4-year-old fears mom will forget him

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 21, 2010 06:00 AM

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Suddenly, one of my 4-year-old twin sons has developed a terrible fear that he will be left by me or our regular caregiver in a public place that he is visiting, like a library or a playground.  His fear is so intense that he will not let whoever is with him walk even a few feet away, regardless of whether we are still within sight of him, while we are out.  Neither he nor his brother has ever been left or even lost while we are out.  He is fine every day when he is dropped off at preschool for a 6-hour day.

What will help him through this stage and should I be worried?

From: Drachman, Sagamore Beach, MA

Dear Drachman,

What will help him most is for you to deal with in a calm, matter-of-fact way that doesn't feed into his fear. Tell him before you go someplace, "I know sometimes you worry that you will get left behind. I promise I wont' forget you, but what can we do so you won't be worried? Do you want to hold my hand when we get there? Do you want to sit next to me/ in my lap, etc.?" whatever is appropriate to the activity. The more you can walk him through the experience beforehand -- "This is the playground where parents usually sit and watch their kids. Do you want to sit with me instead of playing?" -- the more you are helping him build up muscle to cope with this. Also be careful not to express judgment in your voice. If your words say, "You can sit with me," but your voice says, "I can't believe you'd want to do that," he will feel badly for his fear and it will take longer for it to pass.

This kind of fear or insecurity most likely is coming from something he's either heard from  another child in preschool or from something he's seen on a screen. Chances are, you'll never figure out where it comes from, but kids this age are filled with irrational fears. For instance, a 4- or 5-year-old who has never been afraid of the neighbor's dog might suddenly be frightened because a new level of cognition has kicked in, making him newly capable of reasoning, "This dog is big, this dog has  a lot teeth, this dog could hurt me!" The fear will pass as he moves through the stage, and if parents are respectful of it: "You don't want to say hello to the dog today? That's OK, we don't have to."

Similarly with your son, he may be reasoning: "This is a big place (the library, the park). There's lots of people here. Mom might not be able to find me! I better stay right next to her!"

So, no, I don't think you need to be worried, I think this is a normal, developmental stage that will pass.By the way, the fact that this is happening to one son and not the other is just proof of how different every child is!

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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3 comments so far...
  1. Don't discount the possibility that his fear is based in a real inability to process spatial input. Our daughter has a visual spacial deficit, and has always been 'clingy'. It was not until she was much older that we realized that it was not merely an emotional trait, but was based on her realization that she had difficulty processing information as she moved in space. She had to be taught compensatory strategies to be able to recognize landmarks and remember a route. Kids with this deficit get very fearful in large, unstructured places because they know the cannot find their own way

    Posted by mom o 6 April 21, 10 08:16 AM
  1. One of my nephews as a child had such intense separation anxiety that when my sister left him at my mothers house and go do short errands or he went to his cousins house for sleepovers, he would cry until he saw my sister again. I'm not sure what caused this anxiety. He has since become an adult. My sister, her husband, my nephew and his fiance bought a house together so in a sense he still lives in the same house as his mother. He never had his own apartment, always lived with my sister. Best of luck.

    Posted by sophie08 April 22, 10 03:36 AM
  1. Hopefully your son's anxiety is nothing more than an age-appropriate phase. But if it does persist later into childhood you might want to look into some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT can teach children to think more realistically about highly-unlikely things that cause them undue anxiety, and help them with relaxation techniques as well. Just a few short months of CBT has done wonders for my 11-year-old daughter -- it is great to see her becoming more confident and independent. I wish we had not spent quite so long saying she was "just a worrier" and hoping she would grow out of it. (I wonder if Sophie08's nephew would have benefited from this treatment too).

    Posted by gastrogal April 22, 10 10:14 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. Don't discount the possibility that his fear is based in a real inability to process spatial input. Our daughter has a visual spacial deficit, and has always been 'clingy'. It was not until she was much older that we realized that it was not merely an emotional trait, but was based on her realization that she had difficulty processing information as she moved in space. She had to be taught compensatory strategies to be able to recognize landmarks and remember a route. Kids with this deficit get very fearful in large, unstructured places because they know the cannot find their own way

    Posted by mom o 6 April 21, 10 08:16 AM
  1. One of my nephews as a child had such intense separation anxiety that when my sister left him at my mothers house and go do short errands or he went to his cousins house for sleepovers, he would cry until he saw my sister again. I'm not sure what caused this anxiety. He has since become an adult. My sister, her husband, my nephew and his fiance bought a house together so in a sense he still lives in the same house as his mother. He never had his own apartment, always lived with my sister. Best of luck.

    Posted by sophie08 April 22, 10 03:36 AM
  1. Hopefully your son's anxiety is nothing more than an age-appropriate phase. But if it does persist later into childhood you might want to look into some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT can teach children to think more realistically about highly-unlikely things that cause them undue anxiety, and help them with relaxation techniques as well. Just a few short months of CBT has done wonders for my 11-year-old daughter -- it is great to see her becoming more confident and independent. I wish we had not spent quite so long saying she was "just a worrier" and hoping she would grow out of it. (I wonder if Sophie08's nephew would have benefited from this treatment too).

    Posted by gastrogal April 22, 10 10:14 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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