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By: Tammy Sassoon, M.s.ed

Dear Mrs. Sassoon,

My nine-year-old boy is a very confident child who is afraid to walk upstairs or downstairs alone in our house. When I ask him what he is afraid of exactly, he says that he just doesn’t like being alone. Until now, I didn’t address it because it wasn’t having such a negative impact on his life. However, as he is getting older, he feels that he would like to feel safe and comfortable going up and down alone, as most kids his age are able to do. In addition, I am worried about how his anxiety will affect him down the line, and he is too. Two weeks ago, he asked me who will want to marry him, being that he is so scared to be alone. Would you have any practical strategies to offer me?


Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned Mother,

Believe it or not, you are asking a question that is relevant to many children. I find that in most families, there is at least one child who exhibits anxiety about being alone. Some children are afraid to walk down the block alone, others are afraid to walk to school alone (even when they reach an age where all their friends are doing so already), and some are even afraid to walk to different parts of the house alone, as you are describing. Have no fear! There is a solution that I have never seen fail any child. I teach parents a technique called “successive approximation.” It consists of two parts:

Part One:Tell your child that you learned a brilliant technique that helps children feel comfortable walking around the house alone. Ask your son if he is interested in learning it. If he says, “Yes,” you will do it, and if he says, “No,” say, ‘Sure,” and tell him that if he ever changes his mind he can let you know. If the child is ready to learn the technique, you go to the room where the child is afraid to go to alone, and tell the child that every time he says the words, “I am okay,” you will move one foot away from the child. Assure your child that you will NEVER move further unless he clearly says the words, “I am okay.” As your child keeps telling you that he is okay, comment about how far you are (i.e. “I am halfway down the steps”), and ask your child if it’s too much in one day for him, and if he thinks you should resume the next day. Nine out of ten times, children say they want to continue the same day. You must repeat this activity every day for a few minutes until your child is completely comfortable being alone when you leave him.

Part Two: Tell your child that since he is now comfortable being in his room alone, you will teach him the second part of the technique, which is how to be comfortable getting TO the room alone in a comfortable way. This time around you start by standing with the child next to the steps downstairs, and tell him that every time he feels comfortable moving a foot away from you he should say, “I’m okay,” and progress one foot towards the destination. He repeats, “I’m okay” over and over again, “successively approximating” himself towards the goal. Once he arrives at his destination, ask him if he think he can stay there alone for one minute that day. Then ask him if he can stay two minutes, three, etc. Whenever he gets uncomfortable, say, “No problem...we will pick up again tomorrow. This technique takes a few days.”

Remember that the entire basis of this strategy is that your child is moving towards the goal in small increments which HE is comfortable with, on HIS terms. Never push. I have yet to see this technique fail. You can use this to help a child get to any place that he is anxious about (assuming there is no trauma connected to that place). Good luck, and thank you for sharing your question with our readers.