Once upon a time, my daughter went through a very clingy toddler phase, and I mean really, very, up please, hold me please, come with me please, I can’t go there alone, up ! up!, carry me, sleep next to me, hold me more, kind of clingy. While she did play independently very well as a toddler, she definitely had clingy moments where she needed loads of extra loving attention.
In playgroups, parents and I discuss clingy toddlers so often. Most toddlers have clingy phases. Some toddlers have very clingy phases. A toddler that is clingy is going through a very normal phase of childhood.
Clingy Behavior in Toddlers is Normal
When a child is clingy, it may be at times overwhelming or tiring, but based on what we know about child development, and specifically, the parts of the brain that help humans keep their cool, assess danger and feel safe, “clinginess” is actually an age appropriate response to many situations.
It’s ok to respond to a clingy toddler, responding will not spoil them or make them forever dependent upon being picked up and carried everywhere. A study at the Univesity of Washington, by Monica Oxford, Ph.D. also supports the notion that more attentive care and less stressful separations can improve sleep and decrease “acting out” or attention seeking (bad) behavior and strenghtens the overall parent-child relationship.
Responding to a clingy child helps them feel safe and promotes a secure attachment.
When your child is unable to un-glue herself from you, try to validate her feelings or any fears.
“I see you don’t want to be far from me.”
“You seem to need to be close to me right now, I’m here for you.”
If you need to separate for a drop off, do so calmly and confidently while providing reassurance and validation.
“I can see you are sad that I am leaving. I will be back to pick you up at 11 am. I love you.”
Ignoring a clingy child will not make them become independent sooner, quite the opposite. A study at the University of Minnesota by Alan Stroufe supports this as well. Most often, ignoring clingy children or making them be alone when they need comfort will prolong the clingy phase based on fear, confusion and lack of a “secure base” or a safe caregiver (mom/dad/other) that the child can count on.
Children are designed to seek out comfort from their parents. This keeps them safe and helps them learn how to keep their cool when overwhelmed, balance a sense of what is really dangerous and what is not, as well as becoming more confident about taking risks on their own. If we could hear all the thoughts from our toddlers, it might sound a bit like
“Oh I see a black furry four legged thingy over there, it’s walking by me…pause, wait, don’t panic… is that a CAT? uhm…better go check in with mom…w a l k over there, hey this walking thing is getting easier, neat, ok now ask UP? UP? Pick up?? Seriously, UP now, black furry thing alert!! So, if mama is calm about this possible CAT sighting then maybe I will be just fine. Look at that, mama is ok with it,she said LOOK it’s a BLACK CAT…mama is smiling. Ok I’m fine. Let me get down please. wiggle, squirm, yeah I know I just got up here, I have more things to discover now…see you soon.”
Yes, one minute a toddler will cling for dear life and the next they may wiggle away. If we consistenly encourage exploration, provide safety and guide with calm confidence, our child will flourish.
Toddler brains are just not mature enough to really know safe from unsafe just yet. Not even at age three or five are children’s brains fully mature enough to really respond well to distress, real or imagined. So turning to us parents when it doubt about the black cat, clowns, rocks, shadows, rain, lady bugs, sticky paint, that lady at the store saying “hi there cutie pie!”, a new food, new noises, lots of people in one room, and so on is normal.
Clingy toddlers do not remain clingy forever. Clingy toddlers are also not spoiled!
Clinging to mom or dad is often a signal that the child is looking for more information. The toddler might be trying to keep it all together or feel frightened. The need to stay very close to you is likely to increase when your child is feeling sick or very tired. Clinging (or checking in often) can also mean that your child is inquisitive and really happy to have a responsive, loving care giver nearby.
It’s certainly not a sign of weakness or that you have spoiled your child and doomed them to dependency.
This too shall pass….
Remember my very clingy daughter? She is now in the first grade and generally a very calm, confident and sweet child. While that phase years ago seemed like it would never pass, it really did. Quite quickly in fact.
Responding to your clingy toddler builds trust.
When you respond to your child calmly, confidently and without invalidating their feelings, you are giving them the information they need to move through and forward their uncertainty. Building this kind of trust will be the basis, going forward to working together towards cooperation. Clingy toddlers, don’t cling forever. When reassured, loved, and cared for in this stage, toddlers may blossom into confident, capable, happy children.
Peace & Be Well,
Being clingy and having trouble with separation are a bit different – for some information on separation anxiety take a look at this post from Hand in Hand Parenting on 20 Ways to heal Separation Anxiety
Toddler Approved: Taming Toddler Clinginess