Attached at the hip: how to handle your clingy toddler

by | May 10, 2018

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Your toddler is showing immense progress, but still clings to you like his life depends on it (it does!). Kerry McArthur explains why your toddler may be prone to clinginess and what to do about it.

You have finally made it through the baby stage: your toddler is sleeping for longer periods at night and can actually keep himself occupied without you needing to hover. Just when you think you can drink a cup of tea or go to the toilet by yourself,

you find that you’ve developed a hip ornament that can’t bear to be apart from you for any length of time. No other hip will do, only yours!

Stay close to me

Toddlers who feel secure in their attachment will vary between independence and dependence while they are figuring out their world. They will be happily playing away from you one minute and suddenly latched onto you like a leech the next. These extremes are normal for toddlers and will develop a secure attachment between them and their caregivers. Children who are not able to do this or do not have this secure attachment will feel that they can’t rely on their parents or caregivers when needed. Knowing that there is someone they can go back to when they are unsure creates a willingness to explore more and will ultimately result in a less clingy child.

Why so clingy?

This period of clinginess means you are doing the right thing and your child will continue to grow in his independence. However, this does not mean that you need to go overboard with attachment parenting and hover over your child as he navigates through this clingy phase. See each bout of clinginess for what it is.

A child may become clingy over a particularly scary or stressful time, like moving house or schools. Clinginess, however, does not always follow a pattern and may raise its head in circumstances that you don’t see as particularly threatening or scary. Something as simple as getting dressed in the morning could set it off, because your child, by getting dressed, will start going through the routine in his head and will realise that getting dressed will result in him going to school, which means that he will need to say goodbye. This process in his mind creates uncertainty and will cause him to want to hold on.

What can you do about the cling?

Respect his feelings – don’t invalidate them. Recognise how he is feeling and reassure him that it is okay and you are there for him while he’s feeling uncertain. Invalidating how he feels reflects to him that he can’t depend on you for his security.

Don’t reject his need to be close to you. Pushing him away will only make him want to cling harder. Gently reassure him of your presence and support and then guide him to where he will feel safe.

Don’t fall into the trap of sneaking away. When dropping your toddler off at school, it might seem easier to get them busy and sneak away while they aren’t looking, but by doing this you are removing their sense of security and reinforcing his fear of the unknown. How can the person he is relying on just disappear? Remember that your little one may not be able to think in the abstract and won’t yet realise that you will be back. At that moment you are gone and he doesn’t know where you went. Rather create a routine and structure for him when you leave. Tell him that you are going now, but you will be back at a specific time. Reassure him that you will come back and then cuddle and say goodbye. You must come at that time – being late will simply perpetuate the problem.

Give your toddler something tangible to hold onto. By leaving him with a spare set of keys, sunglasses or even your cell phone cover, you will create a sense of “Oh, she has to come back for this” – your child will realise that you can’t go home without this and you will be coming back.

Relax, Mom

Relax, relax and when you think you are relaxed, relax some more. Children feed off our insecurities, so if you freak out every time your child falls down or gets onto his bike, he may link your reaction to something he needs to fear. If every time you drop him off at school or granny’s house you get teary and upset, he will be teary and upset.

Encourage your child to explore the world, allow him to jump off the kitchen step or sit on the dining room table.  Maintain your composure and explain the dangers, then be around him for his safety, but don’t be overbearing.

When your toddler is being clingy, remember that he is taking the time to figure things out, not being difficult or naughty. He will move on from this phase in his own time … and before you know it, you will be begging for him to sit with you and cuddle!