This week's early childhood development question for Dr. B comes from Wendy of The Pickles. Her super-needy four-year-old Angie wants to be around mom at all times. Wendy wants to know how to encourage independence and help Angie find a way to happily entertain herself. After all, how's a mom supposed to go to work/clean her bathtub/pour herself a proper drink when there's 35 extra pounds clinging to her leg?
Dear Dr. B,
My daughter just turned 4. She goes to school three days a week, spends the other two days with her grandparents and weekends at home with me and her dad. She's an only child and wants almost constant interaction - especially with mommy and grandma. She's clingy. She wants to sit on my lap almost constantly. Every sentence begins with "mom". She will entertain herself for short periods of time, but it drives her crazy if I try to work on my computer. If I go into her room and simply sit there, she will happily entertain herself. If I leave, she follows.
How do I encourage her to entertain herself more?
Clinginess is a natural reaction to feeling fearful or anxious about something. In young children, clinginess is often a sign of anxiety caused by being separated from a primary caregiver. It is also common for children to exhibit clinginess when things feel unpredictable due to changes occurring in their environment (e.g., entering school, change in caregivers or routine, new baby, divorce, or a death in the family).
1) Do not ignore, overtly discourage, or punish clingy behavior: When young children exhibit clingy behavior, it is generally viewed as a positive sign that your child feels close and secure in your care and seeks you out for comfort when they are feeling distress. Responding to clingy behavior by ignoring or punishing it may make your child less likely to come to you when she is feeling scared or vulnerable.
2) Be responsive to your child’s needs and feelings: Try to identify what might be causing the clinginess and describe her feelings so she begins to understand it. For example, “You wish mommy could play with you right now. I wish I could play too but I have to do work. I promise to play with you when I’m finished.” By describing her feelings and expressing your own feelings of wanting to be there for her, she will feel understood and be less likely to need your physical presence as reassurance.
3) Increase predictability: Try to make things more predictable for your child by making the schedule or routine as concrete as possible. Although we know our children's schedule, they may not. Young children do not have a clear sense of time, live mostly in the here and now, and have shorter memory spans. Using pictures to depict their weekly schedule (especially when it changes every two to three days), telling them what to expect next, and reminding them when you will be available to spend time with them (e.g., "Remember, our special playtime is after dinner") will help reduce anxiety by bringing a sense of orderliness and structure to their day.
4) Build autonomy: Children build self-confidence through mastering new tasks and contributing to their environment in a helpful way. Create tasks that your child can help you with at home such as setting the table, cooking, or cleaning up their toys. The more confident a child feels in their abilities, the more secure they will feel in any environment.
5) Praise steps toward independence: Praise your child for tasks or activities that they are able to do independently (e.g., household chores, playing nicely on their own or with peers). Praising your child for doing things independently sends the message that they are capable of doing things for themselves and should feel confident without your close supervision and guidance.
6) Schedule special playtime: Some children feel a constant need for affection because they are unsure when or if the attention will be available. Schedule 5 to 10 minutes every day when you can provide your child with undivided attention (i.e., no computer, conversations with others, cell phones, or other distractions).
7) Separations and saying good-bye: Use a consistent phrase when saying goodbye. Be brief, do not linger, and do not overreact if your child gets upset after saying goodbye. Overreacting will only feed into her anxiety and make it worse, while lingering will increase the likelihood that she will continue to cry or seek your affection to prolong your stay each time.
8) Don’t sneak out when you leave: Some parents find it easier to sneak out when children have a hard time or throw a tantrum each time they leave. However, this will only increase your child’s anxiety and clinginess because they will be scared to engage in any activity too long for fear that you may sneak out and disappear at any moment.
9) Increase social activities: Socializing with children of the same age can help children develop attachments to their peers and can build social skills necessary for interacting with people outside of the immediate family. Set up regular play dates with a peer of your child’s choice from school or schedule a class or weekly trips to the park.
10) Stay with your child during social activities: Play with your child and their friends until they are comfortable playing on their own. Be available during play dates to teach and model social skills, respond to conflict, and monitor situations that may cause stress or anxiety.
Finally, clinginess is usually temporary and passes after children adjust to changes and develop skills to be more independent and interact with their peers. But if clinginess continues and leads to lengthy tantrums and resistant behavior when separated from parents and refusal to go to school or engage in social activities, you may want to consult a mental health specialist.
— Dr. B
Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development (ages 0-5). If you have a question for Dr. B, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.