Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My 4-year-old was scared by a Halloween store several weeks ago, and he’s still afraid to be by himself. What can I do?

A therapist can help him process what he saw and regain his independence

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My 4-year-old and I went to a Halloween store 2 weeks ago. He got really scared from the décor. We left pretty quickly but since then he cannot be by himself even for a few seconds, he will sit next to us in order to stay with an adult and quit doing things he enjoys (Legos, cartoons, little cars...) I have not been able to shower or go to the bathroom by myself in 2 weeks! It's very disruptive. I don't know what to do. I have tried to be gentle, talk to him, being firm, explaining what he saw was not real, I understand he is traumatized but what can I do?

I am sorry that your child was so upset! Costumes these days can be very scary to young children, and it isn’t surprising that your four-year-old was bothered by them. But what is concerning is how much he was impacted, and how his reaction is spilling over into his normal functioning, even weeks later. The fact that your child is avoiding things he usually likes and is more clingy than usual is a concern. Your son is so preoccupied that he can’t do his “job,” which is to have fun, attend school, do activities, and be a kid.

You’ve done the right thing in trying to explain what he saw and give him some reassurance. That’s the first thing I’d recommend. But because he has been having such a strong response for several weeks now, I think this goes beyond something you can handle on your own. I recommend talking to a psychologist or some other mental health professional. This is important for several reasons. First, just because we know why your child had this reaction — you can identify the Halloween store as the stressor — doesn’t mean that his reaction can be explained away. Letting time pass and making an effort to avoid Halloween stores in the future won’t solve this problem fully.

The other reason why it’s important to get help is because the longer his negative reaction continues the more you are inadvertently reinforcing it. That’s because he’s forming a pattern of avoiding certain activities and over-relying on you for security, and the longer this pattern holds the harder it will be to stop. A good mental health professional can help him not only with the fears he had at the Halloween store but also work on these new developments like his difficulty separating from you.

The goal in treatment will be to get him back to his previous level of functioning. And it might even be very short-term treatment. From what you described it sounds like a very focused approach to therapy that directly addresses his anxiety and some of the ensuing symptoms would likely yield good results, particularly if he receives strong family support for these interventions. Good luck!