A parent describes the struggle she and her husband face with their 5-year-old when they try to go out together. Their boy cries and begs them not to leave, and though they’ve experimented with several approaches — including “trying to be unruffled and say goodnight and leave swiftly” – none has worked. This mom says she finds the process exhausting and is hoping Janet has some suggestions.
Transcript of “Our Clingy Child Won’t Let Us Leave”
This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m replying to a parent who says that her five year old gets severely distressed when she and her husband try to leave him to go out together. She’s tried several strategies to remain unruffled and try to get out the door but none of them seem to be working and she’s finding the process exhausting.
Here’s the question I received:
“Dear Janet, I’ve recently discovered your podcast and website, and I’m so grateful. There’s much that resonates with me so I’m hoping you can help me with an issue. We have three kids. Two boys, aged five and three, and a little girl aged eight months. The five year old is very sensitive. He struggles with new people in situations, is very clingy to me, doesn’t like to join in with things until he’s warmed up sufficiently, etc.
When he started school in September, he had a hard time for the first couple of days, spent an hour the first day crying, begging me not to leave him, but he seems settled now. The issue with him is that he finds being left with the babysitter, while my husband and I go out for an evening incredibly distressing.
If I go out on my own or my husband goes out on his own, there’s no problem, but if we go out together, I get the brunt of it. We’ve only ever left him with grandma and auntie, my mom and sister, both of whom he loves, and spent lots of time with, but each time we go out, he gets very very upset, cries, and begs me not to leave him and please, please, will I not go out.
When I do eventually leave, he often wakes up several times crying for me. While my mom and sister are proactive in trying to settle him, I feel awful that they have to go through that. Once he was physically sick twice, so we came home and I do wonder whether he was just to distressed that he got sick.
We’ve tried several things. I’ve tried to be as bright and breezy as possible when we say good night. I’ve tried doing the whole bedtime routine myself early, to allow him the space to cry over me going.
He always wants to know exactly where we are going, what we will eat, when we will be back, “Two hours is too long, Mummy,” and I find it exhausting, and at the same time, I’m determined not to be held hostage as my husband and I need our nights out and we know he’s completely safe with grandma or auntie. The difficulty is that I can try to be unruffled and say goodnight and leave swiftly, but if he’s crying, then effectively, I place the stress on the person babysitting as he continues to cry.
By contrast, the three year old does no such reservations, he’s quite happy with my explanations of going out and being back in a while, and grandma, auntie is downstairs if he needs something, and he usually sleeps right through the distress of the five year old. Thank you so much for reading.”
Okay, so a few things stuck out for me here, but first I want to mention that I notice in my work with parents that oftentimes, without meaning to, parents play into where they see children’s sensitivities and neediness or clinginess. The parents play a role in this they don’t intend that actually exacerbates the issue. This can happen very early on with the baby and therefore be much harder to see when that child becomes a toddler or especially five years old, like this child.
I’m not saying this definitely happened but just putting it out there as a possibility, because I do see this often. What happens is the baby or a child is more sensitive, intense, emotional. And then rather than just learning this about our child, and taking that into consideration that they will have a lot more feelings to express, that they will express feelings more strongly, and more often than the average child. Rather than taking that all into account and understanding it, and saying, okay, this is my child. What the parent does is start to treat that child differently from another child. As if their feelings are a problem. The parent perceives that child as somebody that can’t handle certain situations. When in fact, the child just has more feelings to express around it and needs to feel free to.
If we treat our child as if they are more needy, and that we have to fulfill those needs in a different way than we would another child — that we have to be more protective of that child and more reactive to issues with that child, then the child gets the message in return that they need to be treated that way. That they are maybe lacking in certain abilities. That they aren’t as safe being away from the parent or having feelings about being away from the parent or having feelings about starting something new or engaging with other children.
This is how, obviously without meaning to, we can end up creating anxiety, creating clinginess, making it harder for our child to walk through these emotions that are always healthy. It’s always healthy for a child to say in however way they say it, what they’re feeling. It’s communication, it’s a positive. These children don’t have more problems than other children. They’re just more open to the world, and there’s nothing negative about that.
My guess is that her older son is sensitive. He’s intense, and because of that she’s fallen into allowing him to try to control these situations a bit more. I see that when she says, “Each time we’d go out, he gets very upset. Cries and begs me not to leave him, and please, please, will I not go out.” When she says, “He wants to know exactly where we’re going, what we will eat, and when will we back, two hours is too long, Mummy.”
She finds it exhausting. Yes, that’s because he’s stuck in trying to control her in a situation rather than letting go, but that has to begin with us, that has to begin with our confidence in this situation, which starts with believing our child is capable of mourning the loss of us when we leave, and that being okay. Healthy, in fact.
And he loves his parents. He doesn’t want them to go. That doesn’t mean he can’t handle the situation. That doesn’t mean he can’t be okay in those feelings. But it’s impossible to be confident as a parent about separating if we feel our child has issues. If we feel our child is needy, is fragile, is going to be made sick. And sometimes it happens with younger children that they do get so upset that they get sick, and in that case, especially, we have to be careful not to add to those feelings of fear with our own fear.
That’s what I’m talking about here. Perceiving this child as capable, as on the sensitive end of the spectrum, so yes, his feelings are going to look strong and intense, and there are going to be these big waterfalls. That’s just who he is, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing the parent should feel guilty about. Bring it on, let it out. Show us those feelings and how much you love us, how much you don’t want us to go, see this as a positive thing.
When she says that he started school in September, and he had a hard time for the first couple of days, he spent an hour the first day crying begging her not to leave him. That puts a question in my mind. Why was she still there for an hour? She must have gotten drawn into that and, again, I understand how that happens. It’s easy to get sucked in and worried when our child is so upset and maybe we look around and we see the other children aren’t having this reaction. But we have to be the ones that show him that he can handle this, and that’s not with words, that’s not with saying, “You can handle this. It’s okay, it’s going to be all right.”
It’s with saying, “Yes, it’s hard to say goodbye to me, you don’t want us to go. You don’t want me to leave you at school. I know, I hear you. I love that about you. That you have these hard goodbyes. I will see you when I come back. I can’t wait. Look forward to seeing you after school when I come pick you up.” Period at the end of the sentence. Comfortable. Loving this guy for his emotional romantic nature. Not getting pulled into he’s crying and so “I’ve got to make this work for him” which only feeds his feelings of fear and insecurity around the situation.
Children take their tone from us in these situations. We’re the leaders.
Now when she says that he struggles with new people in situations. He’s very clingy. Well, yes, there are situations where he’s welcome to be clingy because there you are, you’re staying as well. It’s a situation where you’re going to be there.
You have yourself settled in comfortably and you’d love to have him sit with you, and if he wants to go join in with other children, that’s up to him. I wouldn’t try to coax him. I wouldn’t try to make something happen. I wouldn’t see this as anything negative about him or a weakness that he has. It just takes him longer sometimes to let go. Make it easier for him by you letting go.
Now going on to some of these details here about actually leaving him with his grandma and auntie or whoever she needs to leave him with. She says “If we go out together, I get the brunt of it,” and I’m not sure what that means, I imagine it means that he’s beating her up about it. He’s being demanding saying, “When are you going to be back, what are you going to do? Please don’t leave me.” That can only make her feel like she’s getting the brunt of it, if she’s perceiving it as a problem that she has to do something about. That has to make her feel bad for him, that has to make her feel worried for him, and walk away with her husband, with her tail between her legs because she feels guilty, that she’s put everybody in this position.
Instead I would see it as here’s my guy, he has these hard goodbyes. I’m going to make it easy for him. “Yes, darling, I hear, no you don’t want us to go.”
Now when he ask you questions about all these details, say, “I’m not going to talk about that right now. I’m excited to tell you when I get back or when I see you in the morning. I’ll tell you all about those things.” Not getting drawn in. Not getting sucked in to being put on the stand. Where are you going? How long are you going for? What are you eating? Don’t let him do it. It’s a controlling thing that he’s getting stuck in. Don’t buy in.
She says when she does eventually leave. He often wakes up several times crying for her. That, we can’t do anything about except his parents attitude about his feelings. His parents fearlessness toward his feelings. They’re rolling out the red carpet for them actually and welcoming them as they walk out the door, that will help him to vent, that will help him to express what he needs to express and feel comfortable doing so, because they’re comfortable, and then he’s going to be less likely to have these built up feelings that are actually waking him up at night.
That’s what happens if children don’t feel that their feelings can land safely, that their feelings are okay with their parents, truly okay. Not that they’re just saying it’s okay to be sad. But that they’re showing him. They mean that in every cell of their body. Then he won’t have to be sitting on things and sleeping on things that wake him up.
She says, “While my mom and sister are proactive in trying to settle him. I feel awful that they have to go through that.” Well, it’s okay. Grandma and auntie getting to be with a guy that’s sad. That’s a very bonding experience actually.
The children in my classes. When they’re upset because their mothers or fathers have left for a moment to go to the bathroom and the parent has said goodbye and the child is at the gate waiting. Sometimes they don’t mind at all, but other times they do, they just do, it’s the phase of development they’re in, or it’s just the way they feel that day. They have a strong response and I get to be the one that’s there, trusting, observing, being available to them, I might ask at some point, “Do you want me to pick you up?” but I don’t push this at all, sometimes they do like to be picked up, but other times, I’m just there and you know what? the children and I bond through those experiences. They trust me, they feel safe, they love being with someone who’s unafraid of them, and their feelings, it’s all good, it’s all positive. I would see that as a gift that you’re giving them actually and maybe just coaching them a little towards that if they’re open to it. If they’re not, just trust them. Let them do it.
She says, “We’ve tried several things. I tried to be as bright and breezy as possible when we say goodnight.” Bright and breezy is good, but fearless in your response to those feelings would be better. Not, everything is fun. Everything is hunky dory.
If he says I don’t want you to go. Be able to hear that and welcome it. “You really don’t like it when we go sometimes. You have a hard time.”
She says, “I’ve tried doing the whole bedtime routine myself early to allow him the space to cry over me going.”
Yeah, I think the fact that she’s there really doesn’t allow him to cry over her going. I think he’s working there at still trying to pull her in in some ways.
I love that she says, “At the same time I’m determined not to be held hostage.”
Good. Listen to that instinct. That’s the instinct that’s most helpful, not just to you, but to your son. That’s the part that allows him to explode in his feelings, crumble in his feelings, and then feel better because he’s got leaders that are comfortable in their role even when (or especially when) it means disappointing him, clashing with him in his wants. He gets to let go of the prosecutor. That guy. That’s not a fun place for him to be. He gets to let go of that and just be a child. A five year old guy who doesn’t have to try to control the adults.
She says, “The difficulty is that I can try to be unruffled and say goodnight and leave swiftly, that if he’s crying, then effectively I place the stress on the person babysitting as he continues to cry.”
Right. Well, again I believe that this mother (and I don’t know if the father is doing this as well), but their overall attitude towards his feelings will make any stressful situation for the people she’s leaving him with less. It will make it easier for them because he will have been able to freely share it with the person he really wants to share it with. It will land safely with you. The rest is just residual if he does have feelings with grandma and auntie.
So I wouldn’t try to be unruffled. I would actually try to work on seeing this guy differently. Seeing that he’s a very capable person. He’s a very aware person and all that sensitivity will serve him very very well in the future, as a learner, as an intuitive person.
He’s a guy that needs to crumble a lot, so let him crumble. He will always put himself back together again. And what’s interesting about the three year old being very different in these situation is that he’s also seeing what his brother is going through and it seems like he isn’t buying into it at all. He sees through it. He sees it as his brother being dramatic and emotional. Not deeply afraid. If he saw somebody deeply afraid in his brother it would scare him. I think he’s seeing his brother maybe even a little more clearly than the parents are. That’s interesting.
And understandable. Again as parents, we’re prone to worry about our children. We just are. If there’s anything we can worry about, we’re going to find it, and we’re going to worry, but our worry gets in the way, that’s something that we have to conquer, our worries. They don’t help our child at all. They don’t help anything.
I really hope that helps.
Also, please check out some of my other podcast at JanetLansbury.com. They’re all categorized by topic and many of them have transcripts as well.
Both of my books are available also on audio at audible.com, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.
UPDATE: The parent who asked this questioned later shared: