I often get asked what to do about a clingy toddler. As parents, we want to raise autonomous children who are also well-attached to us and to others who care for them, but clinginess can be frustrating.
Clinginess is about separation and separation at different ages and stages is often difficult for parents as well as for children.
First it’s important to recognize when the separation anxiety is our own instead of our child’s. A child leaving our side to venture out, a child left in someone else’s arms at day care, or a child walking into a preschool class, can be charged moments of conflicting feelings for Moms. The way we respond can affect how our children react. They are signs of autonomy and can be scary for toddlers as well as for Mamas!
Even a child under a year old crawls away and tests his independence before returning. It’s great to be encouraging and give your child positive feedback as he glances over his shoulder to check on you! Then go ahead and smoosh him up with kisses and hugs when you reunite to let you both know that the time apart was okay.
Separation, in increasing increments throughout childhood, the teen years and beyond, is one of the great dances of parenthood: how much to let go, how much to protect them. How much to push them to do something on their own, how much to pull them back. This is true at 8 months and 18 years old, we have to find balance. Sometimes the separation makes the parents uncomfortable, and sometimes it’s the kiddos who are troubled.
What happens when you have a clingy toddler who just won’t separate? How can families build positive, strong connections with their children while also reducing the extreme clinginess that cause some families to struggle?
From 18 months old to about 2.5/3 years old, it’s common for children to really put up a fight and not want to be left behind. It’s completely age appropriate behavior and how parents manage this can help build a child’s confidence, or can prolong the protests beyond being “a phase.”
It’s always up to the parent to determine his/her own emotions and needs in a situation: Do you like to feel needed so unconsciously encourage clingy behaviors? Do you brush your child away out of impatience giving your child more reason to feel fearful of separation? Aim for that equilibrium between nurturing your child’s needs and your own, between pushing beyond his readiness to step out or impeding it.
When leaving, it’s key to prepare a child ahead of time, explaining where you will be leaving her and being clear and specific about your return. Reassuring her that Mommy will ALWAYS come back is critical. Departing with a big hug, kiss and smiling face, being the brave one even when you don’t feel that way inside, will help reassure your child. It’s best not to sneak out, this could cause your child to be less trusting, but saying good bye and having the care provider immediately distract and entice your child with a toy can work magic.
If you’re dealing with excessive clinginess, first try to identify the root cause, have you moved, are parents arguing, is Mom starting a new job, is there some additional cause of stress or anxiety for your child? If your life situation could be the cause, your child has a valid reason to be clingy and needs steady reassurances and compassionate understanding.
Just being a toddler and growing up can also be a valid reason to be clingy, too. Give your child some intense one-on-one time each day, give her your full, undivided attention, no phone, no TV, nothing but focusing on your child. It doesn’t have to be for hours, but a solid half hour of Mom-time alone will build a child up. Play a game, read books, do puzzles, a craft or take a walk and stop every time she wants to examine a bug or a leaf.
It’s also okay to give a child a big hug and snuggle then say, “Mommy needs to cook dinner now, you can sit here and play with Play-Doh while I work.”
My kids used to love “working” with me in the kitchen, I’d lay out a big beach towel and several bowls of water with bubbles in them and give them some kitchen utensils, funnels, potato mashers and ladles and they’d have a ball for a good chunk of time! Enough time to let me get a job done, or at least part of one!
Balance special, focused time with time together but doing separate activities; alternate one-on-one time with quiet alone time in separate rooms. Visual timers are the perfect tool for this, for example, set the rules for alone time and when your child sees the red on the clock disappear, he’s allowed to call for you, but not before. This is a way to practice separation in small steps, within your home.
Keep trying separations little by little at a grandparent’s or neighbor’s home. Prepare your child, say a confident good-bye, stay in touch with the adult and return after the child has calmed and had time to have some fun. Slowly build up to longer times apart.
A child who is secure in the knowledge that Mom will always return, who has it proven to him repeatedly, and who also has times of undivided attention from his parents, will, in time, grow from a clingy toddler to an independent pre-schooler.