No solitude for mom of anxious 6-year-old

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Q: My 6-year-old son is like a barnacle. He says he is afraid of being alone, so with my being a single mother, that means I don’t get to be alone. Including in the bathroom. He has other fears, such as of the dark, so I let him keep his light on all night. But he still comes into my room every night to get some cuddles because he gets scared. He still wants me to do everything for him, including dressing him in the mornings. Encouraging him to be more independent is usually met with tears. It’s nothing new — he’s always been like this — but it just seems like he should have grown out of it by now. Should I be worried? Am I doing something wrong by indulging this first-grader’s fears?

A: I know the nights feel long and the bathroom feels crowded, but know that you are not alone. So many parents have children who are like barnacles, and it is tiring. The more energy you spend prying them off, the needier they become. And yet if you give in to their demands, you feel weak, powerless and resentful.

Let’s look at the reasons he may be like this with you:

1. He is having separation problems. (No kidding, right? That’s why you wrote.) But they run deeper than just letting you sleep or go to the bathroom alone. It means that when you are out of his sense experience (sight, sound, smell, etc.), his brain becomes alarmed and he is driven to close the physical gap between you. Imagine this not as conscious thought but more as a deep, emotional impulse, similar to the way babies cry when they are hungry. Babies don’t know they are doing this; it is deeply instinctual. Has your son experienced any early loss or separation from a caretaker? Does he have to switch homes often? Has he experienced a trauma? Think of his life in its entirety, not just anything recent. These losses and separations can delay children from maturing.

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2. Children remain stuck in neediness and clinginess when we push them to be independent. That’s because children are built to be attached to us, so if you separate your son from you, he will become more and more clingy. Your resentment builds, and you push him away more. And there’s the cycle. It is your responsibility to change this dynamic.

3. Children stay stuck in clinginess when we use separation-based discipline. Sending children to their rooms and putting them into traditional timeouts are techniques that create alarm in a child’s brain and cause the child to chase you and become more barnacley. Remember, children are meant to be near you, so anything that separates them with punishment, anger or shame will only cause more problems.

Although it may seem illogical, provide more connection than is needed. What does this look like?

1. Pause the “encouraging him to be more independent.” It doesn’t mean you are never going to help him grow; you are just going to relax pushing him to do things by himself. Your pushing is just making him more dependent. This will feel scary to your frustrated brain, but give this relationship a little more space to let safety take root. You need to begin to soothe his jangly nervous system, and you can’t do that if you keep provoking it.

2. Instead, assume you are going to dress him. Assume he will be afraid of the night. Assume he will come to your bed. It is exhausting to keep thinking that he should have grown out of this behavior already, and it only creates more anxiety and frustration on your end. Remember, maturation and developmental standards are not the same for every human. There are so many factors that interfere with maturity, and they are not all problems. We need to make room for humans to be on their own timeline, especially if the human is a child and struggles with emotional challenges.

3. In assuming the needs of your child, get joyful about it. Yup, you read that correctly. Say, “I cannot wait to dress you this morning,” or “I made you breakfast this morning,” or “I turned on your night light for you.” Let your son know that you don’t mind doing this. You are his mom, and you want to. Nothing calms children more than knowing their parents are OK with them.

4. Nonetheless, find your boundaries and get ready to hold them with lots of tears. For instance: “I am going to use the bathroom, and you are going to sit here and talk to me while I am in there. I am going to be alone, and you will feel sad, and that is OK.” Be ready for him to fight this and cry. Don’t punish the crying. Just use the bathroom, come out and hug him. Repeat over and over. Don’t punish him for his big feelings, and he will begin to adapt to waiting.

5. Find time for one-on-one bonding. I know you are a single mom, and I don’t want to tax the system. But go for the easiest ways to make strong eye contact, listen closely and smile. This does not require you to say anything deep or amazing; just be present. Clingy children can tend to want this moment to never end, so again, be ready for tears and treat them with firmness and empathy.

6. I am asking you to do some hard emotional work here. Please, please get all the support you can, for yourself and for your son. Hire a sitter, go to therapy and give yourself frequent breaks from your child. And please avail yourself of a good therapist for your son if the anxiety ramps up or doesn’t diminish after many weeks. Or months. Parenting work like this is not an overnight change.

7. Finally, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you need to “nip this in the bud” and “toughen him up” or that you are “spoiling” him by taking care of his emotional needs. Our culture is overly dependent on age-to-behavior correlation. Clearly, your son is feeling some deep level of insecurity, and that is never helped with harshness, punishment and isolation.

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