So there I was last week—sick with an endless cold, exhausted from a cross-country holiday trip, and pregnant, when my 2-year-old turned into a 35-pound leech. Every waking moment he demanded that I hold him in my arms—standing, never sitting, as if my love weren’t real unless my biceps were burning. When I would run downstairs to get him a glass of milk or grab my iPhone, he would insist on being ferried along on my hip. Awesomely, my husband wasn’t allowed to help. I was apparently the only person on earth who could read to my son, sing to him, change his diaper, give him a bath, make his dinner, hand him his water, and strap him into his car seat. I’m not going to tell you what it’s been like dropping him off at school, because I’m trying to block out the memories.
During these fun-filled days I’ve periodically asked myself: WTF? My son does this sometimes—becomes a Cling Monster. It’ll last a few days, even up to a week. And I never know whether I should indulge his every demand or whether, at some point, I should give him a pat on the back, tell him to man up, and grit my teeth through the screamy consequences. I wonder whether there is anything I can to do make the neediness stop once it starts. I wonder: Is there something wrong with him? And then, of course, I wonder: Is there anything wrong with me? Is there anything I am doing to cause all this?
As I like to do when something parenting-related (or in this case, my child) is nagging me, I did some research and called a handful of child psychologists. And as it turns out, periodic clinginess is very normal—in fact, it’s a sign that you and your child have a healthy relationship. Some kids are also just more temperamentally needy than others. But the way parents handle clinginess can have a big impact on how long it lasts and how bad it becomes. And sometimes, yes, we do actually cause it ourselves. To avoid becoming that parent, read on.
First, the reassuring stuff. Clingy behavior, as renowned University of Minnesota attachment researcher Alan Sroufe explained to me, is absolutely natural. Evolutionary even. Back when our ancestors were climbing trees and jumping across rocks and escaping predators as hunter-gatherers, their babies and toddlers literally clung on to them for support and protection. “Clinging in primates, especially nomadic primates, is a very important behavior to have,” Sroufe says.
Clinginess is ultimately a sign that your child considers you what attachment researchers call “a secure base.” Babies and toddlers who have developed secure attachments with caregivers—who have come to trust, through prior experience, that these adults are available and sensitive to their needs—use these caregivers as mother ships from which to explore the world. “Knowing that you have someone to return to in times of trouble fosters the ability to go out and explore and do things,” says Jude Cassidy, a psychologist and attachment expert at the University of Maryland. When things get scary or unpredictable, your toddler comes back to you and essentially says, Hey, I need a little extra support here. (Or, as my son puts it, “Pick me uuuuup!”) Securely attached toddlers waffle between these two extremes of independence and dependence, which is why your kid will be latching on to you one second and then telling you to go away the next. Children who do not have secure attachments with their caregivers, on the other hand, feel they can’t rely on them when needed; research suggests that these babies and toddlers are actually less clingy in scary situations. Ultimately, then, periodic clinginess is a sign that your child trusts you—that you’re doing things right. (An aside: Every attachment researcher I talk to brings up the fact that “attachment parenting,” a trendy approach popularized by Dr. Sears and crew that involves carrying your kids constantly, co-sleeping with them, and not traditionally disciplining them, is not supported by research. “It drives attachment researchers crazy because it’s not really consistent with attachment theory,” says UC–Davis developmental psychologist Ross Thompson. So don’t think you have to give up your bed to raise a securely attached kid.)
These “scary” situations that I’m referring to for a toddler can be hard to identify, because they’re often not very scary to us. Anything a child perceives as unpredictable can spark it, whether that’s a minor transition or a major shift in home life. Did your daughter switch schools? Start in a new play group? Have you been traveling as a family? Are you traveling more for work? Some kids even get clingy when, in the morning, you ask them to put on their shoes, because they are able to think through the steps: Putting on shoes means I’m going to school, which means I’m going to have to say goodbye to Mommy soon, so I better start holding onto her right now. As Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, explains in her wonderful book How Toddlers Thrive, “a transition is a move from the familiar-and-known (whatever I am doing now) to the new-or-unknown (even if I have done it before, it is new for this moment).” Entering into this new-or-unknown situation “cuts to their core and lays bare a strong vulnerability.”
And when vulnerability hits, your toddler will attach himself to you like glue. “He holds tight to that secure base, that safe haven, because that is where he can find the support he needs in circumstances he could not otherwise manage or control himself,” Thompson explains. It’s clear to me now that my son’s clinginess stems from our cross-country travels, during which we stayed in three different places; it may have gotten worse after returning because he was thrown back into his old routine, which suddenly seemed new again, and because, Thompson says, sometimes kids become clingy after something crazy has happened in an attempt to “emotionally refuel.”
So when kids get clingy, should you indulge their every needy demand? Assuming that their requests aren’t insane, yes. If it’s stress making them clingy, “far and away the best thing to do is let them be clingy,” Sroufe says. “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.” Put another way, parent sensitively instead of threatening a time out if the wee one won’t let go of your leg. “Respect why the child is feeling this way, accept it as being justified, and help the child function as well as she can,” Thompson says. This isn’t to say that you can’t reassure your child and tell her, for instance, that the monsters on Sesame Street are actually quite friendly and that your neighbor’s dog isn’t really going to bite her. But reassure her without invalidating her feelings, and don’t reject her need to be close to you, because doing so can undermine your relationship. Or it can make her more needy. “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 says.
Indeed, some parents handle situations in ways that make things worse. Take this common occurrence: A mother takes her kid to his new preschool, waits until he is distracted for a few minutes, and then slips out without saying goodbye. When you do this, “you essentially tell the child, ‘OK, when you’re in an unpredictable setting, don’t relax, because the person you count on may suddenly disappear,’ ” Thompson says. “Now you’ve added another layer of unpredictability, which is, how long is mom or dad going to be with me?”
A better approach? Explain to your kid at school that you have to leave in five minutes, and then in two minutes, and then tell them when you’ll be returning. Try to tie it to a concrete event, like I’ll come back to get you after art class, sweetie. Then “you’re not only giving predictability to when mother’s leaving but you’re also giving predictability to when she’s coming back,” Thompson says. We all know how tough it is to see your kid crying and clawing for you, but by communicating your departure and return clearly, you’re giving your child the conceptual tools to manage and understand the situation, he explains—you’re giving him the semblance of some control, and that’s precisely what he needs. (Another tip: Try not to look distressed yourself when you’re managing a situation like this. Kids have excellent emotional antennae, and when they see that you are uncomfortable, they can become further unsettled. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why my son refused to jump into the pool and let me catch him when he would happily do it with his swim teacher; one day she explained to me that every time he prepared to jump, I looked like I was about to have a heart attack.)
Parents sometimes do other things to promote clinginess, too. Some actually want their kids to be clingy, perhaps because being needed fills some emotional void. Kids will sense this and accommodate. Neediness can also come about when parents give children the sense that they can’t do things on their own—as when you step in too quickly to help with puzzles or don’t let your kids take minor risks at the playground. Children do need help and guidance, but it’s important for their developing sense of confidence and independence to let them try things on their own and get frustrated sometimes. If you find your child is constantly clingy, consider whether you might be doing any of these things, and “if it’s really interfering with the child’s wellbeing or functioning, to talk to a pediatrician,” Cassidy says.
What gives with my son’s “Mommy has to do everything” shtick? According to Thompson, this probably falls in the same category as toddlers’ love of the word no. Since young kids have control over so little in their lives, they get really psyched when they stumble across a tool, like a no way or a Mommy does it!, that allows them to have an inkling of power. “He’s beginning to understand the tools he has to manage his world even though so much of the world is out of his control. To have some of those experiences, as a toddler, is absolutely wonderful,” Thompson explains. Kids are also asserting their independence when they suddenly decide that they hate strawberries even though they wolfed down an entire pint yesterday.
So what can a parent do, if anything, to curb clinginess? The more regular your child’s routine is, the more predictable his life becomes and the less comfort from you he needs. But change of course happens. Thompson suggests talking through upcoming disruptions or new experiences days in advance with your kids. “That gives children some means of predicting and therefore managing an experience, which is better than suddenly having it happen to them unexpectedly,” he says. I found my son’s trips to the doctor went much more smoothly if we talked through what was going to happen at the appointment, step-by-step, over and over again, days in advance.
When clinginess happens—because, yes, it inevitably will—reassure your child; hold him; let him be needy. Do some clever environmental engineering to make things easier on you. If your kid demands that you stay in the playroom with him but you really need to clean the kitchen, set up a mini play area in the kitchen so he can do his own thing while keeping you within eyesight, Thompson says. Neediness is hard. It’s exhausting. But life is really scary as a toddler, and it’s pretty amazing that we as parents have the power, with a quick swoop of our arms, to make everything right in their hearts again. Especially since doing so gives them the confidence to go back out into the world and tackle its unknowns, eventually without our help.