‘My seven-year-old is afraid to go upstairs on his own’

John Sharry: The good news is there are simple steps you can follow to help him manage

Don’t scold your son for how he feels, and communicate that lots of children can feel this way. Photograph: iStock

Don’t scold your son for how he feels, and communicate that lots of children can feel this way. Photograph: iStock

 
This summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. Read all about it at  irishtimes.com/summeroffamily

Question: My seven-year-old has become afraid of going upstairs on his own. It has gotten worse in recent weeks where he doesn’t want to go to the room next door on his own or even the bathroom.

We live in a small house so we are never far away from each other.

Answer: Your son is suffering from separation anxiety, meaning he becomes anxious and upset when separated from you as his parent. While this is very normal for a two- or three-year-old it becomes problematic as children get older, when it can interfere with them getting on and doing normal things.

Ask the Expert: Send your questions to John Sharry

In the time of Covid, with children cut off from normal social contacts and locked down with parents there has been an increase in this type of anxiety. The good news is there are some simple steps you can follow to help him manage. First, it is important it be very empathetic and understanding. Don’t scold your son for how he feels, and communicate that lots of children can feel this way. Second, get your son’s agreement about taking steps to overcome his anxiety. You might say “it can be a bit of pain feeling anxious like that . . . would you like to learn how to go into the bathroom by yourself?” Then break the task into small steps that your son can tackle one by one with your help. These might include:

1) Going into the bathroom with you while you wait inside.
2) You waiting just outside with the door open where he can see you.
3) You outside with the door closed, but with you talking to him to reassure him.
4) You outside, using less reassuring talk.
5) Going to the next room for a minute but coming back before he finishes.

The key is to start small and to make each step only a small leap from the last one. Once he is comfortable doing a step without anxiety then (and only then) do you progress to the next step. You want to proceed at his pace. You can boost his motivation by praising him for his bravery and effort and by providing a reward each time he moves to the next step.

This gradual and patient approach to overcoming separation anxiety usually works well in most situations, but do seek further support from a mental health professional if you need further guidance.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie

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