Care and Feeding

Our Son Is Afraid of Our New House

How can we make him feel OK about, like, going downstairs without us?

A boy holding a stuffed animal, looking fearfully down the stairs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 4-year-old son and a 10-month-old daughter. We were overseas when my daughter was born, living in a very small apartment. Although it took a month of living in hotels, we are now back in the U.S. in a much larger, semipermanent living situation. We’ll be in this home for 11 weeks total and have been here three weeks so far.

My son has done a fabulous job adjusting to these changes, with one exception: He seems to be developing phobias related to our current home. He doesn’t like to go to the other floor of the house just to get something without us coming with him. He’s no longer willing to go to the bathroom alone. He doesn’t like to have the lights off. He saw one spider and is now worried that spiders will get him. (We had a lot more bugs at the old place!)

None of this seems too weird to us, and we’re sure he will grow out of this phase. We’re just not quite sure of the most effective way to support him in the meantime. Should we sometimes insist he does things alone that he says are scary? Should we suggest he do them, but then just accompany him if he won’t? It’s not always possible for me to (figuratively) drop the baby and help him out, so should I just hope he’ll get bored of waiting and handle the things he used to do on his own?

—Family on the Move

Dear FotM,

I feel for the little guy. You’re right that this is a perfectly normal thing for this age and especially given all these transitions—new house, new baby—but it’s still hard for him! Put yourself in his shoes. He’s in this whole new place, everything is changing around him, Mom and Dad have a whole ’nother kid they care about. Would you be so sure that spiders weren’t going to get you? Life is unpredictable, and so are spiders.

Often you’ll hear advice in a situation like this to “break” the kid out of the habit. But here I would exercise caution. Remember he doesn’t want to be afraid of going upstairs any more than you want him to be. It’s just that fear is both reasonable and entirely out of his control right now. I don’t think you can, through force, instill some kind of bravery in your 4-year-old; given that this is a temporary placement and there is more change coming, I don’t even think you want to right now. You should take Option No. 2. Suggest he do these things himself. Let him know that you would like him to get over his fears and that going it alone may help with that. Be honest about the fact that you may not be able to help this exact minute because of the baby. But if he really needs help, by all means help however you can. It’s nice for him to “grow up,” but it’s even better for him to have reliable support in a changing world.

—Carvell