My son doesn’t dare to stay overnight

Mother: “I am a single mother with three children. My youngest, a 10-year-old boy, suffers from separation anxiety. For example, he still finds it difficult to say goodbye at school in the morning. He also never wants to stay anywhere. Very occasionally he tries, but then I have to pick him up in the evening because he wants to go home.

“Occasionally I have to spend the night somewhere for work, and then it’s handy if he can go to his grandmother or my brother, but he definitely doesn’t want that. How do I help a child get used to staying overnight? And is it wise to pick him up if he still wants to go home, or not?”

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Do not force

Robert Vermeiren: “Fear is part of life, so in itself it is not a cause for concern, unless the functioning of the child is compromised. Then I think of refusing school and limiting social contacts. I don’t think it’s that far, but it’s good to make sure that the child doesn’t avoid situations, because then the fear threatens to get worse.

“It will be good for you and your son if he gradually learns to master his fear. You should not force this, because that will only increase the fear. In therapist language this is called ‘flooding’. Gradually, you look for ways for your son to spend longer elsewhere, with people he feels most comfortable with, possibly with your older children. This goes step by step, and the agreements you make about this with him and others must be followed closely.

“Look at your own interaction with him too. If children are anxious, this has an impact on the parent, who then tends to go along with it. Especially if the parent is or was also anxious in the past, patterns can arise unintentionally that reinforce the fear.”

Build up slowly

Ria Balm: “It is good that mother is going to work on this, if only because it is so important for a child to learn to separate from its parents and to learn to use its own strength.

“It starts with finding out what thoughts the child has when it doesn’t see its mother, and looking together: are those thoughts correct? I let children write bad thoughts on a dark cloud, and then write a helpful thought on the other side: for example: it’s only one night. Or: if it works out, I’m going to do something fun with mom. Such a dark cloud can blow or turn a child away at a difficult moment.

“It helps to practice it alone step by step elsewhere. For example, first dinner somewhere with a friend or family, then dinner somewhere and play for another hour, and slowly build it up to a night’s sleep – maybe one of your older children can come along for the first time?

“Include the people with whom your son is going to stay in that plan, and discuss with each other and your son in advance: where do you like to sit in the house, what is a safe place for you there? What are we going to do if you don’t feel well? In this way you teach a child to get a better grip on his feelings and behaviour.“