What to Do About Your Clingy Child

A parent shares that she is frustrated and exhausted by her son’s clingy behavior. She describes a typical evening arriving home from work to find her boy waiting by the door, insisting she drop everything to sit down and play with him. If she tries to use the restroom, put some things away or eat dinner, this often causes a tantrum with her son pulling at her hands or clothing to go back and play. This parent says both she and her partner work full time and wonders if that may be causing the severe clinginess.

Transcript of “What to Do About Your Clingy Child”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a question from a parent who describes her two-and-a-half-year-old as having severe clinginess. When she gets home from work each night, he pounces immediately, demands that she play with him and he won’t let her do anything she needs to do for herself, even taking her shoes off. So, this mother’s looking for a little advice.

Okay, here’s the email I received:

“Hello, Janet. First off, I love your work. Thank you so much for all you do. My two-and-a-half-year-old has recently become so clingy that it has been causing a lot of frustration and exhaustion in our home, and often leads to major tantrums. I’m struggling with what to do. When I get home from work at around 5:30, my little one is usually already home with my partner, who picks him up around 4:00 P.M.

My son is often waiting by the door and insists that I sit down right away to play with him. He doesn’t want me to set my bags down or take my shoes off. If I say I have to use the restroom or put some things away or really anything other than sit right down with him, it often leads to a tantrum. If I do sit right down and play with him, after a while, sometimes an hour, I try to get up to make dinner or eat the dinner my partner made. This causes a tantrum. He will often refuse to eat dinner and as was the case last night, will sometimes stand next to me and scream while I try to eat mine, even pulling on my hands or clothing to go back and play with him in the living room.

He also refuses to let my partner play with him, and wants me to only do things for him in our day to day. He will only occasionally allow daddy to get him his milk or dress him and I’m feeling stretched thin. My partner and I both work full time, and we often only see our son for an hour or two before and after work. I worry that our working so much is causing the severe clinginess. I’m at a loss for what to do.”

Okay, well I want to thank this parent for her kind words and I hope to, in this podcast, give her a lot of reassurance and help her to reframe what’s going on here.

So, children don’t need us to be stay home parents. If we work outside of the house and they go to a care situation or have someone care for them at home, they can accept that. But what they do need is for us to be comfortable with and certain of our life decisions. What this parent says at the end of this note, for me, kind of puts a tone on the whole thing… that she’s worried.

She’s worried that working so much is causing the clinginess. She’s maybe feeling guilty around that. And because of that, she’s giving up her leadership to her two-and-a-half-year-old. We can’t be the confident leaders that our children need if we’re coming from a place of guilt or worry.

So the first thing… if I was working with this parent, the first thing I would help her to see is that it’s really okay that she and her partner have made these choices they’ve made — to work. I’m sure they have a positive care situation for their son. Maybe at some point they’ll change their minds. But, for now, these are the choices that they’ve made. And their son needs them to feel confident in this situation.

What I’m seeing in this note is not a clingy child so much as a parent who is too uncomfortable to be the leader — to have boundaries and set the limits she needs to set. Again, underneath that has to be: We’re really comfortable with what we’ve decided. And that’s true if we are taking our child to childcare or to school and we don’t feel confident in that environment. It makes it so hard for children to separate from us, understandably, because we’re not even sure about it. How are they going to be able to embrace this situation if we’re not even sure?

The other part of this reframing that I’m talking about is understanding that a child that’s going to a care situation or to a school, even if it’s just for a few hours (and this sounds like it might be a pretty long day if he’s getting picked up at 4:00), he is going to be completely exhausted. I would expect that he will be a mess at the end of each day. Unfortunately, these are the hours that the parent has with him and it’s going to be rough because, children, it takes them so much energy to be in these care situations, to be away from their parents, to be in groups of children with people that don’t know them as well as their parents do. It is stressful. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it drains every bit of energy out of them.

It’s a common thing that we, of course, want to come home at the end of the day and have some nice time with our child before they go to bed. But that’s not what children are going to give us and that’s not what they need sometimes. Oftentimes, they need to share or spill all the stress of their day. And that looks like tantrums. That looks like whining. That looks like complete meltdowns, sometimes. That’s okay. That’s this backhanded compliment that we get as the people who are closest to our children, the most trusted people, the people they can let down every bit of their guard with. They don’t have to be at their best with us. Thank goodness that they have us for that.

So what I would expect, again, coming home, or even if I was a stay home parent and I was picking up my child from somewhere they’d been for several hours, I would expect a child who might get stuck demanding a lot of things that are unreasonable like this parent describes. And we’ll go into those step-by-step so we can see another way to handle them.

He’s going to be fragile emotionally, a lot of whining, a lot of discomfort coming out. That’s what I would expect.

So if this parent can, first, feel confident that the decision she’s making for her family are just fine, and then understand what’s reasonable to expect from a young child at the end of the day, she can perceive this completely differently. And she can perceive it in a way that frees her up to be the leader her son is asking for. Not directly, but that’s what he’s asking for here when she says that he’s waiting by the door, and he insists that she sit right down to play with him. He doesn’t want her to set her bags down or take her shoes off, and if she has to go to the restroom that often leads to a tantrum. Even if she plays with him for an hour, she can’t get up to make dinner.

He’s actually kind of begging for her to release him of this tight, controlling thing that he’s getting stuck doing because she’s trying to avoid the feelings that he’s expressing. Instead of welcoming them — welcoming the storm –knowing that this is quality time at the end of the day for almost every child this age, actually, no matter what choices the parents have made.

From what this parent describes, he seems very, very overwhelmed. He just needs to be able to cry and scream and stomp his feet or whatever he does, however he expresses it, as long as it’s safe. He needs to do that and have them be ready for it. So I would embrace the storm. And I would plan for it just as we would for an actual storm — prepared mentally for this to happen. And not even dreading it, because ideally she’ll normalize it for herself, understand that it’s healthy. It really, really is.

But she’s got to take care of herself. So when she comes in and there’s this guy right by the door, she still needs to take a moment. Maybe that means saying, “Oh, it’s so great to see you, my dear. I will be with you in a moment. I’m going to go take my shoes off or change my clothes.” Or do whatever she needs to do. And while she’s doing that, he’s going to be already storming, loudly protesting this. But she has to hold her own, with empathy for him, but not melting herself, doing what she needs to do to get herself ready for the storm. I would close the door on him if you need to, if he’s grabbing at you and you have to do some self care when you come home, when you make this transition.

We do need to take whatever time that we need to get comfortable. Why? Because we’re much less likely to be able to do our job at that time, which is allowing and welcoming the storm, if we’re feeling uncomfortable and grumpy and not at our best. So whatever moment she needs to take.

One thing I would consider in this situation, because she says it’s already 5:30 when she’s coming home… even that is on the late side for a child to have dinner. I would consider dinner is the first thing that happens when she comes home, or maybe it even happens before she comes home, for him.

I know that there’s a lot of advice around family meals. Yes, family meals are really important, but what’s more important is that a child doesn’t get overly hungry or too tired to be able to eat. Tiredness tends to override hunger for children. When they’re too tired, all bets are off in terms of eating. So weeknights might not be family meal nights. A child this age isn’t quite going to blossom in a family meal yet. That’s going to happen maybe starting age four, where they can really be there, more than just want to eat their food and get on with it.

We hear all this advice, family meals, family meals, and now we want to make that happen with a one-year-old or a two-year-old, and it doesn’t really serve their needs at that point, necessarily. If it works for you, great. But as my mentor, Magda Gerber used to say, “Children this age are ready to eat, but they’re not ready to dine,” which is what family meals are about. Maybe breakfast can be more of a family meal.

So when she says that he doesn’t let her do this or that, it’s not about him not letting her. It’s about not letting herself be ruled by a two-year-old who really just needs to explode and vent with his mother.

The more that she releases her leadership to him, the harder it is for him, the more tension he has to absorb, and he gets stuck in this little man controlling everybody place that is much more uncomfortable for him than being able to let go and let it out.

Let’s talk about how this is going to look step-by-step:

Let’s say that he has eaten and he wants her to come sit down right now and play. So he says, “No, don’t set your bags down or take your shoes off!” As the parent, I would say, “Wow, you don’t want me to do that. You really don’t like it when I take care of myself when I get home. But I must. I’m going to do this. Yes, you can tell me how much you don’t like it, my dear.”

Not just saying words but really meaning that, because I see this as so normal and healthy and expected, and that’s what’s going to come across to my child. Not the certain words that I say, but the fact that I welcome him to disagree with me, with these choices that I’m making as the leader.

And now he says I can’t go to the restroom or put things away or do anything other than sit right down with him. “You want me there! I hear you. I can’t wait to be there with you. I am going to do this first. I know that’s not what you want. I hear that.”

While I’m moving. I’m not stopping everything and getting stuck in ambivalence. I’m moving on. I’ve got my own confident momentum, but the whole way through I’m welcoming him. And if he’s grabbing at me physically, I’m going to take his hands, move him and move away as best I can. And maybe I’ll let him grab onto my leg while I’m putting my shoes on. But I’m going to keep confidently moving forward, empathizing at the same time. But not in the slightest bit feeling like I’m doing something wrong here, not feeling bad for him. In fact, feeling glad that he’s getting this opportunity to yell about me going to the bathroom or taking my shoes off when it’s really about him and his day. I’m just the one he’s sharing it with.

Then now she is ready. I understand he’s probably a mess and he’s on the floor or screaming. I would sit on the floor with him wherever you’ve stationed yourself for him to play. And I would just wait at that point, and breathe. And again, focus on: let the feelings be, feelings are healing. He’s got a right and actually this is what I want him to do — share this with somebody. And I want to be that somebody. Turning this pretty much 180 degrees from the way this parent is seeing it right now — that the tantrum is the problem and she’s got to avoid that and these are landmines that she has to avoid. No, these are healthy, healthy venting moments that he can have.

And then maybe she isn’t able to be there for an hour. It’s not the amount of time so much as that, when she’s there, she’s really there for him. And this is true for all of us as parents. There’s no phone in the picture at that point. After you’ve checked in and done that little self care in the bathroom that you need to do, then the phone goes away. It’s not there ready to interrupt you at any moment.

I know I hear from parents a lot that, “Well, this is no different than other days when there were TV or other things that distracted parents.” But actually this is different. What this is, is something that can interrupt at any moment, and that feeling as a child that you never own your parent’s attention completely. That it could always be taken away at any time by the sound of a text message or a phone call. That’s what’s different about these tech devices that we have today from other distractions that parents have always had in the past.

So, put it away and then be with him. And even if it was for 15 minutes, 20 minutes, that’s okay. Again, feeling good about your choices. And you and your partner as the leaders, deciding priorities and what you can do with open arms.

Because the other thing that happens when a parent gets stuck getting controlled by a young child is that she can’t enjoy playing with him. She can’t enjoy anything, because she’s kind of like a caged animal. She couldn’t take care of herself. She couldn’t go to the bathroom, and she’s stuck with this guy. And that’s who he’s got with him for his quality time. She doesn’t want to be that person, I’m sure. She wants to be somebody that’s: Okay. You yelled at me all the time, but I saw that as what you needed to do. I got myself together and now I’m here and I can’t wait to be with you. If you want to cry, you can cry. Whatever you need to do, I’m here 100% available to you. There’s no one else in my life right now. I’m all yours and I’m happy to be here. For whatever amount of time this parent decides that she can feel that way.

Then if she’s hungry… don’t spend an hour and then be too hungry and now you’re going to be in a struggle. We’re going to be grumpy parents if we’re not taking care of ourselves first. That’s the self care. We’ve got to be on top of it.

And then she says, he stands and screams next to her while she tries to eat. I would try to let go of that, because the more you let go of that and the more you’ve wanted him to share these things from the beginning, the less likely it’s going to keep going on and going on.

But in the beginning, if this parent decides to make these changes, then yeah, there’s going to be some trying out and seeing if his mother is going to be okay when he screams while she’s eating, or going to the bathroom. And again, this isn’t conscious that he’s doing this mean test on her. It’s just what children do, because they really need to know it’s safe for them to feel these things, and that their parent believes that. And that’s true in all situations where the parent has faltered a little.

While she’s eating, if he’s pulling on her hands or her clothing to go back and play, she has to release herself. She has to put her hand towards him to hold him off, and be as comfortable doing this as she possibly can, so that it will stop the next time. This isn’t a situation where she’s going to release control to him. She is going to hold her own.

And I would say something like, “You want me to play while I’m eating. Ah, yes, I hear you my dear. It’s so hard just to let me eat.” Then I would eat a little bit and just let whatever it is go on, and then every so often, “You’re still wanting me to play. I will come play as soon as I eat,” if you are going to play. “And I will look forward to that. I hear how it’s so hard for you.” Empathizing from a place of strength in herself, confidence in herself. And the base of all of that is confidence in her life choices. She’s doing the right thing.

She says he also refuses to let her partner play with him, and “he wants me to only do things for him in our day to day.” Again, that can’t be his choice. It has to be her choice what she’s going to do with him, and her partner’s choice what he’s going to do with him. Whatever feelings come through of disappointment or frustration with those decisions, bring them on. Let them come through. Don’t give in: “Oh, okay, he wants me to put this water in his glass.” I mean, that’s how ridiculous it can get, and we can get caught up in it if we’re, again, coming from that guilt place. Seeing our child’s feelings as signs that we’re doing something wrong when it’s actually the opposite.

So if he shares it with daddy, if he shares it with his mom, wonderful.

I have at least a couple of podcasts and posts about being the preferred parent, and this is what it’s about. Being that parent that isn’t the preferred parent is heroic, because that’s where you’re saying, “Oh, I’m not your favorite right now, but I’m still going to do this with you. You can yell at me. You can be upset if you need to be with me. It’s safe for you to do that. I want to hear how disappointed you are that you got me instead of your mom.” Because we know it’s not personal. It’s actually often about that that mom isn’t establishing her boundaries as well or that dad.

So I would look at all of this as freeing your son up, releasing him from being this tight Mr. Control, letting the feelings come out so that he can relax and be a little child, knowing that his parents have got this down, that they can do this. They know they can, and they’re not intimidated. It’s not harming him, as this parent is concerned that she might. It’s freeing him.

So I really hope that helps. I know this is challenging.

And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in.

And both of my books are available on audio: Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. As a matter of fact, you can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website and find them there. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes And Noble, and apple.com.

Thanks again for listening. We can do this.

5 Comments

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

  1. Excellent suggestions on dealing with the consequences of this parent’s scenario. In my opinion you don’t really address that the root could actually very well be that this child is indeed suffering in some way from a sense of disconnection…causing this cyclical / daily pattern of disregulation. Perhaps he is an extremely sensitive child and this choice that his parents have made is NOT working for him? This extreme behavior is him (very loudly) telling his Mom he needs her and he really can’t handle the current daily expectations that are being thrust upon him. Sometimes the truth hurts.

    1. Thank you, Felicia. Hmm… The problem with that way of thinking is that parents’ concerns and doubts are exactly what is causing the child to behave in this manner. So, before even considering “my child can’t handle this,” I would proceed with confidence and acceptance as I’ve suggested. Then, if the parents are sure that they are being confident leaders and yet the fragility persists, I would consider other possibilities.

      1. Thank you for your reply, Janet. I always appreciate your insight and I agree totally that these all-day care situations are completely draining for children. It is definitely the reality. As you said, parents must be ok with the fallout – which may mean that their only “quality” time on a daily basis is the 1-2 hr when they get home from work when their child is in complete breakdown. It’s good to acknowledge the truth and consequences. Especially considering he’s a little guy whose been alive for only 2.5 years.

  2. This was incredibly helpful as I experience aspects of this with my 2.5 year old (and we have an 8 month old to further complicate things!) Just wanted to flag the sensitivity around assuming working is a “life decision” or ”choice” for this or any working parent. Many families are in a position where it is a financial necessity.

    1. Yes, thank you for adding that, Tory. It’s important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More From Janet

Books & Recommendations