I have a 5-year-old who constantly worries about me leaving him. He asks me over and over if I am going to leave. If he does not see me in the house he will start screaming for me instead of looking for me. He won’t play in a separate room for over 10 minutes at a time without coming to look for me. I am starting to feel as though I did something to make him so insecure. Even if there are people around him that he is familiar with he screams because he thought I left him. I am worried that this will affect him in the future.
Your son doesn’t seem to know that if you leave you will always come back, because loving parents don’t abandon their children. The only way he can learn this is if you do leave and come back, repeatedly. Parents who don’t use babysitters when their children are really young can find themselves trapped in the house by preschoolers who simply don’t feel safe when out of their presence.
The child’s screaming and anxiety can easily make a parent upset, and can also make the parent give in to the child. This just makes the problem worse. He gets more and more upset, and you give in more and more, so that your leaving him even for a short time becomes a really big upsetting event.
If you’re in the house and your son screams for you, don’t go running to him. Tell him ahead of time that you aren’t going to do this anymore because he’s old enough to be separate from you some of the time. Say that he can come and look for you if he’s worried. Then ignore the screams. If he comes to find you, just say “Yes, I’m here,” and praise him for not screaming (if he hasn’t). If he has screamed, repeat your statement that you will not respond to screaming.
You need to deliberately leave your son on a regular basis with someone you trust. Begin with small tripsâ€”a half hour to go to the store. Tell him where you are going and how soon you’ll be back, then just go, no matter how he behaves. Don’t let his screams or anxiety keep you from going. Prepare the sitter for his behaviour. Instruct her to give him a treat or play a game with him if he calms down. When you return, just point out that you came back when you said you would.
Gradually extend the length of the time you’re away, so he learns that you always return. Maybe in a month or two you can take a course or go to a gym so that you’re out of the house for a predictable length of time on a regular day.
It will not harm your son in the long run to have these experiences, even if he gets upset a few times. It will harm him more if he learns that you always respond to his demands and he continues to feel afraid to let you out of his sight. The only way to cure him of this is to practice leaving until he becomes secure with it.