How to Deal with a Clingy Child
Just when you think your kids have reached the age when you can recover the wreckage of the good ship HMS Personal Space, they cling fast, like the barnacles they used to be. How do you pry them off and set them sailing on their own? Here’s what you need to know about dealing with a clingy child.
Fast facts about children’s clingy behaviour
- Kids get clingy when they’re overwhelmed or scared, or sometimes in the aftermath of a new or emotionally charged experience.
- Clingy child behaviour is evidence of a strong attachment with you, not a weak one.
- In the moment, faced with a clingy toddler or clingy preschooler, the best thing you can do is give in (as much as is reasonable) to their demands and comfort them.
What causes clinginess in kids
Children’s clingy behaviour often comes out of nowhere, typically when it’s least convenient to have a child holding on for dear life. But, clinginess is a normal reaction to an overwhelming or scary experience – either in the moment, or after the fact. Cingliness in toddlers is – counterintuitively — also prompted by their developmental need to exert control and become independent; a toddler clinging to mom, by demanding her comfort or presence, is attempting to control not the parent, but their environment and themselves.
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What may come as a surprise is what doesn’t prompt clinginess: insecure attachment. If anything, children’s clingy behaviour is a sign of the opposite, a secure attachment. Clingy kids seek you out and hold tight because they’re sure of you; a child with a weaker parent-child bond typically cling less in scary situations. (And it’s important to note that, while they can appear identical, the clinginess discussed in this article is different from separation anxiety, which is caused by a still-developing understanding of object permanence.)
Since clinginess is a reaction, it comes in phases. While children typically do ‘grow out of it’ after early childhood, and its intensity wanes, it’s possible for older children even into their preteens to become clingy in the wake of a disruptive life event (like moving homes, a divorce, or the death of a loved one).
How to deal with a clingy kid
In the moment, parents need to do two things (and not do one):
Recognize and validate the child’s feelings.
The frustrating part of dealing with a clingy child, for parents, is that what has scared or over-set them is typically run-of-the-mill — and thus, not obvious — to adults. It often looks like mere fussiness. But think about it: For a parent, meeting friends for a lunch is normal, enjoyable even. For a young kid, often the center of friends’ attention and overstimulated by the restaurant’s sights and sounds, it could feel slightly more traumatic.
As far as it’s reasonable, do what the clingy child requests, whether it’s hugging or cuddling them, remaining in the same room with them, etc. If a toddler only wants mom or dad to do something, do it.
“Far and away the best thing to do is let them be clingy,” said attachment expert Alan Sroufe, of the University of Minnesota, to Slate. “They will cling as [much as] they need, and then they’ll want to get back to exploring and playing and being with other toddlers and all of that.”
Don’t ignore them, leave them, or force them to interact with what is stressing them.
“One thing that I’ve seen a lot of times with children who want to cling is that the parents try to push them away, and then the child wants to cling all the more,” Sroufe said.
Read more about helping kids deal with fear.
How to prevent children’s clingy behaviour
Dealing with a clingy kid isn’t too difficult or frustrating every once in a while; in fact, it’s an inevitable responsibility of parenting. But parents are also responsible for helping children learn to manage their own reactions to new and scary situations on their own. These steps can minimize clinginess and help kids become more independent.
Prepare them before a new experience.
Knowing what to expect is most of the battle against clinginess. When dealing with a clingy child, as much as possible stick to a routine. But when you have to deviate – as you always must in life – for, say, a doctor’s appointment, talk to your child beforehand about what will happen and what they can expect. For instance, you could say, “The doctor is a friend who makes sure you’re strong and healthy. She’ll put a stethoscope to your chest to listen to you breathe. And daddy will be with you the whole time.”
Or, if you’re going on holiday to a new place, together you could look at images of the sites you plan to visit with your child, so not everything will appear unfamiliar when you arrive.
And then – because five minutes feels like five years to kids – remind them of what you’ve discussed.
Check any of your actions that enable clinginess.
Cling child behaviour might make a parent second-guess themselves and become overly responsive. But when we do things for kids before they ask, or reassure them before they’re uncomfortable, they don’t get the chance to learn explore and attempt things for themselves. The point is to be a safety net in case of a fall, not to never let kids trip.