"Mummy, don't leave me!" What to do when your child becomes clingy
This is more than likely an experience that is all too familiar: the moment your child pretty much turned into human superglue – and stuck themselves to you.
If ever there was a hot topic of conversation in our workshops or in messages we receive, it’s this.
It comes in many guises: the not being able to go to sleep unless they’re in your arms; the not being able to go to bed without having ‘just one more’ story; the not wanting you to leave them at nursery or school; the not letting you go to the loo without an audience!
Clinginess. Neediness. Over-dependence. Whichever word you use, there’s no doubt you will have experienced it – and felt like you were at your wit’s end.
Why do children do this? There can be all kinds of reasons: sometimes it’s to do with changes in routine or the occurrence of a significant event; sometimes it’s because your attention is elsewhere when they want you; sometimes it’s just your child’s temperament.
Whatever the reason and whatever age and stage you experience it with your child, there’s no doubting that it’s difficult.
And part of that difficulty comes from you having to navigate the fluctuating feelings – feeling like you want it to stop because it takes so much of you and your time, while at the same time feeling how hard it is to see your child in distress.
The first thing to remember about this behaviour is that it is totally developmentally normal.
Here’s a quick lowdown of what is actually happening: when your child clings tightly to you or goes to great lengths to be around you, it’s because they feel unsafe and they’re looking to you as their trusted source of safety to regulate those feelings. They need the physical contact with you because this actively brings down the level of stress hormones that are flying around in their little bodies at that time.
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This is essentially saying that when your child behaves in way that shows their vulnerabilities with you, it’s because they feel safe enough to do this. It probably doesn’t ever feel like it, but their clinginess is actually a good thing!
So, remember that even if at the time it feels like they’re doing everything in their power to prevent you from getting on with your day, they’re not!
They’re communicating to you that, in that moment, they need you.
The second thing to remember is that children don’t become clingy because they have been shown too much attention or because they’ve been ‘pandered to’ at one time or another. I don’t know who it was that said it first, but they were right: You can’t spoil a baby.
Ok so we’ve established that it’s normal, but also that it’s hard and you want to do something about it! Both to help you and to help your child.
One last thing to always hold onto is something that we always end up coming back to: the importance of connection.
Having the notion of connection in mind and trying out some of these ideas might make this phase that bit easier to handle.
1. Reframe how you think and feel about it
The fact is that all young mammals (including humans) exhibit strong clinging reflexes. In her book, What Every Parent Needs to Know, Margot Sunderland points put that the difference between animals and humans is that animal parents simply respond to their young – it’s our higher human brain that makes us question the behaviour!
One of our 5 principles that we believe in here at Mellownest is this: all behaviour is communication. And in this case, your child is communicating to you that they need you. When you can see the need that underlies the behaviour and overcome any feelings of frustration or irritation, you pave the way for you to be able to respond to it differently.
2. Give in to their every demand
Now this might make you feel horrified! But I’ll qualify this by saying: ‘if what they want from you isn’t totally unreasonable’. Following on from above, if you understand that what your child is telling you is that they need you then the most appropriate response is to be there for them. And you can do this safe in the knowledge that once they’ve got what they need from you, they’ll be ok. Think of it as you ‘filling their emotional cup’.
3. Be playful
An alternative approach is to try being playful. In Playful Parenting, Lawrence Cohen describes a playful approach as pushing your child an inch or two away from you when they become clingy and then making eye contact, as a way of helping them work through the mixed feelings they have about dependence and independence. Cohen says that when your child is clinging to you, they’re not making a genuine connection but rather they’re hiding from the outside world. He acknowledges that this approach might not seem playful, but that it is a way of helping your child see that the outside world is safe too.
4. Schedule in some quality time
This works especially well if you can pinpoint the times that trigger the clingy behaviour. For example, if this tends to happen to your child at bedtime, try and work out how you can make going to bed easier for them. If they’re old enough, you can work with them to figure this out together. Snuggle together to read a story and a give big hug before you leave their room (remember the benefits of touch at these times). Talk about how much you’re looking forward to seeing them in the morning and what you will do together.
Even if there isn’t a specific time when the clingy behaviour occurs, having some dedicated special time with your child is helpful. This doesn’t have to be hours spent together or big, special occasions – just a few minutes a day can be enough to do the trick and it doesn’t really matter what you do in that time. The key is for it to be dedicated time, so make sure you won’t be disturbed by any other children…or by your phone!
5. Leave a piece of you with them; take a piece of them with you
Sometimes described as a transitional object, in times when a separation happens (bedtime, going to school, staying with relatives) giving your child something that reminds them of you and makes them feel connected to you can be helpful. Involve them in deciding what that object will be, why it's special and how they can use it to think about you when you're not with them.
You can also do the same - by having an object that reminds you of them, you're showing that you empathise with how they feel, and you're letting them know that when they're not with you, you miss them too!
6. Work on building their independence
Give your child ‘chores’ to do. Ask them to help you fetch or carry something. Show them how to do something and let them let them have a go. Anything that lets them see that you need them in the same way that they need you. The feeling of being needed by you goes a long way in filling that emotional cup of theirs.
Clingy behaviour can be hard to manage, and it is exhausting.
But it also serves as a necessary phase for the next – independence. And they can’t get to that bit without you which, when you think about it, makes your job even more incredible.
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