This 3-year-old can't be in a room by himself

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  August 26, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

I think I have created my own problem. My son at 2 would constantly run off on me when we shopping or out in public. And when I say run... He would take off like a bullet and hide. Obviously this would create a lot of anxiety for me. When I would finally "find" him, I would tell him not to run off because "someone else might take him home and I would be very upset". My son is now 3 and won't even go in another room in our house if he can't see me (because he is afraid "someone else will take him home"). I tell him it is ok and that he can hear my voice but he won't leave my side. How do I make him more comfortable even in his own home?

From: My Little Shadow, Milford

Hi My Little Shadow:

It is not uncommon for a 3-year-old to not want to leave you; as new cognitive abilities kick in, they are more aware of the world around them, including some of its dangers. By telling him, "Someone else might take you," you have unwittingly fed into his fear that he is not safe.

What you need to do is reassure him that he is safe and secure and well-cared for.

Here's how:

Find moments to tell him, "It's mommy's (and/or daddy's) job to take care of you, and that's exactly what I'm doing." When he's in another room, tell him, "You're OK. I know you are OK. It's mommy's job to take care of you, and I know you are safe." When he says, "Someone could take me," repeat the line: "It's mommy's job to take care of you. I would never let anybody take you away. You are safe." If you're in public, repeat the same thing and tell him, "You can hold my hand. That way, you can know you are safe."

Gradually, this will enable him to make the transition to feel safe enough to separate. In fact, I would look for all kinds of reasons to remind him about the ways in which his parents keep him safe. Example: sometime when you are leaving the house with him and you know it will be dark when you return, mumble to yourself as you are leaving -- but say it loud enough for him to hear you -- "Oops, I almost forgot to turn the light on. That way, there will be a light when we come home so we will see the steps." He will get that you are keeping him safe. He will get that you are in charge, that you are competent, and that you are not anxious about his safety.

If that's not true -- if you are worried about his safety -- you need to find ways to calm your own anxiety because he will continue to pick up on it. For instance, if you have worries that he will bolt from you in a store, tell him beforehand: "We're going to a store. Here's the rule: We always hold hands." Keep the store experience very short so there's no chance for him to run away or for you to feel frightened. If you don't think you can make that happen -- if you fear he will run away -- then for the time being don't take him to a store with you. Period.

The more you can be relaxed and calm and reassuring and patient, the sooner he will grow out of this. It will take a while, weeks, maybe months, but over time you should see a gradual lessening of his anxiety. (It may ebb and flow; that's to be expected.) On the other hand, if this continues to be an anxiety-producing experience for either or both of you, it will serve to reinforce his fear that you are worried for his safety and therefore that he should be worried about it, too.


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1 comments so far...
  1. I would make a game of it. Tell him you are going to go into the other room and if he stays in his room while you are gone, he gets 5 extra minutes to stay up before bedtime (or some other child-appropriate reward). Start with 1 minute. The next time, expand it to 2, and so on. Don't just leave him there doing nothing, either. Give him a task to distract him. Arranging magnetic letters on a board, arranging toys, even picking up things and putting them away. Whatever it is, make it feel like a game to him. You could also set an egg timer in his room, so he knows that when it goes off, he can come and find you. Above all, don't ever make being in his room, or any other room, by himself, without you, a punishment. Make it a fun thing. Good luck.

    Posted by Carol Upton August 26, 09 08:06 AM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. I would make a game of it. Tell him you are going to go into the other room and if he stays in his room while you are gone, he gets 5 extra minutes to stay up before bedtime (or some other child-appropriate reward). Start with 1 minute. The next time, expand it to 2, and so on. Don't just leave him there doing nothing, either. Give him a task to distract him. Arranging magnetic letters on a board, arranging toys, even picking up things and putting them away. Whatever it is, make it feel like a game to him. You could also set an egg timer in his room, so he knows that when it goes off, he can come and find you. Above all, don't ever make being in his room, or any other room, by himself, without you, a punishment. Make it a fun thing. Good luck.

    Posted by Carol Upton August 26, 09 08:06 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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