Parent Coach Aoife Lee discusses why young children can become clingy and what parents can do to help.
A big part of our baby's emotional development is about bonding with mum and dad as well as their caregivers and any other important people who are regularly involved and make a big impact on their world, such as grandparents, cousins, aunt, and uncles.
Babies seek reassurance from adults to manage their natural upset so it’s important that we remain calm and emotionally present for them as best we can. By being present and constant in our care as parents, our children will feel secure and safe as they grow. From all of this, they make the fundamental decision that "I am loved and feel safe" and they carry this inside them always.
Understanding why our children become clingy
From a young age, possibly from around 4 months, a small baby can tell the difference between their parents and other adults who may care for them. It’s recognised that at around 7-9 months, a baby has a specific emotional attachment to mum and will often protest when separating from her. This is often the time when many mothers return to work after maternity leave so it adds to what is already an emotional time for both parents. However, be assured that it is not unusual for a baby to 'make strange’ or to protest about separating from their mum.
In terms of attachment, being clingy is not a sign of insecurity but it's really a sign that your child is secure with you and would like you there to feel your closeness. In fact, the most securely attached infants and toddlers will cling to their parent at times of upset or fear of the unknown. Once they become used to a situation or the fear passes, our children usually feel confident to explore further from their parent.
We know that, more times than not, if our children are comfortable with the other adults around them and know the routine of their day, they will recover almost immediately after the parent leaves. This is actually a good sign of a healthy and strong attachment between you and your child.
Playing a simple game like peek-a-boo with your baby or young child can help them practice that separation and reunion in a very gentle and immediate way! It’s very common for children to become upset when separated during the initial two to three years of their life – often when parents know and accept that this is a part of their emotional development, it eases that ‘pulling at the heartstrings’ for us.
Supporting your child
Be confident in their ability to cope. It can be difficult at times to see your child upset but it's important that you are confident in their ability to cope in times of separation. Be reassured that children will grow through this stage in their life at their own pace while the parent continues on doing what they do best – loving, nurturing and supporting their child.
Trust your instincts and trust those that stay with your child after you leave. Giving them that emotional support with that extra comfort of reassurance when they need it is often all they want from their parent or carer.
Go at your baby’s pace
When you feel ready to build on your baby’s ability to stay with another adult, it’s important to introduce this in a very gradual way. Allow your child to be around other adults regularly whilst in your arms, let them see and feel the interactions between you and those present and avoid insisting that your child goes to another adult, particularly if they become distressed.
Taking it in small steps gives the other adult an opportunity to engage with your baby and at times to respond to their needs if the opportunity arises. Once you see that your child is comfortable and content, he or she is more likely to go to that person, but stay in the room so that your child knows you are there.
This will take patience and time. It is at this point that you can begin to gradually withdraw, taking yourself in and out of the room particularly if your child is engaged in an activity. This approach is often very effective if you need to separate for a short time and are reassured that your child feels comfortable being with another adult.
Always tell your toddler or older child when you’re leaving
This is often one element that parents are unsure of - if you are having to say goodbye make sure they see you leaving, avoid tip-toeing out the door or telling your child that you will return in 5 minutes when you know you won’t.
Although they may get upset, it’s important that your child knows what’s happening as this will build their confidence and help them to find their way of managing their feelings as they are reassured that you are returning.
If you leave something like a picture or a familiar family momentum with your toddler, agree that they will mind it until you return; this in itself is reassuring them that you will be back!
Hide & Seek
One of the traditional games children love to play is ‘Hide and Seek’ and it has a special meaning behind it that makes sense. Dr. Shirah A. Vollmer explains that "We have to cope with separations throughout life. Hide and seek gives the child practice at independence and it gives the child joy in reunification. This game helps a child conquer his fear of autonomy and separation. It is fun to master fear. A game which gives a child a platform to feel powerful endures through time"
As your child grows, it is important to provide this reassurance and a supportive environment for our children to feel secure.