Separating (with Confidence) from Your Clingy Child

A common misconception many of us have is that clingy children are weak or passive. In fact, it’s often just the opposite. Their tenacious insistence that we give them our constant attention is a sign of a strong will. As parents, we might feel sorry or guilty for separating from a child who whines or cries for our attention, but that perception does them a disservice. It validates them as helpless and pitiful in our eyes and can make them feel trapped in their neediness.
Instead of being coddled and pitied, our clingier children (like all children) need to be empowered to express their strong feelings and points of view. A brief, casual message exchange I had with Carey reiterated the importance of this perception and approach.

Carey: Hello! I am in desperate need of some advice. My 17-month-old has always had trouble separating from me. Lately, even when I try to pick up the house, vacuum, etc. he follows me around crying, wanting to be picked up. I’ve tried handling this by talking to him and telling him we will play when I finish. I’ve tried involving him by giving him his own rag, asking him to help me push the vacuum, etc. I really could use some advice because I feel like I’m failing as a parent. I want him to be secure enough to play on his own at times without being stressed out.

Me: It really needs to be okay with you that he’s mad about you not paying attention. That means being confident in carrying on with what you do — not trying to fix him or make it better — and acknowledging every couple of minutes: “You don’t want me to run the vacuum! I hear that!” Acknowledge and hear him as a person sharing his strong demands and opinions rather than perceiving him as a helpless, needy boy.

Carey: Thank you so much for answering. Even though I didn’t think I was trying to “fix” him, I guess I actually was. Today he cried while I was fixing lunch, and I just did what you said. For dinner, he played in the family room with my daughter and didn’t whine for me once! I really appreciate your response.

Me: Wow, that’s very cool that you were able to change your view so quickly and had such immediate results. Kudos to you for that!

Carey: I really think I was treating him like he couldn’t handle these situations. I’m going to keep at it. I’m sure he’s going to keep having these moments, but with time I know it will really help. Thank you for showing me another way. I don’t always know what words to use with him while he’s so upset. Today during lunch and dinner I just calmly repeated what you said. I kept waiting for him to start hanging from me screaming, and he never did. He hasn’t done that in several months!

Me: Yes, knowing he can handle this is essential. As far as words, all I would say is what you know for certain: “Sounds like you’re saying a big NO to me doing this right now.” It’s safest not to get into “angry” and especially not “sad,” which communicates you’re feeling sorry for him and not seeing him as capable of being in vehement disagreement with you. It empowers him when you perceive him in a strong way.  He’s got a right not to like it. You are the leader doing what you need and want to do.

Carey: This makes so much sense to me, but it is a completely different way from how I was thinking. My extended family, mom, and mother-in-law define him as “needy,” “dramatic,” etc. I was the same way as a child, and looking back I was treated like I was weak and couldn’t handle things. I have dealt with a lot of insecurities as an adult and absolutely don’t want my child to feel this way. I think it’s imperative I start now with him. I love how he is. He feels every emotion in a big way, which means he shows love in a big way, too. I don’t want to change that!

I share more about setting limits with respect in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

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

  1. Hi Janet,
    Thanks for this post, it is so helpful to see the full conversation and Carey’s course of thinking!
    I’d like some further advice, if I may. I try hard to do this with my recently 3yo son, recognising feelings/wants but maintaining my position, but 4 out of 5 times he tells me to ‘Stop saying that’. I do wonder sometimes if I’m engaging too much in his struggle, but I’m not quite sure how not to. He’s so relentless and loud… Any tips?

    1. Great question, Rebecca. I would consider your intention in acknowledging his feelings. Children sense when we’re saying the words to, subtly, try to talk them out of their feelings. “Yes, I see you’re upset, but… ” Any acknowledgments we make have to be to do the opposite… to actually encourage him to vent his view completely and fully. “You don’t like this choice I’m making!” But beyond that, he needs you to welcome him to express his feelings further… “Don’t say that!” That’s him sharing his anger, frustration, etc. He might mean “Don’t give me that answer I don’t want to hear!” Or, “I’m mad at you!” As children get more articulate, their feelings will be often be expressed through these kinds of commands and statements. So, again, roll out the red carpet for him to have all the opinions that he has about your choice, while still feeling confident about your choice.

  2. How do you approach clinginess when the reason for it is unfamiliar people? I allow my 14 month old to cling to me until she feels comfortable around visiting family, but is that also sending the message that she’s helpless and needy or protecting her from people who aren’t necessarily respecting her boundaries? I wish everyone knew to treat an infant with respect!

    1. I would allow her to cling whenever and wherever you are truly available to her, as with visiting with your family. There’s a way of doing this that is responsive and welcoming, but not overdoing it (i.e., scooping her up when someone comes close, rather than simply being there next to her, feeling calm and acknowledging any feelings she expresses). If you need to go to the bathroom or whatever, I would confidently separate (assuming you have basic trust for the people she’s with), and then return with confidence as well. In other words, it’s best not to add our own discomfort, fear, etc., to the situation, because that can make it impossible for our children to feel comfortable themselves. They are sensing all our feelings and these tend to form their own.

  3. To say Thank You for this post would be an understatement. Our day is going beautifully because I am being true to me with your help. I thank you thank you thank you!!!

    Have a great day and know you are deeply appreciated.

    1. Yay! I’m thrilled and thank you so much for sharing with me, Marian! I needed that big boost today!

  4. Hi Janet! Thank you for this article. I have question similar to this. I have recently started my 8 month old daughter in a daycare. I am not working at the moment but plan to soon. I could postpone my work for couple of months more but ideally don’t want to. The nursery itself is lovely and the staff is very dedicated. There is 1:1 baby to carer ratio and we have started her on half days to begin with. However, my daughter cries a lot when I leave her (which I know a completely normal) – I guess I am hoping she will get used to this in a couple of weeks but my questions really is am i doing long term psychological damage to her by leaving her to cry in the nursery at this young age? Looking forward to your response! Thank you for reading.

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