Care and Feeding

My Tween Son Is Suddenly So Clingy

It’s driving me nuts.

A mom comforts her young son, who is clinging to her waist.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mother of a wonderfully smart, engaged, thoughtful 11-year-old boy. His father sees him about once every six weeks and for all school breaks but lives 4½ hours away. I’m a nurse at a busy hospital and work 12-hour overnight shifts, and my parents watch my son while I’m at work. This has been the arrangement since I finished nursing school when he was 7 (his dad and I split when he was 1), but over the past year he has become very clingy. If I need to leave him at my parents’ place unexpectedly, he gets super upset with me, and when I pick him up he cries and tells me how much he’d missed me. When he returns from a visit with his dad and I ask him how it went, he’ll say, “Fine, but I missed you a lot.” This is true even if I’ve called and FaceTimed with him while he was there.

Lately he has also started to hang on me—like constantly touching me, resting his head on my shoulder, etc. If I move away, he follows to keep touching until it’s at the point where I’m telling him to go find something else to do … which leads to another round of crying. Now he says he can’t sleep unless I stay next to him while he falls asleep. He has started to crawl into my bed some nights, too. The good news is that this is behavior that only seems to occur when I’m around. His grandparents and his dad don’t see a problem, and his teachers report no behavior issues at school. I’ve asked him if something is wrong, if he is worried about something. He always says no. I’ve asked if he has a problem with his grandparents or his father—no. I took him to a therapist for a few sessions, but she couldn’t find the source of the issue either. I’m just about at the end of my rope. I don’t like a lot of touching in general, and after a long night of dealing with all sorts of patients, coming home and having a clingy child isn’t really what I have the space to deal with. I’m feeling very burned out and just want to know what I can do to help stop the behavior and/or find out what has caused it.

—Too Old to Cling

Dear TOtC,

Eleven is a tough age, and although it’s hard to predict what is going to kick in at that point (Will your child become a sudden, two-years-premature teenager—or temporarily regress to toddler-level separation anxiety? Will he have a religious crisis or an identity crisis or some other utterly unexpected sort of crisis? Or will he want a drastic new hairstyle?), inevitably something will take you by surprise.

Your son’s clinginess is extreme, for sure. And I wouldn’t give up therapy after a few sessions with one therapist who couldn’t get to the bottom of it—I would try again, with someone else, and stick with it for longer. (I’ve said this before: Therapy doesn’t have to be a last resort; it can be a very useful first resort. Your son may just need someone to talk to who isn’t a family member, and it may well take a little while for him to trust and open up to someone or to reveal what’s on his mind in some other way to a wise and sensitive psychotherapist.)

I can think offhand of any number of reasons he may be feeling especially clingy right now, not least because he’s growing up—at 11, puberty is on the horizon—and may be (without even consciously knowing it) dreading that bigger, more complex separation from you, or just fearing change/the unknown and clinging to you in response to that, as children do. But there are plenty of things he may be grappling with of which you have no knowledge and which he’s reluctant to confess.

Whatever the reason—and whether you can get to the root of it or not—I’m hoping you can find it in your heart to be gentle with him, even as his neediness is frustrating—maddening—to you. I’m not trying to minimize how miserable his behavior is making you, and I sympathize with your need to be left alone after a long day at a very demanding and difficult job, but the goal isn’t to get him to “stop the behavior.” Since he’s your child, not another adult, the goal really has to be to help him work through to the other side of whatever is driving this behavior. Do whatever you can to soothe yourself (it’s worth a brainstorming session to come up with a list of things that will help you), but try to keep in mind that he’s not intentionally making you miserable. He’s struggling. He’s leaning on you (literally as well as metaphorically) because you’re his mom. It’s your job to be there for him to lean on.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two children, 8 and 10. My ex-husband and I have joint custody, though they live with me and typically see their dad (and stepmom and baby sister) every other weekend and for four weeklong visits per year. Unfortunately, the differences between their dad and me have only grown in the five years since we split, particularly under the influence of his current wife. I should note that I have no relationship with the stepmom and almost never see her, and that what I do know of her I do not like. Of course the kids can sense this, and they don’t like her either, though not just because I don’t like her. She is very conservative and rigid (and my ex-husband has become so too). While I have frank and open conversations with the kids when they ask questions about puberty, sex, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc., this sort of thing is quickly shut down at their dad’s house. And while I am generally trusting of the kids and encourage them to be independent, they are basically on lockdown at their dad’s house, as they describe it—not allowed to go to the nearby playground or walk the dog or even play on the backyard swing set, forced to take naps as if they were much younger, etc.

They also have trouble reconciling what they are taught at home and school (compassion, kindness, generosity, tolerance) with the fact that their dad is now a Trump supporter. They are aware of the various things that Trump says and does, which are not at all compatible with the values that have been instilled in them, values that their father and I once shared. So far I have dealt with most of this by saying that I am sorry they are having a difficult time at their dad’s house, and that I’m also sorry that there is nothing I can do about it other than listen and comfort them. I have encouraged them to think of things they might ask/say to their dad, but according to them, this was of no avail. They have given up. There have been a rare few instances when I have brought something really egregious up with their dad, with mixed results.

My own parents had a horrific divorce. I don’t want my kids to go through what I did. But as they get older, they want to talk more about the differences between their dad and me, which is not surprising—they are trying to figure out the type of people they want to be! While I don’t want to “poison” them against their dad, I also will not give up on the values I hold dear. For example, when they told me that their dad told them never to mention to anyone that they are atheists (because they could be discriminated against “out in the world,” he said), I said I absolutely disagreed and that they were free to be themselves, should expect not to be persecuted, and should tell me if they are in any way harassed by anyone (including their stepmother, from whom apparently their dad is keeping this information a secret). Did I do the right thing? Please help me come up with strategies I can use when I disagree with what they are told and how they are treated at their dad’s house. Advice on which battles to pick would also be helpful.

—Not a Poisoner, Not a Doormat

Dear NaPNaD,

It’s really hard, I know, to have to leave your kids in the hands of someone who doesn’t share your values or expect them to live by the same rules you impose when they’re at home. This is the sort of bind I was talking about when I wrote about the hidden cost of a divorce. Not that I am suggesting that you should have stayed married to your ex. (I have no idea, obviously, what went into your decision to divorce.) My point is that, post-divorce—and in particular once the ex remarries—one’s ability to control the narrative of the children’s experiences (their lives!) goes out the window. Of course, that control steadily lessens anyway as our children get older; teachers, other kids, other kids’ families, and everyone and everything else they encounter will affect them, and our efforts to control what they’re exposed to, how they think, and what they do become increasingly futile. All we can do is provide the foundation when they’re young and hope that it’s solid and deep enough to sustain them as they grow older, even as we continue to model for them the good examples of our own behavior.

But here’s the problem in this situation. Your ex-husband has as much of a “right” and an expectation to influence these kids as you do. And because you’re no longer working as a team (indeed, he’s playing for a whole ’nother team now), you are severely limited in what you can do or expect from him. I think your question about which battles to pick is a smart one, because some of what you’re talking about is frustrating to the children and irritating to you (the naps, the restrictions on their play, the general anxiety around their being out of sight—all of which seems stupid to you) but will ultimately do no harm. And some of it (shutting them down when they want to talk) is harmful but will probably do more harm to their relationship with their father and his family than to these children who are accustomed to speaking freely. But from what you’ve reported, some of it seems genuinely fucked up. If Dad and his wife are quoting Donald Trump, parroting Trump’s pernicious ideas about people Trump perceives as “other,” making excuses for or laughing off his treatment of women, assuring the kids that climate change or the coronavirus is a left-wing conspiracy theory, that’s another matter entirely. If that’s happening, I do think you need to tell the kids that their father is just plain wrong.

I think you can do that without name-calling or meanness, as you seem to have done when the matter of their atheism came up. It sounds like you have been taking the high road, hearing out your kids and comforting them when they’re upset, but reminding them that you can’t fix this for them. The one important thing I’d add to this message is one I hope you believe is true: that although you and their father have different ideas, different ways of living, and different rules for their behavior, he loves them and is doing the best he can. That doesn’t mean it’s good enough for you (it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good at all), but you lost your ability to work through such conflicts with him once you stopped being married to him. And while I don’t think there’s any harm in your telling him, as nicely as you can, that the children are confused by the mixed messages they’re getting, I wouldn’t hold out much hope that anything is going to change.

Take heart in the fact that the kids are with you most of the time, that their school is on the same page as you are, and that learning how to handle challenges like this one is an important life lesson that will make them better equipped to deal with the world around them. And here’s a bonus: As time passes, the delicate task of detangling the strands of their love for their father from their disagreement with his politics will serve them well, too, as they get this early lesson in not throwing the baby out with the dirty bathwater.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m struggling with giving my 11-year-old daughter the body autonomy to cut her hair any way she likes. We are your standard frumpy, blue jeans, hiking boots, and fleece kind of family, and even when she was a toddler we often laughed that she had more fashion sense than the rest of us combined. At 11 she is very feminine and fashionable. Her ears are pierced, and she keeps her bangs dyed bright cherry red.

Since third grade, she’s had a very short pixie cut—which she requested (she plays sports year-round and needed to get her hair out of her way but hated tying it back)—and at first she was teased mercilessly for it. Now she would like to grow the top out to about 6 inches and shave both sides, like a floppy mohawk. I guess the term is an undercut, and they shave cute designs into the sides and back.

My husband is adamantly against it, though he says he doesn’t really know why. I know why: He’s worried other kids will make fun of her. I think he doesn’t brush it off as easily as I do when she is mistaken for a boy (which is often), and he feels like she doesn’t understand that people stereotype her appearance and confuse it with sexual orientation at this age. We get a lot of unsolicited parenting advice about our kid’s hair and a lot of questions about her sexual identification and gender identity (she’s freaking 11!). We had a social media incident over the summer when pictures of her with Megan Rapinoe were posted online (she is a big fan of Rapinoe and has been able to meet her several times). The vitriol that was directed at my daughter was the worst of the internet. Luckily she was not aware of this, and I learned why you should never put pictures of your kid on social media.

I don’t feel like I should let societal pressure decide my kid’s haircut, but I also struggle with trying to figure out at what age she’ll be mature enough and secure enough to deal with any kickback from society about the way she looks. Then I question if we’re the ones with insecurities—if we’re holding her back.

—Punk Rock Kid, Frumpy Family

Dear PRKFF,

You’re right; you shouldn’t let societal pressure dictate how your kid chooses to wear her hair. This is easier said than done, I know. But it’s absolutely worth standing up to the voice in your head that tells you to bow to that pressure. For one thing, it’s good practice for standing up to other none-of-your-business voices. I find myself wondering whether you are able to brush off other people’s mistaking your daughter for a boy, as you say you are (I’m not blaming you for this, mind you; it’s hard to brush it off when someone says something—anything—about one’s kid), which makes me think you may be projecting some of your own feelings onto your husband. Either way, I believe the answer to your question about whether you and your husband are holding your daughter back is yes.

She sounds like an amazing kid—confident and fearless, unafraid to be herself. And it sounds like she was practical, even as a third grader—unbowed by peer pressure, securely her own person. Now, at 11, the age when most kids are beginning to be the most influenced by what other kids their age are doing and thinking (and, maybe most of all, by how they look and how they think everyone else should look), she has a clear sense of her own personal style. I get that you and your husband are worried that people will make fun of her or make assumptions about her or both. And I don’t think it would be out of line to gently ask her if she’s aware of this possibility (I am pretty sure she is). But if she knows and doesn’t care, I would keep in mind something that I know can be hard to hang onto: She is her own person. There are few enough choices a child gets to make about her life, few enough things within her control. How she wears her hair and, for the record, what clothes she wears are really good ones to allow her to choose for herself. It seems to me that up to this point you’ve been doing a great job of separating out who she is from who you are. I wouldn’t stop now.

—Michelle

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