How to Help Clingy Kids

by | Apr 2, 2009 | Character and Moral Intelligence

Yesterday on the Today Show, I spoke with Natalie Morales about clingy kids. Natalie asked me to come on air and offer her sister tips for dealing with her three-year-old daughter’s clinginess. Here are a few tips I gave. (The whole Today segment is available on MSBNC or to view). 

Excessive clinginess is a common phase in a child’s early years. It usually starts around 8 or 9 months, peaks at 18 months, and then usually becomes less and less intense, ending around 2 years of age. It is also common around preschool age (the first separation from home) but sometimes is even present in young adolescents in certain anxiety-provoking situations. Though common, it still can be quite unsettling for a parent.

Each child handles stress differently, so the causes of clinginess will be different for each child. A parent’s job is to play detective and figure out what’s causing clinginess. Typical causes include:

Unsettling or traumatic experience: Bullying, hospitalization, fear of failure, death or illness of a parent, divorce, natural disaster, attachment gone awry

Sudden transition: Moving, arrival of a new sibling

A distressing separation: Long separations from a parent, threats of abandonment (“I will leave you if you don’t come along.”)

Temperament: Some kids are more like tumbleweeds and roll with the punches; others are like orchids, more sensitive, less adaptable and more tightly strung. Twenty percent of 4-month-olds have a biological “nudge” in the direction of increased fearfulness and are a slower-to-warm child.

Typically a younger child will cling more towards their primary caregiver, which is normally mom, and can be quite unsettling for the other parent – usually dad. It’s why it is helpful to understand child development and know that such behavior is normal and will pass.

Parents have to know that research confirms biology is not destiny. Jerome Kagan’s famous Yale studies* with over-anxious kids discovered that when their parents encouraged their kids to spend time with peers and work through their fears, only one-third of the TK number observed still showed timid behavior as they entered adulthood.

Here are a few parenting practices that help make goodbyes less stressful:

Find parental substitutes. Find people she trusts–a babysitter, relative, teacher and friends who know your child’s quirks, routines and likes and dislikes. Gradually stretch separation times and slowly broaden your child’s “inner security circle.” 

Prepare for separations. Studies at Children’s Hospital found that kids whose parents prepared them for a separation were able to leave their parent far easier and protested far less than those not prepared. So drive by the birthday party in advance, go meet the new teacher before the first school day, take an online tour of the school before the move. 

Teach how to “talk to the worry.” Help your child name the feeling, “I’m scared,” then teach her how to talk back to the fear so she is in charge of the worry and not the other way around. The trick is to have her practice telling herself she’ll be okay to build confidence: “Go away worry, leave me alone. Mommy will come back.” 

Rehearse social problems. Set up pretend scenarios and role-play specific social problems, like how to meet a new friend or what to say if a stranger approaches. 

Create “goodbye” rituals. Create a special kiss, or provide a special pebble or keychain to put in her pocket and explain that when she touches it it means you’re thinking of her.

Be cool, consistent and leave. A kid’s anxiety increases if you make too big of a deal about leaving or draw it out. So stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure her that you’ll be back. Promise to return at the stated time. Give her a watch marked with the time you’ll return. Then do so and remind your child that you did. The key is to establish a consistent pattern of goodbyes that build your child’s confidence so she realizes she can make it through the time apart. 

There are three things parents sometimes do that will actually increase clinginess in a child: 

  1.  Parental anxiety. Parental anxiety feeds into your child, so curb your anxiety and watch how you react. Kids can catch our fears.
  2. Unrealistic expectations. Too high of expectations can cause a child to believe that her efforts are never good enough and avoid the situation.
  3. Overprotection and too much reassurance. Always rescuing or being overprotective robs a child of confidence. The key is to find the balance between pushing and protecting.

Excessive clinginess may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder or another condition, so when in doubt, always consult with a trained mental health professional. As always, trust your instincts. If you’re concerned, get help for your child and don’t wait.

Keep in mind that the goal here is for our kids to learn to cope with life without us, however long it takes. 

*Jerome Kagan studies: D. Goleman, Social Intelligence, p. 160.