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Child Caring

Why can't 6-year-old stay alone upstairs?

Barbara,
I have a six year-old daughter. I somehow got into the habit (years back) of staying upstairs with her after bedtime, until she falls asleep. I stay in my room, not in hers. She says she's scared to be upstairs alone, I do believe her. She's also scared to go downstairs alone or even go to another part of the house than I'm in after dark. And once in a while, she even says she's scared to stay in her room alone. I do feel I should point out that if she's watching TV, she's fine and doesn't seem to mind being alone downstairs. Not sure if this negates her fear, or just distracts her.

While I don't want to traumatize her, it sometimes takes her quite a while to fall asleep. I really can't continue to be trapped up there with her when I have so many other things that need to be done - laundry, making lunches, letting the dog out, whatever.

Any suggestions? Thanks!
From: Trapped Mom, Abington, MA


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Dear Trapped Mom,

Ask her if she can tell you what, exactly, makes her not like to be alone. Take whatever she says seriously, don't pooh-pooh it or tell her she's silly or needs to be more grown up. The fear, whatever it is, is real to her and the goal is to help her feel mastery over it. Keep in mind you don't need to agree with her that what she's afraid of is real, but that you know she really is afraid, and your job is to keep her safe and help her get comfortable.

Kids this age have great imaginations and it's very typical for monsters, witches and "bad people" to figure largely. Even if she's not verbalizing that, it's a good guess that this is a reason, even if she's too embarrassed to admit it. I'm a big fan of filling a spray bottlewith water and -- voila! -- monster spray. Make it part of the bedtime routine to look in all the places a monster or witch might hide and spray away. Under the bed? In the closet? In the way back of the closet? If she's never voiced a fear of monsters, tell her when you were young, you worried about monsters and you wonder if she does. Anyway, this is what your mom/dad did and it made you feel safe.

Monitor what and how much she's watching on screens.

Tweak the bedtime routine. She might fall asleep faster if she goes to bed later. Even just 15 minutes later can make a difference.

Is there a night light in her room, and lights on in the hall?

During the day, spend more time -- fun, play time -- with her upstairs and in her room so she gets more used to being there.

Tell her you'd like her to try out being alone upstairs for two minutes. Ok, maybe three. Sorry -- the goal isn't for you to accomplish anything; it's for her to trust that you will return when you say and, yeah, to help her build the muscle to stay alone. Do it during the day the first time. Repeat, repeat, repeat, slowly, gradually. This is a process. It will take time. Give her some coping mechanisms: maybe she surrounds herself with some stuffed animals, to keep her company.

Gradually, you can extend the time to five minutes, then 10, and then you can move it to the bedtime, but start small and be sure to return each time to "check in" -- not to stay, not even to stay upstairs. It will probably help her if she can call you on an intercom or baby monitor-type thing. Maybe have the Monster Spray handy, in case.

Reading books together is always a great way to help a child master fears. "Where the Wild Things Are," by Maurice Sendak, comes to mind.

If none of these guidelines help, or if her fears become worse and/or more wide-spread, seek professional help.