July 02, 2015

Q: My fiance's 2-year old HATES playing in her room. Even though she has lots of toys, she throws a tantrum whenever we tell her to go play in her room. She'll stand behind her door and cry and whine then slowly try to sneak back into the living room. She'll play as long as one of us are in the room with her but as soon as we leave she pitches a fit. And if we put a baby gate up she'll scream until she makes herself puke. What is this kid's deal about playing in her room?

A: It can be very difficult for a two-year-old to deal with things in his world that he doesn't like or are scary, and the resulting behavior can be very frustrating for parents to deal with.  Here are some tips for helping a very young child who doesn’t like to be alone in his room:

Have empathy When you are two years old, the world can be a very, very scary and confusing place.  There are monsters! There are Boogeymen! There are yucky vegetables! And being that young, your coping skills are really nothing more than crying and having tantrums: you don’t have the reasoning skills to understand that there is nothing to be scared of in certain situations, nor do you have the language skills to talk out your concerns with your parent or caretaker. So it is important to try to see things from his point of view and treat him with the warmth and nurturing that he needs to develop the self confidence and sense of security that will allow him to feel more comfortable in new and difficult situations.

Keep in mind that certain fears are appropriate at certain ages and levels of development.  It is very common for children this age to fear the dark and being separated from parents.  Many children outgrow these fears with no intervention.  So sometimes a parent will just “wait it out” and allow the child’s natural course of development take over.  If a child is still having trouble separating or being alone in his room when he is older, than a parent can contact the pediatrician to see whether any professional help is needed.

Work on developing skills for the long run.  Build a strong sense of confidence by raising the child in an atmosphere of warmth, kindness, and love, while also making sure to have the structure, safe environment, stability, and rules and consequences needed to bring order and predictability to his life.

When possible, eliminate something that may be causing the fear.  If, for example, there is something in the room that is scary (such as a picture), remove it.

Gradually work on decreasing fears.  Try to figure out exactly what a child is scared of – for example, is it being away from the parent or is there something scary about the room – and start to gradually expose the child to what is making him scared.  So, for example, if he is scared of being away from the parent, a parent can start by sitting in the doorway of the room while the child plays.  The next day, the parent can move one foot away, and then two feet, and so on, to allow the child to gradually get used to the fact that everything will be o.k. and the parent will return.  And each time the child is able to be more independent, praise him lavishly. Again, though, it is very important to keep in mind that the child is only two, and as such we can’t – and shouldn’t- expect him to be able to handle more than he actually can at that age.

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Answered by Dr. Wayne Fleisig