't work because what she wants is attention. Think of an activity that she loves to do. Tell her: ''I am hoping we can go to the zoo tomorrow. The only thing is, I haven't been getting much sleep lately. When I get woken up in the night it makes me too tired to go out and do fun things. I really want to take you to the zoo tomorrow, but I am afraid that if I get woken up in the night I won't have the energy for it.'' Make sure that you don't offer it as a reward. Instead, you are planning to go the zoo, and her negative behavior will stop that plan from going forward. Make sure to never couch going as a reward, or more importantly, not going as a punishment. Instead, if she wakes you up in the night with screaming, the next day say, ''I am so sorry that we had a rough night. I was so looking forward to the zoo. Maybe we can go tomorrow.'' On no account should you give in and go anyway! You are too tired! You want her to see what happens as a natural cause and effect of her own behavior, rather than as a power struggle between you and her.

One more thing. Here is why we should be unimpressed by fears: ''Our children cannot solve life's difficulties if they are full of fears. Fear does not increase the ability to cope with problems; it diminshes it. THe more afraid one is, the more he courts danger. But fears serve beautifully as a means to gain attention and put others into one's service. It is necessary to teach children caution in potentially dangerous situations. But caution and fear are distinctly different. The first is a reasonable and courageous recognition of possible dangers, while the second is a discouraged and paralyzing withdrawal. We can teach caution without instilling fear. If parents do not respond to fears, their children will not develop them, and parents and children alike will be free from the resulting torture and suffering.'' (abridged)

I'll end on a favorite Rudolf Dreikurs quotation: ''We cannot protect children from life. Nor should we want to. We are obligated to train our children in courage and strength to face life.''

Best of luck, susan

I'm responding to the ''Unimpressed by Fears'' response to an original post which I did not happen to catch. While I understand that children do learn to navigate emotions in life on their own, I have a different take on the ''unimpressed by fear'' approach.

I remember staying in my own bedroom when we were living in our old apartment (I was 3-5). I used to cry every night, inconsolably. My parents would tuck me in and then close the door. For a time there, every night was a struggle. I cried myself to sleep every night. Eventually, my bed was moved to the dining room. While embarrassing when company came over, at least my parents avoided the nightly drama. All through my childhood, I was extremely afraid of the dark. I think it was because I was forced to stay in my bedroom by myself. Sometimes, I gathered enough courage to leave the bedroom and sneak into my brother's room or my parents' room. Once they found out, though, they practiced ''discipline'' and had all their doors locked at night. I am still afraid of the dark. I've even taken down our bedroom door. The anxiety from almost a lifetime ago hasn't fully left me.

Want to know what happened? I remembered / figured out a few years back that the reason I was petrified of staying in my bedroom at night was because sometimes (I have no idea how often) one of our neighbors would beat his son and wife and I would lay in bed listening to the sounds of stick beating flesh and the howling weeping cries that accompanied. Not to mention all the verbal assaults. I was too young to even know what I was listening to, much less explain to my parents the reasons behind my fears. If my parents had trusted my body when it cried for fear and discomfort, maybe I could've overcome my feelings of fear with feelings of sadness and safety.

I don't pretend to know everyone's individual situations. That's each parent's job. But I do firmly believe that human beings never do things for no reason. And I do not choose to view young, needy, developing souls in fear as people trying to manipulate me, consciously or not, intentionally or not. Fear indicates that something is wrong! Compassionately yours, Pei

8-year-old is afraid to be alone

Oct 2002

A few weeks ago, I left my kids, five and eight year olds, in the car for a few minutes while I was buying a fish on Hopkins Street. (I know it was stupid) I did it only because I found a parking spot right in front of the fish store. And they didn't want to leave the car.(I know this is no excuse) A few minutes later my eight year old daughter was getting out of the car, so I rushed out the shop and asked why she was getting out of the car. She explained that a few kids--perhaps junior high age kids-- had come closer to the car and asked my kids how they were and wondered if they would like to come out, which apparently terrified my daughter, and when the other kids walked away, she got out of the car to look for me. As she was explaining her eyes were full of tears. To my utmost regret, my daughter is suffering from this experience. She has been always a very sensitive and impressionable child, and now she has a difficult time to be alone. She feels unsafe at school during the recess, or even at home when I go to the bathroom, she calls out looking for me. I am devastated and feel so miserable, especially that I have been the one who facilitated this event. I have been reassuring my daughter that I would never ever leave her and that she was safe, but her fear doesn't seem to disappear. I am not so sure about what to do to aleviate the anxiety my daughter is experincing. I can't just tell her not to feel the way she does. Could you share with me your wisdom, advice or experience? thank you. guilty mother

Our nephew had a similar experience to your daughter's when he was also around 8 years old. He was at the family vacation cottage with a grandparent when a huge storm blew up with lots of thunder, etc. His mom and other family members were out; when the storm was over and his mom came back, he never wanted to be away from her. This happened in late summer, and they had a lot of difficulty on a daily basis even getting him to go to school because he couldn't bear to be separated from her. They tried a variety of responses, and evenutally a short round of counseling (maybe 2-4 months) helped cure him of these fears. Good luck! Suzanne

I can't really offer any advice about helping your daughter move through this challenging moment but I do have something to say about your part in it. Please don't beat yourself up over it. I'm of the belief that what caused this extreme response in your child was something in the making and if it wasn't the fish market episode, something else might have triggered it. Something you may or may not have played a part in. Every child is unique and luckily nothing really did happen to harm your daughter. In cases like this, I'd just try to trust that there's some mysterious, developmental, psycho-emotional stuff working its way out on a deep level. And just like little childhood illnesses of the body, she may be all the sturdier, and healthier when it's over. Good luck. Ilona

Oh no. I am wondering, have you told her that the kids were probably concerned about heat or abandonment? There are good and bad strangers, have you told her that? Have you previously filled her head with ''stranger tales'' or worse yet has the media? I would take her to the library and get some good books on what a stranger is and what their behavior might be like and compare it to the kids outside the car. But only after some time. Kids can get easily upset and the less we focus on their upsets the more we can help. For instance, she can come home and talk about being worried at school recess today and you can say ''oh, I am sorry you didn't just play with your friends instead honey'' and then change the subject. It is like when they fall down when learning and how walk and we say ''up again'' without a scared emotion attached. dealt w/many a fear

First of all I'm sorry you feel so guilty. I've done the exact same thing- parked right in front of the dry cleaner where I can see my 3 yr old daughter and, wiht her permission, gone in! So from my perspective, it wasn't really that unusual or really that stupid. I say that 1st and then I wonder if all of your anxiety and feeling guilty doesn't confirm in your daughter's mind that you actually did something bad and stupid. You actually didn't leave her, wouldn't leave her and she is wrong. So, is there any way to start to retell the story of what happened on that day with her? Something like, ''I'm sorry you got scared and I won't do that again because it upset you so much but, if you remember, I could see you the whole time, nothing bad or dangerous happened and you are fine!'' Good luck anon