How To Deal with a Clingy Toddler

Does the following scene ring a bell? You walk into a birthday party with your 2-year-old son, who is well acquainted with the birthday girl and all the other toddler guests. Still, your little guy is stuck to you like brand new Velcro® to a sneaker.

You try to encourage him to go join the other children, but he won’t budge – whimpering when you make the suggestion. All the other parents, whose children are off playing happily together, seem to eye you with either pity or condemnation. You’ve obviously done something terribly wrong in the short life of your child, you say to yourself, to make him cling to you so fearfully.

But is clingy behavior “wrong” or just a normal part of the developmental stage of toddlers?

Like little lambs?

The late Dr. Benjamin Spock’s venerable classic Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care points out that separation anxiety, of which clingyness is a part, is completely normal in 1- to 3-year-olds. Children’s desire to stay close to their parents once they learn to walk is an instinct probably related to the young of other species, such as sheep and goats, who follow closely after their mothers and bleat when they get separated. Unlike little lambs or kids (of the goat variety), who walk right after they’re born, human children don’t learn to walk until around 1 year old. But both kinds of young ones, once they begin to “toddle,” need the “trailing-after-mom (or dad)” instinct to protect them from getting lost or harmed.

Downsize that scariness

Dr. Kyle Pruett, a clinical psychiatrist at Yale’s Child Study Center and author of Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self: 18 to 36 Months, says that clingyness is actually a toddler’s natural response to his or her primary “assignment” – becoming autonomous. Even at the tender ages of 1, 2 and 3, children want to be independent, and their entire childhood will be about making that happen – but it’s a very gradual process and it can be scary. Clinging on to Mom or Dad at certain moments is an attempt to downsize that scariness.

“It’s really important for parents to understand that clinging is a toddler’s course-correction, as if he’s saying ‘I’ve gone too far, I need my mommy, I need my daddy. I’m scared,’” Pruett explains. “It’s a response to this normal process of becoming his own person.”

Preschool teachers calm the clingyness

Gina Linne, a preschool teacher and mother of a 3-year-old, understands well the gradual evolution of a child’s developing independence. She has calmed the adjustment-to-preschool jitters of countless youngsters. Nevertheless, she’s still dealing with her son’s clinging behavior.

“He’s always been kind of shy and clingy in new situations,” she says. She takes the behavior in stride, as a professional and as a mom. “Clingyness among toddlers is definitely a common theme. I don’t get upset or embarrassed when my son is clingy, because I know when he’s like that he has a real fear.

“Even when we as parents can see that there’s nothing to be afraid of, the way children perceive their environment is totally different,” she explains. “With my son, either my husband or I will reassure him that if he leaves our side he’s going to be all right. We also try to introduce him to new environments ahead of time, if possible, to help him get over his fear of new situations.

“For instance, I recently took my son to a new library beforehand and made him feel comfortable, so on the day of the story time event, it wasn’t as scary for him. It turned out that he didn’t cling on to me nearly as long as he normally would have in a new setting.”

When children at her preschool cling to their mom or dad at drop-off time, Gina redirects their attention to an activity that she knows will interest them, and even those who cry when their parent leaves are usually fine within minutes. “It’s also important that the parent lets the child know that they understand they’re scared, but that mommy and daddy are sure they will be safe and will have a good time at school.”

Preschool teacher Deborah Begg is also a veteran at helping toddlers who cling to their parents at drop-off time adjust to being without them. She emphasizes the importance of allowing children to express their feelings about missing mom or dad.

“If I see that a child is clinging and then having a hard time when his parent leaves, I’ll say something like ‘It looks like you’re really missing your mom today,’” she says. “Then I might direct him to an activity where he can actually express that feeling. For instance, I have an easel that’s always set up, and I’ll ask the child if he’d like to do a drawing to give to his parent when she picks him up. Most kids love this idea. It releases their feelings right away, gives them something concrete to do, and lets them know we understand what they’re going through.”

Begg and her fellow teachers even have a song they sing with toddlers, which helps them work through their fear about being separated from their parents. It’s called, “Mommies Come Back, They Always Come Back.” It sounds simplistic, but Begg says this song, as well as a picture book about moms going away and coming back, is extremely helpful to little ones who cling on sadly when Mom or Dad brings them to school.

Why don’t they all cling?

But how about all those 2-year-olds at the birthday party who weren’t clinging to their parents – who were happily off socializing with other kids?

“As a parent, it’s natural to compare your clingy child to others of the same age who are more independent. But, the last criterion you should use when you’re thinking about your child’s clingyness is her age,” says Pruett. “More important is her temperament. Is she an independent kid who has no trouble dressing on her own in the morning? Or is she more interested in intense emotions, loving the intimacy of those clinging moments with you? There’s a huge variation in the temperamental drive toward autonomy, but every child is born with it.”

“Trying to rush children into premature autonomy is like trying to toilet train them too early,” Pruett explains. “It can backfire. If you wait for your child’s natural maturational skills to come about, the process will be much easier.”

More about Toddlers

From United Parenting Publications.

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