Helping A Six Year Old with His Fear of Being Alone

Dear Sharon,

Our son seems to be having a difficult time being left alone to go to the bathroom. He’s 6 years old and he wants someone to come with him all the time. Is this normal? Should we be doing anything special? He’s our only child and we just don’t know what to do or not to do. Any advice?

Dear Parents,

I have worked with other parents whose children have gone through periods of “wanting company in the bathroom” and/or being worried about going to other parts of their house alone. Some of these children have been older than your son. I believe that families are different and that there are often multiple factors involved in a child’s fears and trepidations. Although I won’t be able to talk about your 6 year old specifically I can share some things that have sometimes been helpful to parents thinking through such questions.

1. I usually suggest that parents check in with teachers, school personnel and/or a trusted pediatrician. Adults who know a child outside of the home can often alleviate parental concerns or be able to offer helpful suggestions.

2. A period such as the one you are describing is sometimes a temporary phase that will be worked out over time. It is actually not uncommon for children, even those who do well in school and other group settings, to still have emotional questions to work through. It is very appropriate for young people to show parents their deepest worries in an attempt to get some help with them.

3. Although there are rarely simple answers to your question, some parents I know have made a “scary” room brighter, friendlier, or “less lonely” with decorations, better lighting, or other fun or less serious themes and colors. It has been useful to have the child help with the choices made and the work involved. When a child feels like they have input into decisions like these it usually increases confidence and self-esteem, often underlying factors in fears and worries.

4. When a parent is helping a child to a more independent phase of their childhood sometimes it is useful to have the transition happen slowly, i.e. starting off with small increments of changing the behavior, such as leaving a child alone for a few minutes, and then gradually increasing the time periods. This can help a little one gradually feel more relaxed about topics that make them unsure of themselves.

5. When dealing with emotional or complicated problems it is usually useful for the parent to be relaxed and calm when they help their child. Of course this is often easier said then done but when I have told parents to only address an issue with their child when they are relaxed and confident the guidance they give is often easier for a child to listen to and usually more effective.

6.Laughter can be a very helpful antidote to worry. Sometimes it is useful for parents to be humorous or lighthearted about fears and trepidations. Playing games about being alone, “bathroom humor” or even role reversals (when a child helps a parent with something that makes the adult nervous) can be lots of fun and go a long way to relieving tension for everyone in the family.

7.Possibly the most important thing to note is that all of these suggestions are addressing a “symptom” – in other words a specific behavior that is surfacing as a result of factors that may have little to do with the problem the child is presenting.

Whenever a parent approaches me with a concern about something in their child’s behavior I always ask about other stress producing factors that might be in a child’s life. If there is pressure from school, (a teacher that a child doesn’t like as much as last year, academic challenges that are difficult for them to meet easily, social awkwardness that is hard to overcome, etc.) or tension in the home (disagreements between Mom and Dad, mounting strains in parents’ or relatives’ lives, excessive competition with siblings, etc.) then usually these underlying issues have to be addressed. Play, one on one time, relaxed discussion or specific actions a parent needs to take to eliminate or reduce stress are sometimes the things that help a “fearful” behavior the most.

If underlying issues exist and are not addressed then unfortunately if the “symptom” disappears it will often be replaced by something else of equal or even more serious concern.

I have seen many parents work through challenges like the one you describe. It often takes time, patience and some creative solutions but things definitely change over time.

I hope some of my suggestions prove helpful but as I have said in this column before, no one knows your child better than you. Trust your instinct, take advice you think might be helpful and give what makes sense to you a try. I have frequently seen parental efforts to thoughtfully address a problem make a big difference. Good luck!