Q. My 4-year-old daughter and I walked into home about a year ago as it was being robbed.
Although the burglars ran and no one was hurt, my daughter has since shown extreme distress about being alone. My husband and I have told her repeatedly that "the bad men are in jail and will be in there forever." She still has regressed in certain areas.
She was potty-trained at 2 and was doing quite well. However, since this happened she refuses to go to the bathroom by herself.
Bedtime was a real problem for quite a while. She really screamed about sleeping alone, but we have gently, firmly insisted on her sleeping in her own bed. We take turns reading stories to her and tucking her in. Now she realizes that her own bed is for sleeping, although I can still sense her fear and once in a while she will say, "Are you sure those bad men will never come back?"
The real problem is her inability to play by herself. Someone must always be in the same room with her. She will only play on her gym equipment in our well-fenced back yard. She will only go in the yard if someone is near.
Normally, she is very social and outgoing and gets along with children and adults very well. She goes to preschool twice a week and enjoys it, but her extreme caution has us quite concerned. A.No wonder your child is upset, because you are probably still upset also. Crime invokes a terrible sense of impotence and anger in its victims, particularly the young, who know how defenseless they really are.
Moreover, your child is 4, which is significant. This is the age when nature urges her to conquer the world, if only in her fancy. The typical 4-year-old is apt to boast to her buddies that she can eat an ocean of ice cream, climb as high as a star, lick every monster, everywhere. Bragging is one of the things a 4-year-old does best and it serves a purpose. The child who boasts is helping to lay her anxieties to rest by figuring out how she would handle anything she can imagine -- and she can imagine a lot. Reality, however, has given your daughter an adult test that was sure to make her stumble, leaving her with dismay that's very real. Her problem is not, in its essentials, that unusual.
All children -- and all adults -- have tense times when they move from one stage to the next and the transition from 3 to 4 is a major one. Your child probably just needs time, patience and some loving measures, especially at night. The child who can sort her worries as she dreams will have a better day than the one who relives her fears, night after night, without solution.
Good dreams will be easier to come by if she has a music box beside her bed and a drop of your cologne on her pillow and a new, soft and cuddly stuffed animal or an old piece of fur to stroke.
She needs a night light, of course (most children do), or a dimly lit lamp, or maybe a flashlight to shine on suspicious corners or a bell to call you if she gets scared.
Consider a talisman for her room, something to hang on the wall or around her neck to protect her. Consider an invisible sentry of your own invention, or a guardian angel, that you station outside her bedroom door, with nightly orders to take good care of her.
This is part of the lighter touch she needs -- an approach that's closer to her own level of understanding. Use it when you talk about the burglars, too.
To say that they are in jail isn't enough to make her feel safe again. Do some bragging of your own instead. Tell her that you made the burglars run away once; you can make burglars run away any time -- and say it resoundingly. Just knowing that she's your little girl will be enough to keep those bad people away, you'll say, whether you're nearby or not.
Preschoolers are particularly sensitive to adult pronouncements -- good and bad. They need matter-of-fact, loving explanations of scary happenings and regular reassurances that there are grown-ups standing by -- and that most people in the world are really pretty good.