Child Is Afraid of Being Alone

How should we handle our eight-year-old son's strong aversion to being by himself? He sleeps in the same room with his younger sister because he doesn't want to be alone. He won't play in his room or in the basement unless someone else is there. The last time he tried, he suffered a panic attack (sweating and shortness of breath). He's very intelligent, does well in school, plays piano, drums, and baseball, and has many friends. He has never experienced any kind of trauma and my wife and I have a good relationship. What's going on?

Since you’ve told us that there are no serious relational issues, interpersonal conflicts, or other sources of stress causing problems in your home, we’re going to suggest a fairly straightforward approach. Our basic idea is that fears have to be faced. To put it another way, anxiety feeds on itself. It creates a vicious cycle. As we see it, your son will probably remain enslaved to these fears until he’s encouraged to bite the bullet. Somehow you have to get him to plunge straight ahead into whatever it is that scares him. This isn’t going to be easy, but it’s the only way to break the negative pattern you’ve described.

Naturally, you shouldn’t expect him to do this by himself. You can and should stand beside him. Hold his hand and walk with him over this rough spot in the road. Nor is there any reason to adopt a cold-turkey, all-or-nothing approach. On the contrary, it would be best to “wean” him from his old patterns of behavior as gradually as possible. Your first step, in our opinion, should be to give him his own space. It’s high time he moved out of the room where his sister sleeps and got set up in a room of his own.

It might be a good idea to make a “big deal” of this transition. Turn it into an occasion for celebration. Celebrate it like a “graduation” or rite of passage. Help him feel as if he’s taking an important step forward. Take him out to dinner or make a special cake. Encourage him to be proud of the fact that he’s growing up. Escort him into his new quarters amidst pomp and circumstance.

This, of course, is when the hard work begins. He’ll probably resist being left alone in his bed. You can help by putting your chair just outside his door and promising to sit there with a book until he falls asleep. The next night, place your chair a little farther away, and the next night farther still. If he’s afraid of the dark, get him a night-light. It might also be a good idea to put a radio or a CD-player in the room and play some soft music until he drifts off. Another strategy you might try is to leave a personal item with him – your watch, for instance, or a piece of jewelry. Tell him you’ll be back for it in the morning. This helps to give him a sense of continuity throughout the night and establishes a feeling of direct connection with you.

You can adopt a similar approach to the challenge of helping your son play alone in his room or the basement. Don’t thrust him into this frightening situation without any preparation. Instead, stay in the room with him for a while. When you leave, tell him that you’ll be sitting on the stairs or waiting right outside in the hallway if he needs you. The second time you try it, leave sooner and go a little farther away. It may also help to teach him what it means to have a “quiet time” by himself in his room during the daylight hours. Exemplify this idea in your own behavior. When he has successfully overcome this obstacle, commemorate his achievement with a small celebration. You might try putting some marbles in a jar. Then have him add another marble every time he finds the courage to face his fears alone. When the jar is full, you can take the entire family out for ice cream or pizza to mark the occasion.

Throughout this process, it’s important to talk to your son about his feelings. Help him understand that it’s okay to be afraid. Tell him that we sometimes have to do things that are unsettling in spite of our emotions. Explain that God has equipped our brains and bodies with the fear reaction for a good reason. He wants to warn us of potential dangers and spur us into action when a real emergency arises.

You can illustrate by telling him that his feelings of fear are like a smoke alarm. Sometimes the alarm goes off simply because someone burned the toast. In that case there’s no reason to leave the house and run for cover. At other times the alarm may be letting us know that there’s a dangerous fire in the house. The trick is knowing how to tell the difference between the two. We can do that by taking time to think carefully about our situation. Is there any real reason to be afraid of being alone when a parent is nearby? The answer, of course, is no. If your son can grasp this concept, he may be able to make some genuine progress toward overcoming his anxieties.

For further help, it might be worth your while to make an appointment with a family therapist. This counselor should be experienced in dealing with childhood fears. Call us. Focus on the Family’s Counseling staff can provide you with a list of qualified professionals practicing in your local area. Our counselors would also be more than happy to discuss your concerns with you over the phone. Each is a committed Christian and a licensed family therapist.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

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Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

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