The baby who cries when you put her down, the toddler who tantrums when you step away to cook dinner or the child who struggles with independent play … Many parents would categorize their children with one word: clingy. Clinginess refers to a child who has a strong emotional or behavioral reaction to being separated from their primary caregiver. And the single question that has many parents going down the Google rabbit hole is What’s wrong with my clingy toddler?!
The short answer is nothing. Children go through phases of clingy behavior, and this is a healthy and normal part of development. As parents, we can acknowledge and accept our child’s feelings that come along with this milestone.
Why Your Toddler Might Be Clingy
In the days of climbing trees and running from a Sabertooth Tiger, babies and toddlers literally clung to their parents for support and protection. And while the chances of you being attacked by a meat-eating predator are slim in modern-day, children still require and desire closeness. The thing is, the threats may have changed but the wiring hasn’t.
The need for attachment is encoded in our DNA. Parents and other caregivers often represent a safe and loving base for which children explore and develop independence. Every time we attend to our crying or emotional child, meeting their need for connection, this emotional bonding sends a message to their brain that communicates safety. And the more secure the base of attachment, the more children are free to stop looking for love and focus on growing.
Here are some reasons your child may be clingy:
There is a fear of being apart
Children are biologically programmed to seek physical and emotional closeness to those they are most deeply attached to, especially if they feel unsure or frightened. This is a safety and survival mechanism of their developing brain. During times of uncertainty, our child’s desire to cling to us is an indication that they have a need to calm and regulate emotions as a stress relief from their trigger.
This may be why some children have such a hard time with bedtime, transitions, or independent play. Our children view this as a time when the people they love most leave to do other things, even if that “other thing” is to do the dishes or pee in peace. Focused on our intent to leave, they become emotionally agitated and preoccupied with doing whatever it takes to keep us near for as long as possible.
They are learning new skills
“New” can feel uneasy to a child. As such, during certain times of development as our children test out new-found independence milestones, clingy behavior may intensify. If you notice that your child attaches more as he learns to walk, starts a new school, or enters a new social situation, rest assured, this is actually a good sign that he trusts you to help him through the newness and uncertainty.
It’s their temperament
Some children are more socially introverted and other children experience emotions more intensely (which to the developing mind can feel scary), both of which can lead your child to cling to you. These traits aren’t something to fix or change but rather to guide with tools that encourage them to be who they are while also teaching outlets for managing these sensations. In addition to this, some children just speak the love language of physical touch and desire a hug or closer proximity to fill their love tanks.
There have been major events or changes in family dynamics
Birth of a sibling, starting a new school, moving houses, divorce or high stress, basically any situation where their “normal” has shifted, can lead to regressions and bouts of clingy behavior. Because predictability feels safe, a break in routine can feel unsafe, causing them to seek security from their secure base.
7 Tips To Handle A Clingy Toddler
While a clingy child may be a part of parenting children, it can be a challenge. Here are some things we can do to guide our children through this time:
1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings
All behavior is communication, with the behavior itself being a symptom of an underlying feeling and/or unmet need. Resisting or punishing clinginess will not make your child less clingy, but can actually prolong the behavior and have lasting adverse effects on your parent-child relationship. Instead, acknowledge and validate the feelings underneath their behavior so that they can better organize, process, and manage them. Instead of saying something like, “Don’t worry, it will be okay,” which dismisses their internal experience, you can affirm with something like, “I see you don’t want to be far from me. I am here for you” or “I can see you feel sad that I am leaving. I will be back, and I love you.”
2. Fill your child’s emotional bucket
Regardless of their love language, find 10 to 15 minutes each day of child-led connection to fill their attention and love tanks. The more safe and connected they feel, the more confident they become to explore, learn, and grow. These moments can be especially helpful when they come directly before you step away to cook dinner or drop off at daycare, or as a recap of the day before bedtime. As parents, when we are overwhelmed with our child’s whining and clinging, we may want to separate, but it is during those times that our children need us to lean in with love the most.
3. Model for your child
We are our child’s working example of how to react to particular situations, and the way we respond to our child’s clingy behavior can influence how they feel and respond. Because we are hooked into our children, and them into us, we feed off each other’s energy. So, if we are dropping off for the first day of school and we feel anxious and unsure, our children will begin to question whether the school environment is safe. As we demonstrate and communicate calm confidence, affirming that our child will be okay, and assure them that the separation is temporary, they will feel more confident, too.
4. Make a plan with your child
Predictability communicates safety, so creating rituals that your children can count on will help alleviate anxious feelings. When starting something new, or on days the normal schedule must vary, talk to your child about what’s to come, and announce transitions using something concrete like a timer. This will help communicate to their brainstem that they are safe. Because children mostly live in the present moment, providing reminders that engage the senses, such as a visual aid, will boost their confidence about what comes next.
5. Say goodbye to your child
Sometimes parents think that they are helping their child by sneaking out during goodbyes, but this only furthers their anxiety and breaks their trust. Additionally, lingering can further elevate their escalating emotions. Create a goodbye routine, letting your child know when you will return, and have a consistent verbal or physical ritual to say goodbye and affirm your love. While they may still have big emotions around you leaving, the consistency of this ritual, over time, will help them transition when you do have to bid adieu.
6. Teach your child to play alone
If your child doesn't like to play alone, you can help build this skill in small increments. You may decide to play together with your child and then, after about 10 minutes, transition to playing a little less and keep going until you are more of a witness than an active participant. Another tool is to set a timer for play, and then set the timer again when you plan to leave for a task, coming back when the timer bings. This will help bolster your child’s confidence and also show them that they can count on your return.
7. Set boundaries
Relationships are a two-way street: I see you, you see me. I do for you, you do for me. We can showcase what it looks like to honor and validate our child’s experiences while also respecting our own. State how you feel using “I statements” and focus on what you are willing to do. In respecting your wants and needs alongside your child’s, you actually decrease the stress in your home, which helps your children move through this phase with more confidence.
A clingy child may feel challenging. Yet when you lead with your heart, you will come out the other side more connected, and you will see the fruits of your love as your child become a confident and independent adult who validates and empathizes with others. One day they won’t cling, and we may miss it. So while it’s here, don’t miss it. For this too shall pass.