As I’m writing this, my four-year-old is wrapped around my leg. He follows me to the toilet; he’s next to me when I do the dishes, and sits next to me as I run my coaching calls. He won’t go to sleep without me, doesn’t want to meet with friends, and won’t let me take the trash out unless he goes with me. Oh, man.
But he was never like this. On the contrary, he’s the most independent, self-reliant child I’ve ever met.
So what happened?
Why Are Some Children Clingy?
I work with many parents who are worried their children are “too attached.” Before I answer the question, why are some children clingy, I’d like you to consider the opposite of being clingy, that is, being independent, comfortable with being apart, thriving on our own.
At the essence of “being independent” is a strong sense of self. For us, human beings, to be comfortable with who we are – we need to know who we are. We need experiences that teach us what we enjoy and what we don’t enjoy, and we need to be reassured by those we are connected to that the decisions we made for ourselves are worthy. We need other human beings to learn who we like and who we don’t, we need to be exposed to the whole world so that we’d be able to make up our minds about where in this world we want to be and how we want to show up. And we need to feel validated for the way we show up.
When we don’t get to define who we are, the world becomes an unsafe place as we are drowning in uncertainties. What will I do? What will I say? How will they react? How would I feel about their reaction? These are existential questions we must have answers to, and when we don’t, we often choose the safest option: nothing.
Or, to be exact, nothing while holding to the only safe place we know – MOM. When life is so scary and unpredictable, we stay put. For children, who often experience life as frightening and uncertain just because they are only starting to learn how this world works, mom is the only safe place.
5 Reasons Why Your Child is Clingy
If you judge your child as clingy or too attached and he’s younger than three – please don’t worry about it. He’s still too young to show the independence you are looking for. If, however, your child is older and you still consider him clingy, at least one of the reasons below will explain why:
- Children who lack experiences lack the time needed to define who they are and create their own safe places. They will cling to their parents for a sense of safety and protection.
- Children who are constantly stopped from whatever it is that they want to do for reasons that only have to do with us, their parents, will cling to their parents as they’ll grow to believe that we are the only ones who know what to do.
- Children who are experiencing significant changes in their lives (such as a move, the beginning of a school year, etc.) will cling to their parents for a sense of stability and predictability.
- Children who are uncertain of their connection to their parents will continuously seek it and will cling to their parents whenever they can. Imagine a person lost in the desert, who suddenly finds a source of water. He’d never leave it, will he?
- Children who lack a sense of autonomy and control over their lives will cling to their parents for a false sense of independence (and will behave in ways we’d call “bossy” and will show resistance and defiance).
Is Your Child Suddenly Clingy?
If your child was easy going and outgoing, independent, enjoying his own company and the company of others, and suddenly gripped to you and won’t let go – something changed for him.
I know what made my four-year-old cling to me and never release – COVID and quarantine. You see, he’s a wild animal 🙂 He loves the outdoors, the thrill of exploration, sportive activities, and friends, he loves his friends and thrives in their presence. He enjoys daycare, and the routine that we created for him fits him perfectly. COVID changed everything for him. For the last two months, he couldn’t do any of the things he likes doing or see the people he loves seeing.
The sense of certainty and clarity, freedom, and autonomy was taken away from him, and although we explained seven million times, he’s only four, he doesn’t get it.
These are existential needs – people lose themselves when these go unmet. And that’s what happened to Ilay. He lost himself, and the only certain thing in his life now is me. And he won’t let go.
Does it annoy me? Sure. Does it rob me of my autonomy and freedom? It sure does. Do I find myself feeling touched out and just wanting to leave? I sure do. So I sit with these feelings, I give them place and space, and I practice acceptance because this situation will remain until the sense of empowerment is back to Ilay’s life.
10 Ways to Empower a Clingy Child
While there’s nothing we can do to change the situation, there are ten ways to empower a clingy child and to encourage his independence:
- Encourage independence (but don’t force it). Actively look for everything that your child does on his own and comment on it. If he put his shoes on by himself, if he brushed his teeth or entertained himself for a few minutes – let him know that you saw that. And when he’s not ready to do something, don’t push him. He’s just telling you that he needs you in that place to feel safe. Independence is acquired; it cannot be taught or forced.
- Meet clingy behavior with love. These annoying, clingy behaviors mean that your child feels safe and secure in your presence; it is a good thing 🙂 If you ignore these behaviors or punish the child for it – your child will no longer feel safe in your presence, and we don’t want that. Whatever he gives you – give it back tenfold. Yes, it’s hard.
- Emotion Coach Your Child: Give your child’s feelings names and presence. Help him understand why he feels the way that he feels and let him know that you are right there with him, with no judgment. Here’s how to emotion coach your child in five steps.
- Make Life Predictable: As much as you can and only to the extent that works for your family – create a routine and a sense of predictability. Always share tomorrow’s plans the night before, take your child’s opinion into consideration and have him plan the days together with you.
- Empower Your Child: Children feel powerful and secure when their need for autonomy is met, when they know who they are and what they can bring into this world. Create age-appropriate “jobs” your child can do, give him responsibilities that he would like, and empower him for following through.
- Create Mindful 1-on-1 Time: Even when you and your child are together, it doesn’t mean you are meeting his emotional needs. When we set special times for connection, let the child know that this time is 100% ours, with no phones or distractions, children thrive. When we have anchors like these set throughout the week, we give our children the knowledge that we are there and that our connection is secure. We also teach them that we need it as much as they do, and this is super important 🙂
- Always Be Honest: Be honest about when you leave, be clear about when you come back. Don’t sneak out. Take responsibility for your actions and empathize with your child’s feelings without judgment.
- Create Empowering Opportunities: Find what your child is good at and encourage that. If you have your fears about what your child wants to do, acknowledge that these are your fears and that if he doesn’t share these fears, he can do as he likes. Experiencing success is one of the most critical aspects of learning who we are, and we are much more likely to succeed in doing something we chose to do. Allow your child to decide who he is.
- Stay With Your Child When He Asks for You. You want your child to feel safe, and if he needs you by his side until he is secure on his own – be there. This period will pass and, believe it or now, you will miss it.
- Allow Freedom: Freedom to be, freedom to say, freedom to think, freedom to want, freedom to ask, freedom to play… We often take our children’s words and actions personally, and in an attempt to spare us from further pain, we take away their freedom. What kids do and what they say has nothing to do with us – it’s just them expressing themselves and sharing their needs and feelings in the limited way that they know. Don’t create more pain for yourself. Make your life easier.
I hope that these ten tips to empower a clingy child will help you to encourage your child’s independence while accepting that, for whatever reason, he is currently not ready for it yet.