I loved my niece’s toddler years. Disclosure: I live with my brother and sister-in-law, so my niece and I spend a lot (read: all) our time together.
Julia was a bouncy, bubbly, beautiful 4-year-old with a sweet personality and lots of imagination. She was also super clingy. Don’t get me wrong: as a mom, I loved cuddling with that little girl, and I understand that toddlers need extra love and attention. The “clinginess” I’m referring to, though branches beyond that. I felt like once Julia entered her pre-K years, she couldn’t stand for the people she loved to leave her sight, insisted that all her playtime included me, and probably would have surgically attached herself to my thigh if she’d been given the choice. It was getting hard for me to find enough alone time have a moment to myself.
Julia’s attachment to me was irritating at the time, and nerve-wracking as I feared she was failing to develop a healthy sense of independence. This is what I wish I would’ve known back then, and what I want to share with the parents of especially needy kids: its normal.
Clinginess is a perfectly natural response to the stress that developmentally regular children are bound to feel as they explore the world, and a common reaction to events that feel unpredictable. They will grow out of it, and blossom into individuals who don’t need to hold mom’s hand throughout every waking hour of the day.
In the meantime, here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t Punish Clingy Behavior, or confuse clinginess with naughtiness. Your child is simply nervous about the unknown, which is basically anything and everything if they’re a toddler. They consider you to be a safe place, so they cling to you when they’re feeling unsure. When they ask for “Up,” hold them, but also give them praise when they finally find the courage to wriggle down and investigate whatever was making them anxious. For example, if your child scurries over to you while you’re greeting your neighbor at the grocery store, but then musters up a wave or smile, you might say afterwards, “You were very polite to so-and-so. Saying hi to our friends is fun, isn’t it?”
Try to Make Life More Predictable, because while you probably know what your day’s schedule is like, your child may not. Little kids are forgetful and live mostly in the moment, but routine and predictability gives them a sense of security, all the same. Even if you’ve already told them what the weekend’s plans are, its helpful if you give them periodical reminders. Tell them, “We’re going to see Grandma today!” when they wake up, and while you’re driving to the airport together so that when it's time to get on the airplane, they aren’t feeling totally blindsided.
Involve Them in Social Activities that will encourage them to play and interact without you. Your child will need to be able to socialize outside of their immediate family eventually, and you can ease them into this process by enrolling them in an activity that involves their peers, rather than you. You might try a sports team geared towards little kids, where your child won’t be playing with you, but can still see you sitting on the sidelines. That way, they’ll get the experience of interacting with other children, and existing independently, but they’ll still be able to have the comfort of knowing you’re close by.
Make Sure They’re Getting One-on-one Time with no distractions from your phone, work and so on. Children absolutely need attention, even if you’re trying to dial back their insistent clinginess. It is helpful, too to remind your child of your upcoming, undivided time together when they’re being particularly persistent. If they know they’re going to have your complete attention at the end of the day, just like they do everyday, then they won’t be so anxious for it.
And Don’t Try to Sneak Out On Them. It might be tempting to sneak out if your child tends to throw tantrums when you have to leave the house, but don’t do it. Leaving unexpectedly will only increase your child’s anxiety, and thus their clinginess for fear that you’ll disappear at any given moment. Instead of sneaking out, say “goodbye” to your child before leaving, and remind them that you’ll be back soon. Be gentle, but brief so they understand that pouting won’t succeed in making you stay longer.
As much as Julia wanted to be stuck to me at all times, and hated to see me focus on anything but her, the “clinginess” proved to be only a phase. She’s eight now, and instead of shyly hiding behind our back, she’s asking if she can attend sleepovers and go to birthday parties-- without mom, dad, me, or Grandma!
The trials of toddlerhood can be frustrating, no matter how they present themselves, but just remember that when they’re over, you might find yourself wishing for the days when your little one wanted nothing more than to snuggle up to you.