Tuesday 12 December 2017

Our son is terrified of being alone in a room in our house

Illustration by Maisie McNiece.
Illustration by Maisie McNiece.
David Coleman

David Coleman

The parenting expert gives advise on dealing with a child's anxiety and

Question: Our eight-year-old son will not stay in any room of our house on his own, day or night. He will not go upstairs on his own and when he does, either my wife or myself need to stay at the bottom of the stairs. He won't sleep alone now. These irrational fears pretty much began overnight during the summer and we think he may have seen a shadow in his room. He won't discuss why he is afraid to be on his own and all the coaxing in the world has not helped. Other than this, he is an outgoing, sporting, sociable, intelligent child. Have you any suggestions to help?

David replies: While your son seems to have been very thrown by the experience of possibly seeing a shadow in his room, don't discount other changes or stresses that may have occurred in your family or your family's circumstances. Any kind of change can be enough to provoke anxiety.

It is often very hard for children to be able to identify and explain why they feel scared. Sometimes they may not actually know the source of their anxiety. They can have a strong sense of their fear, but may be unable to pinpoint a reason for it.

Sometimes, they may know the reason, but struggle with the language to express it.

Then, other times, they may feel embarrassed or ashamed by their fears and so can be reluctant to tell us why, in case we seem disappointed in them, critical of them or even dismissive of them.

I am not sure if any of these reasons may explain your son's reticence or inability to explain why he is afraid to be on his own. I do notice that you describe his fears as irrational. If he thinks that you believe that it is silly for him to be scared of being on his own, that might make it more difficult for him to talk openly with you.

Empathising with his fears can allow him to feel like you fully understand and accept his anxieties, without you feeling like you have to agree with, or endorse, his viewpoint. Empathy is all about being able to see the world from someone else's viewpoint, even if you don't agree with it.

So, talk with him about the shadow that you think he may have seen. See if he can describe it, describe the location, describe what he was doing and describe his feeling at the time. You may have to prompt him and encourage him by naming the bits of the story that you already know.

So you might say something like "I was thinking back about the night you said you saw something in your room. Remind me what time it was that night when you saw the thing. What were you up to that evening?... I think you were on your own in the room?

"It sounded like it was very scary for you. I wonder were you already feeling a bit nervous because you knew we were all downstairs. I'd say you got a huge fright when you saw it. What did you think it was? You may have thought it was a ghost, or a burglar or something bad like that."

I would imagine that if you were to talk, like this, about this original incident that you think sparked off the anxiety and insecurity, that your son will open up more about his fears that night and since.

The more he talks about them, the more understanding you can be. When he knows that you understand and accept his fears, then you can reassure him about his actual safety and security in your home.

Often, if we try to reassure children too soon, we find that they can dismiss or reject our reassurances. It is as if they don't believe us because we don't understand the reality as they perceive it.

When it comes to fears, perception is all-important. You and I might watch the same horror film, for example, and have very different emotional responses to it because we will each perceive it from our own perspectives, with our own histories, insecurities and beliefs.

Once we share perspectives with our children they allow us to reassure them more effectively.

Alongside the emotional support you can offer your son, it will also help him to experience stability and consistency at home and with yourselves. When the world becomes more predictable, for children, it tends to reduce their anxieties generally and increase their sense of security.

Am I right to let my 10-year-old and eight-year-old children out to play unsupervised on the street?

Question: I have 10-year old and eight-year-old boys. I have watched them playing out on the street up to last year but I have slowly pulled back and allowed them freedom to now play unsupervised with their friends. I do set a time by which they must be home (usually each hour to check in). I remind them regularly about stranger danger, and they are not allowed out after dark etc. I wonder am I giving them too much freedom because lots of my other neighbours don't allow their kids out at all? What do you think? Would you have allowed your kids out at this age?

David replies: There are rarely absolute rights and wrongs in parenting. Usually there are many shades of what is good, wise, acceptable and desirable in terms of the choices we make on behalf of our children.

Did I allow my children to play unsupervised at age eight or 10? Yes, but not often. That was to do with the circumstances of where I live and how they used to socialise, rather than a fear of harm coming to them.

I think it is great that you are increasing the amount of freedom and choice that you give your children. There is no better way for them to learn to be responsible for themselves than to be given opportunity to be responsible.

If we over-protect our children, then we do them more harm in the long-run, as they don't learn to protect themselves. They may fail to be alert to signs of danger or harm and so, potentially, they are more vulnerable to that harm.

But, allowing your children unsupervised playtime on the street, at the local green, or down the fields has to be a personal choice that each parent makes on the basis of their circumstances and the perception of risk that they have.

I do think that in our current society, we have an increased perception of the risk of "stranger danger". In fact, the numbers of children who are abducted by strangers and abused or murdered is tiny in proportion to the numbers of children who go missing each year.

Over half of missing children, for example, are runaways. Another significant proportion of missing children are taken by estranged parents. Only a fraction of 1pc of missing children are abducted by strangers.

Media reporting of such unusual events is one reason that our fears of stranger abduction are elevated. Because we hear so much about the rare cases of child abduction, we perceive the risk of abduction to be much greater. The rarity of stranger abductions itself also adds to our perception of the risk, since we tend to fear unusual dangers more than common dangers.

For example, your child is way more at risk of harm every time you bring them somewhere in a car, than they are in danger of being abducted. But, because driving is so commonplace, we can become inured to the danger of accidents.

You sound like you have taken sensible steps to try to balance their need to be able to explore and cope independently of you, against your need to know that they are okay. Having them come for regular check-ins at home seems wise.

Make sure also to give your children clear instructions for what to try to do if someone does approach them or try to force them to come with them; running away, kicking, screaming etc.

The benefit of living on an estate, with lots of children around, is that there is a high likelihood that even if you aren't keeping an eye on your children, someone else is. However, that is not a reason for you, or anyone to abdicate their responsibility for their children.

It may be worth you doing occasional spot-checks on your children to make sure they are staying within the geographical limits that you have set for them, and that they are not up to too much other mischief, never mind being attacked by a stranger.

It is important that we don't panic and restrict our children's movements too much, but, ultimately, the amount of freedom we give our children will depend on our own tolerance to the risks we perceive.

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