Wanting bathroom privacy

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 5, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
 Recently we have been having some anxiety issues with our 4 1/2-year-old daughter and are uncertain what to do to help her feel less anxious about this problem. She has an extreme fear of her little brother ( he is 2) coming into the bathroom while she is using the bathroom.  She will not go in the room without someone nearby to make sure he won't come in even if he is nowhere near the bathroom. He does not and has not done this on any type of a regular basis so I am not sure where the fear comes from. He really doesn't seem to care what she has gone to do.  It is okay for anyone else in our house to be in there with her ( as long as you don't look). Is this just normal preschooler anxiety ? Anything we can do to help her through this?  She screamed so loudly at her brother this evening that is scared him to the point of hysterical crying. He opened to door to say goodnight before I could get to him. Thoughts? Will this just pass over time like many things do?
Thanks much,
From: Mom of 2, Westborough

Dear Mom of 2,

Well, I haven't heard of this before but that doesn't mean it doesn't fall within the "typical" preschool range of behavior. This is an age when kids are much more aware of their bodies and bodily functions and also when they are wanting more and more autonomy. And, frankly, it doesn't matter where this (or any) fear comes from; children's  fears, whatever they are, are real to them whether they make sense to us or not.

Trick is to be respectful of it without passing judgment (not that it sounds like you have; I don't mean to imply that) and to give them coping skills. You don't want to poohpooh it, as in, "Don't be silly, he's only 2-years-old, why do you need privacy from him?!" That's the least helpful response. But you also don't want to give it so much response that you reinforce it. So go for middle of the road:

(1) Establish with her that her privacy is very important to her: "You are a person who really values your privacy in the bathroom, aren't you?" That lets her know that you get it. Then (2) problem-solve with her about how to insure that privacy. For instance, "In some bathrooms, (like an airplane) you can put a little sign on the door that says, 'Occupied.' That means someone is using the bathroom. Your brother can't read yet, but maybe you could draw a sign that he could understand. That way he would know not to come in and you would feel like you will get your privacy."

Of course, there also needs to be a conversation with the little guy. It would be best if she could tell him, "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry I frightened you. I'm a person who likes to be private in the bathroom. So I made this sign...." etc.

As far as anyone else being in the room with her, I would just ask  her: "Do you want to be by yourself in the bathroom?" She may feel it's babyish to have you with her. On the other hand, there may be times when she needs help, so you can let her know you are available if she wants you.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
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8 comments so far...
  1. My reading of the letter is that the parent is outside of the bathroom and only there to ward off intrusions. Funny how different people read the same sequence and get different images?

    Seriously--If the girl is in preschool the privacy violation may be occurring there.

    There may be groups of kids (boys or other girls) who have the insane idea that it's OK to peek under bathroom stalls when they are being used at recess. This is usually prompted by the sick ideas of one child...and it happens in every generation of children.

    I would ask this child to describe where else she is afraid of people barging in. I consider her fear to be a real sign that something outside of her is wrong. Sit with her in private, hold her, give her a few minutes to start telling her information.

    And if supervision at recess is the problem, then a letter to the preschool management is the way to start. Harassment in public bathrooms is profoundly offensive to adults--why should any child think it's OK?

    Posted by Irene February 5, 10 08:12 AM
  1. "This is usually prompted by the sick ideas of one child"

    Irene - if this is what is happening, and we have no idea that it is, let's not label a 4 year old as sick when it is probably nothing more than curiosity and not knowing boundries.

    Posted by Dad February 5, 10 08:54 AM
  1. I agree that it's likely that there's peeking going on at school, assuming she attends some sort of preschool. Either that, or she's taken a conversation about private parts being private to an extreme and is truly terrified that if anyone other than Mom or Dad - including little brother - sees her private parts, that Something Bad will happen.

    I think it's reasonable to acknowledge her desire for privacy, but she also needs to understand that if a family member accidentally comes in, she MAY NOT scream at them. I think that the sign for the bathroom door is an interesting idea, but if the issue really stems from something happening at school, then that needs to be addressed as well. I agree with 'Dad' that it's rarely malicious, and generally just kids being curious, at least at that age. I'd agree with Irene about it being harrassment if it were older children.

    Posted by akmom February 5, 10 09:18 AM
  1. Does the bathroom door have a lock? Teach her to use it, and have the key nearby, say over the door frame. Then she can lock her brother out, mom and dad can get in if there is an emergency, problem solved. That's what works in our house at least.

    Posted by BMS February 5, 10 09:28 AM
  1. I think the sign on the door is interesting too but to a 2 year old?? how well will he understnad the concept yet? but I, too, agree with 'Dad" that it is wrong to label a child. I will go a step further and say it is wrong to label under ANY circumstance. I do think the lock idea will work best, as BMS mentioned,providing in case of emergency that the means of getting in is fast and easily done by parent/guardian.

    Posted by jadee February 5, 10 12:25 PM
  1. I agree with lock suggestion. She's definitely old enough to use it. If you have a push button doorknob lock, the inside of a ballpoint pen or a long safety pin is all that's needed to unlock in an emergency.

    I wouldn't reinforce the idea that little brother is a "special case" and only he isn't allowed in the bathroom with her. That sets them up for antagonism later, if it's not there under the surface already. If she wants privacy, great, but that means no Mom or Dad or Auntie either--unless she needs help on occasion. Privacy means privacy, not "no brothers allowed". She'll be posting handwritten signs to that effect on her bedroom door soon enough!


    Posted by mom of two February 5, 10 12:58 PM
  1. My son started to get very concerned about bathroom privacy issues around the same age and we realized it was because of how the bathroom was handled at preschool. If your daughter is in preschool, this may be the issue, and I would encourage you to talk with her teachers about it.

    Posted by anita February 5, 10 02:06 PM
  1. my grand daughter is also 4 and in preschool full time. She is very aware of her privacy and setting up boundaries. She usually has us wait outside the bathroom (with the door ajar) till she calls for help, which she may or maynot do.
    She did have me in with her once but said, "don't tell anyone"--
    I firmly believe that these attitudes are fostered at school- which is a good thing since our children are now with adults and other kids who are not family. I agree with anita, please talk to the teachers and look for a way to balance home and school concerns and differences.

    Posted by alias1 February 7, 10 11:23 AM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. My reading of the letter is that the parent is outside of the bathroom and only there to ward off intrusions. Funny how different people read the same sequence and get different images?

    Seriously--If the girl is in preschool the privacy violation may be occurring there.

    There may be groups of kids (boys or other girls) who have the insane idea that it's OK to peek under bathroom stalls when they are being used at recess. This is usually prompted by the sick ideas of one child...and it happens in every generation of children.

    I would ask this child to describe where else she is afraid of people barging in. I consider her fear to be a real sign that something outside of her is wrong. Sit with her in private, hold her, give her a few minutes to start telling her information.

    And if supervision at recess is the problem, then a letter to the preschool management is the way to start. Harassment in public bathrooms is profoundly offensive to adults--why should any child think it's OK?

    Posted by Irene February 5, 10 08:12 AM
  1. "This is usually prompted by the sick ideas of one child"

    Irene - if this is what is happening, and we have no idea that it is, let's not label a 4 year old as sick when it is probably nothing more than curiosity and not knowing boundries.

    Posted by Dad February 5, 10 08:54 AM
  1. I agree that it's likely that there's peeking going on at school, assuming she attends some sort of preschool. Either that, or she's taken a conversation about private parts being private to an extreme and is truly terrified that if anyone other than Mom or Dad - including little brother - sees her private parts, that Something Bad will happen.

    I think it's reasonable to acknowledge her desire for privacy, but she also needs to understand that if a family member accidentally comes in, she MAY NOT scream at them. I think that the sign for the bathroom door is an interesting idea, but if the issue really stems from something happening at school, then that needs to be addressed as well. I agree with 'Dad' that it's rarely malicious, and generally just kids being curious, at least at that age. I'd agree with Irene about it being harrassment if it were older children.

    Posted by akmom February 5, 10 09:18 AM
  1. Does the bathroom door have a lock? Teach her to use it, and have the key nearby, say over the door frame. Then she can lock her brother out, mom and dad can get in if there is an emergency, problem solved. That's what works in our house at least.

    Posted by BMS February 5, 10 09:28 AM
  1. I think the sign on the door is interesting too but to a 2 year old?? how well will he understnad the concept yet? but I, too, agree with 'Dad" that it is wrong to label a child. I will go a step further and say it is wrong to label under ANY circumstance. I do think the lock idea will work best, as BMS mentioned,providing in case of emergency that the means of getting in is fast and easily done by parent/guardian.

    Posted by jadee February 5, 10 12:25 PM
  1. I agree with lock suggestion. She's definitely old enough to use it. If you have a push button doorknob lock, the inside of a ballpoint pen or a long safety pin is all that's needed to unlock in an emergency.

    I wouldn't reinforce the idea that little brother is a "special case" and only he isn't allowed in the bathroom with her. That sets them up for antagonism later, if it's not there under the surface already. If she wants privacy, great, but that means no Mom or Dad or Auntie either--unless she needs help on occasion. Privacy means privacy, not "no brothers allowed". She'll be posting handwritten signs to that effect on her bedroom door soon enough!


    Posted by mom of two February 5, 10 12:58 PM
  1. My son started to get very concerned about bathroom privacy issues around the same age and we realized it was because of how the bathroom was handled at preschool. If your daughter is in preschool, this may be the issue, and I would encourage you to talk with her teachers about it.

    Posted by anita February 5, 10 02:06 PM
  1. my grand daughter is also 4 and in preschool full time. She is very aware of her privacy and setting up boundaries. She usually has us wait outside the bathroom (with the door ajar) till she calls for help, which she may or maynot do.
    She did have me in with her once but said, "don't tell anyone"--
    I firmly believe that these attitudes are fostered at school- which is a good thing since our children are now with adults and other kids who are not family. I agree with anita, please talk to the teachers and look for a way to balance home and school concerns and differences.

    Posted by alias1 February 7, 10 11:23 AM
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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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