Our children sometimes develop irrational fears, such as fear of the dark, terror of costumed people and dread of dogs. It can be difficult to manage a child who’s afraid of being alone, but with the aid of the Doctor, I think this 6-year-old can learn to conquer his fears.

Q: I’m looking for some feedback on how to handle our 6-year-old boy’s fear of being alone. It started about a year ago and seemed to have lessened after a few months but has resurfaced recently with incredible fervency. He is simply terrified of being anywhere in our house without someone there with him, either in the same room or on the same floor of our three-level home. It’s caused quite a few behavior problems, such as telling his brother to do a chore I assigned to him if it requires him being alone to do it, refusing to go upstairs by himself to take a shower and get ready for bed if no one is also going to be upstairs, etc.—all things he will do obediently if he won’t be alone while doing it.  

I haven’t catered to it and simply told him to figure out a way to obey. Usually that means asking his brother to come along or turning on a CD player so that he doesn’t feel alone. But lately his brother hasn’t always wanted to come. Or he can’t muster the courage to get to wherever he is going and get a CD turned on by himself (which he could do previously). The other day, the boys were playing outside and my 4 year old came inside with my 6 year old right on his tail screaming bloody murder at his brother for coming inside without him.

I’ve tried to be super matter of fact about it. I pray with him and send him on his way. But the recent increase in his fear is really disrupting our home. I casually asked him tonight what he was afraid of (I’d previously not asked on purpose). He said that someone would break into the house and steal him and that he’d never see us again. Or that a snake would bite him (which is obviously not going to happen in the house, but is something we have to talk about occasionally because we live in an area with rattlesnakes and he plays a lot outside).

Your words and actions haven’t been enough to alleviate his fears. That’s not to say you’ve done something wrong in your approach, but that it’s not working—which is why you’re asking for another solution.

Please help! Should I just stay the nonchalant course (which after a year, doesn’t seem to be working and lately has resulted in him trying to engage me in arguing/reasoning with him and getting really frustrated when I don’t engage). Or is it time to put the proverbial foot down? And if so, how? I practice authoritative language already so I anticipate needing a plan of action/consequence for him not obeying. Thoughts?

A: I think it’s time for the Doctor to pay a house call. At 6, your son doesn’t want to be afraid, but his fear has grown bigger than he can handle. Your words and actions haven’t been enough to alleviate his fears. That’s not to say you’ve done something wrong in your approach, but that it’s not working—which is why you’re asking for another solution.

So, keep being matter-of-fact about it. Don’t ask him why he’s afraid, as the answer isn’t going to help him and “naming” the fear only gives it more credibility to him.

Also, when he says he can’t do something because he’s afraid, don’t offer an alternative way for him to accomplish that. Simply shrug and do the chore yourself. In other words, you’re not going to cater to his fear at all.

In the meantime, sit your son down and have a very short conversation: “I spoke with the Doctor about your fear of being alone, and he said that kids who have such fears need more sleep. So each day that you have a tantrum (scream) about being left alone or you can’t do a chore because you’ll be alone, you’ll have to go to bed directly after an early supper to get more sleep.” That’s it. Don’t engage, just give him a hug or something similar and walk away.

When there is a day that he expresses his fear, either by not doing his chore because he’ll be alone or screaming at his brother for leaving him alone, move up his supper time to an hour earlier, then let him eat and put him to bed, lights out, no later than 6:30 p.m. (6 or 5:30 would be even better).

Keep doing that—It might take a few weeks—but I suspect your son will learn how to manage his fear on his own soon enough.