Our Clingy Child Won’t Let Us Leave

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:

“I just wanted to say a huge Thank you for covering this in your 13 Dec podcast – it was amazing to discover it and your advice makes so much sense – the most important thing in recent months has indeed been to ‘let him crumble’ instead of trying to stop it happening.
Thank you thank you!”

9 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Oh Dear! I so needed to read this today! Thank for your time.
    My 2 yo daughter is a sweet heart with me and my husband. She is really caring, talkative, listen really well… however she is very sensitive too…. she has been going to a daycare since she is6 months, my husband drops her off, and she cries every day, holds his legs, and doesn’t want to let him go… then when he leaves she is fine… she also has a really hard time engaging with other people and kids… it takes her a long time to warm up and go play, and she always wants me to be by her side… my friends can not even talk to her that she gets nervous, and goes away… sometimes I think that she is really shy… I don’t know… Now my mother in law is here from other state and the rest of the family including cousins are also coming… she refuses to talk to her, pushes her away… doesn’t let her “help”…. and after a couples of hours she is fine but still not too much talk and contact…. I don’t know what to do… I am really embarrassed because I wanted them to enjoy her as they only get to see her once a year.
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Mariana,
      I used to say to my husband that my daughter’s light shines for us, and for others she is more reserved with it. And I love that about her. It does make others uncomfortable, but I take a breath and let them feel what they want, but I make sure my daughter knows she is supported by me: I will answer for her, for example, “Thank you; she’s two, etc.”

      One thing I noticed is she IS talking with others, and quite sociable, but it is such a subtle gesture. A person will talk directly to her and it seems she is just staring at them, but I see her finger move a titch and I say, She would like to show you her stuffed animal or whatever.

      Now that she is at school, she is learning to speak for herself, but she comes to me and tells me who took a toy or whatever and I will help her find the words to use to speak up. The teachers scaffold this, but she has learned to trust me as her advocate.

      All I really wanted to reply to you, though, was that this website … DEVOUR IT. You and your husband. You will find your answers, guidance, sympathy, encouragement, understanding and grand grand wisdom that will become your own. For example:

      The other night, my daughter was kicking at bedtime and this enrages me, but I just scream in my head. I said I will not let you kick me (learned here) and then, although I learned the next step here, the words flew out of me on their own, like my own breath: it had become my OWN wisdom: You can talk to me about your day at school anytime you’d like.

      Well. Her whole body released tension and it turns out there was an issue with the teachers. When I reflected on the day, I could have seen there was an issue, had I noticed she wasn’t falling deeply into independent play throughout the afternoon.

      I learned all of this, although I came in with the love of observation and the love of love, through this site, through the teachings of Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury. You have found the place to help you with the upcoming visit with relatives and helping her go off to daycare. Keep listening and reading here.

  2. Thank you. This was a really powerful post. Because of my own emotional neglect, I have been overly sensitive to my daughter’s emotions. I commend myself for being in touch with who she is, what her personality is and honor that (I knew it was not her thing to be passed around to family when young: I was strong enough to not care what they thought. They now see a bright, social relative), but, now, she is 4 and we are coming out of an extremely stressful time and it’s time for me to honor her strengths, and be strong in my support for her abilities to go out in the world.

    You have given me that language and I felt it in my bones last night when I expressed a boundary: a MUCH needed boundary. I felt strong and my daughter learned inner strength watching her most important role model.

    Thank you for being so descriptive and saying the same thing over in many different ways. I was exercising while listening: my daughter wanted to distract me, but I felt such Joy keeping that boundary, with love, respect, kindness, unruffledness, “I am going to exercise, are you going to color or cut paper?” (Something like this). I thought I knew what your answer was going to be to the mother who wrote to you, “Aha, new-ish baby … ” But you never mentioned the baby, or the other new sibling when the first turned 2.

    We do not have a new sibling here, so I listened as though you were talking directly to me. There is only so much time in the podcast, would you say this podcast situation could also be multi-faceted? I was helped immensely by your post about the 4 year old who stopped dressing herself for school and you pointed out the new sibling. When my daughter is great before school, but then puts up a fight over dressing, I stop and connect. I make sure we transition together, acknowledging she may love school, but she is sad to leave me. “No Bad Kids”

    Anyway, I listen to every single thing you write, listen to it and read the books, because there is so much overlay.

    I love waking up knowing I was a person who had self-control and self-awareness the day before and will continue to study my way out of my past with your lovingkindness toward children and their wholeness that just wants to be expressed and loved.

    Thanks for all you do!

  3. A lot of this transcript really spoke to me, as there are similarities in behaviour with my almost 5-year old, namely struggles with new situations, doesn’t like to join in at times, and general anxiety and resistance to some situations. I’ve done a lot of reading trying to figure out different coping mechanisms, as I don’t want to dismiss his anxiety or how he’s feeling, and this one bears the most similarity to our situation (though he does not have much issue with being left with family overnight for example).

    One prime example: at a doctors appointment recently. I took him, and he would not cooperate for the Doctor we saw, he told me he was too scared, and curled into my chest, was quite upset. I tried talking to him about what needed to happen and why the doctor was doing the things he was doing, but he could not be persuaded to cooperate. Interestingly, when his father took him to a follow up appointment, he behaved just fine and was not at all upset.

    Another example, was the pre-school cross country event. he’d been very excited leading up to the day, practising with some encouragement from his teachers. when I went to attend the day, he would not run at all and would only walk the track if I came with him. It is hard not to get frustrated at times!

    So I’m wondering if part of the problem is how I’ve tried to be with him, as you’ve suggested in this article. I have tried to approach parenting with respectful principles, acknowledging feelings and then saying that “this needs to happen because XYZ, will you do it yourself, or do you need me to help you” but it does not seem to be impacting or helping him deal with things any better. I’m at a loss to know how to proceed. Any comments you could make would be much appreciated!

  4. Hi Janet,
    My daughter is almost four, and had begun to express fear, at times terror, at being left alone in her room for bedtime. We’ve tried many things over the last couple of months, from new night lights to training the dog to stay in there with her. I at first began to stay with her until she was asleep, but that’s not working either. This post is very helpful, as I have recently been changing my language around this topic, and last night would not allow myself to get sucked in to the situation. She ended up sleeping in the hall outside my room and fell asleep watching me finish chores and get ready for bed.
    I have both of your books and follow your fb as well. Would you add anything here about the fine balance of respecting that she’s afraid yet needing to set a boundary around appropriate bed time and location? I can’t physically make her stay in there, so the hallway solution may have to be where we are for a while…

  5. That is so helpful. Thank you!! And so very hard.

  6. I completely disagree with this article, as both the mother of a sensitive clingy toddler (who was always that way, since age 4 months) and as someone who herself was a clingy baby and little girl. I had four siblings so my mother treated me the same as the others who were not “as sensitive” as me. I clearly remember my mother dropping me off at a kind of preschool (this was the 70’s) even though she was a SAHM. I was three years old. Every day she’d drop me off there so she could have her “me” time. And I cried every morning. And she snuck off, every morning, leaving me in the arms of a daycare worker. And after I finished crying, I dealt with the whole “daycare” setting as best I could. It really wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in my own home, not this parking lot for toddlers. That’s really not a natural setting for kids. And I’d miss her. And I’d feel sad often throughout the day. 40 years later, I remember the grief. Some kids just need their mothers. People don’t like to hear that, this is a “me” society with no time for babies or toddlers “clinging” to mothers. Clinging is considered unhealthy. Think about your position anthopologically speaking. Clinging IS normal, it IS healthy, and nature made young children cling while they are too young to be safe alone. For all this psychobabble about not changing or fixing the child, you ARE trying to change the child, to “mold” them out of their feelings to suit yours. If your husband regularly left you for long periods (to a child this feels long) and you felt upset, and told him, and he just “acknowledged your feelings” but kept doing it anyway, you would NOT feel ok with it or validated. You’d still feel sad that he kept leaving you. I don’t do that to my toddler because I remember how scared I used to feel. Scared at night. Just wishing mommy would come check on me. And sad at that “daycare” or whatever. Interestingly enough, my mother (who was quite beautiful, and kind and loving I thought) was always happy to send us off to this daycare, then to summer camps for the entire summer, every year, from a young age. Guess where she ended up? Rotting in a nursing home, and none of her five kids visited much at all. Interesting. Young children need their mothers. Some more intensely than others. This is an inconvenience, to be sure. But there is a solution. One can choose not to be a parent if one doesn’t want to be there for their young child. I know my child will outgrow this naturally. She has an effervescence, a brightness, and a kind of courage beneath her clingy and loving nature. She will grow stronger and stronger. Just like I did. Despite my mother’s leaving me and “cry-it-out” sleep training. Which SERIOUSLY hindered my independence. Had she just had patience and accepted my needs, they would have passed naturally and with less wear and tear on my soul.

    1. I’m sorry you had that experience, Eve. I would never advise a parent to sneak off. That would surely create insecurity. When you say that you disagree with this podcast… are you suggesting that parents should not go out to dinner and leave their 5-year-old in the care of someone else. Or that a 5-year-old should not attend school?

  7. PS… my clingy toddler (2 and a half year old) was afraid of every stranger from age 4 months. She wouldn’t let ANYONE but my husband and I touch or hold her. I knew she would outgrow it herself. I didn’t try to make her or talk her out of it. She was so talkative, so expressive, I just knew she’d warm up to people in her own time. Sure enough, a couple of months ago (she is 2 years 7 months to be exact) she began to REALLY like people, she talks to everyone everywhere (just like my husband and I do) and she LOVES when we have guests and visitors, and talks to them and sits with them and asks for them to come back. She cries when they go. But she’ll grow out of that crying too. After all, she’s only two and a half.

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