Dear Dr. Meg,
I could use some advice about my son. He is four years old, and tells me about bad dreams where the “boogeyman” is trying to get him, hurt him, or stop him from getting to me. He has this concept that when I go to work I will leave him. He is very emotional and I really don’t know what to think anymore. I am scared for him. Do you have any words of wisdom?
Dear Nervous Mom,
Many four-year-old boys have nightmares like the ones you are describing; it doesn’t mean that there is anything terribly wrong. Don’t be frightened. Fear never helps you resolve any problem and if your son sees you troubled, he will become more afraid himself.
Here’s what I recommend that you do. Find out what goes on in his life while you aren’t around. Has someone hurt him in any way that would have frightened him? Who babysits him while you are at work? Sometimes even a small, frightening incident that happened while you weren’t around can cause bad dreams in children. Ask him what he does while you’re at work or simply show up at daycare when no one expects you to come. That way, you can see what he’s like when he knows you’re not around.
If boys are really afraid or troubled, they may show other signs of anxiety like waking during the night and running into a parent’s room, not eating well, becoming easily agitated or crying easily. If you see some of these signs occurring, then you might want to take him to your pediatrician and have a talk.
Honestly, it sounds as though he is having a bit of separation anxiety and he doesn’t want to leave you. Many children go through this at different stages and the most important thing to do is reassure him that you will always be available for him. Perhaps you can call him each day at lunchtime to say hello and that you will see him soon. When you are not at work, spend extra time taking him to the park, for walks, for ice cream, etc. Sometimes just giving the extra attention and reassurance is enough to help children feel less anxious.