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