Q: Our 4 year old daughter has recently become scared about going to the bathroom alone, and also doesn't want to go to sleep alone. Sometimes when she hears a loud noise, she hits whoever is next to her. We don't know how to handle this situation.
A: You mentioned that this started recently. I'm not a therapist, but it sounds like perhaps she experienced some kind of traumatic event, and her nervous system has decided it needs to stay 'on alert' all the time.
That 'on alert' response isn't only triggered by something big, like a death or an injury. It can happen any time a child feels powerless to control something that is hurting her -- like being bullied, visiting the doctor or dentist, hearing a scary story or seeing something on television, or even witnessing something painful happening to somebody else. Some kids are more sensitive to this sort of thing than others. At age four, kids step out into the world in a bigger way, and they hear lots of things that might be scary. It could be as simple as that.
For now, I think your best response is empathy. She's temporarily regressing, which is exactly what we all do when we are stressed. If you can sort of ramp up your willingness to help her and reassure her for a little while, her nervous system will start to settle down again.
Reflect her feelings back to her: "Oh, you don't like being alone, huh. It sounds like you might be scared of something. I wonder what that is?" It's okay to go with her to the bathroom when you can - you won't be creating a pattern that you'll be stuck with forever. See if you can brainstorm with her about ways to bring her some comfort. That conversation may sound like this:
Honey, I noticed you haven't wanted to be alone lately. I'm wondering ... what's up?
Listen to her, without trying to solve anything or fix the situation. Reflect what you heard:
So you heard a scary story about spiders, and you are afraid there might be one in the bathroom and you won't know what to do?
Make sure you have heard everything:
Is there anything else bothering you?
I wonder what we can do about that together?
Here is where you guys can get really creative. In the spider example, you might offer to teach her how to catch spiders, or promise that she can call you and you will take care of it anytime, or make up a spidey song that she can sing that tells him to leave her alone, or any number of things. The idea is that she participates in the solution, rather than you imposing one upon her. Try whatever you decide on to see how it works, and then debrief:
How did that work out for you?
If it did not help, try something else until you find something that does.
When my kids were scared, it always helped me to remember that fear is the sign of an intelligent and protective mind ... one is trying to help us stay away from something that was painful to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. It's why someone who was hit by a white car feels their heart race whenever they see a flash of white on the highway. It's why a kid who was startled by a loud bark fears every four legged thing it sees for a while.
Time, empathy, and compassion help support the mind and nervous system as they do the important work of figuring out what is really dangerous and what is not.
I hope this helps! Please feel free to contact me for a phone or email consultation if you'd like more individualized help with this issue.