BEHAVIOUR

Understanding Clinginess in Children

Contents

  1. What is clinginess? 
  2. What is Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?
  3. How do you deal with a clingy child?
  4. What causes extreme clinginess?
  5. How to help your clingy child

 

If you have a clingy child, you’ve probably been wondering or even worrying about the behaviours you see in your child. While clinginess is typically a normal part of child development, it’s important for parents to be skilled in supporting their children through this challenging phase of their young lives. 

In this article, we’ll discuss what clinginess is, talk about separation anxiety disorder, and suggest ways to help clingy children through their struggles.

 

What is clinginess?

 

A clingy child is a child who experiences strong emotional reactions to being separated from their parent or caretaker. If you’re a parent, you may not need an explanation of what clinginess is…chances are that you’ve probably experienced a clingy child at some point! Clinginess in toddlers is a very common problem.

While having your little one by your side (or on your hip) 24/7 may seem like a sweet, close connection between you and your child, it can actually be very draining and can prevent you from completing work and other tasks that you need to get done in your day. 

It’s important for parents to understand what clinginess is truly about, and not just how it manifests in the relationship between you and your child. In the eyes of parents, clinginess entails an inability to be alone due to a child being constantly attached to them. It can feel quite overwhelming and frustrating. In the eyes of the clingy child, clinginess is a cry for protection, support, approval, and love. 🤱

Kids are biologically programmed to develop strong attachments to their parents, and especially their mothers. For babies and young children, their parents or caretakers usually represent safety, comfort and love – and the strong attachments they have can cause issues as the child becomes more independent. A clingy baby is only following natural instincts. 

As your child begins to explore the world around them more independently, they will develop their understanding of things rapidly. When it comes time for big milestones like starting kindergarten or primary school, the transition and increased separation from parents can be difficult. In times of change, children are much more likely to exhibit clingy behaviours and may seem to convert into needy children. 

Clinginess is very common in toddlers but generally starts to taper off as kids get older. Kids can display clingy behaviour from toddlerhood until they’re primary school age, and some kids struggle beyond those years too. 

 

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?

 

Clinginess is a normal and common part of childhood development, and it will usually come and go at different times from babyhood up to early adolescence. 

Sometimes, children experience severe discomfort when separated from their parent, caregiver or other ‘safe’ person – even more discomfort than for what is normal for their developmental age. Parents will often notice a change in their child's behaviour. These children may be experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder, also known as SAD. 

Separation anxiety is diagnosed in children who struggle with symptoms like these:

  • Worrying at the thought of being separated from their parent
  • Intense fear that something will happen to their parent
  • Nightmares about separation
  • Unable to complete tasks due to worrying/spending all their time attached to their parent


What is clingy behaviour in children?

 

Clinginess in children can manifest in different ways depending on the age of the child and their particular situation. Babies, toddlers and primary school age children commonly display signs of clingy behaviour. 

A lot of parents have issues managing clingy children, and the clingy behaviour they see may involve the following:

  • Crying when their parent leaves the room
  • Physically clinging to parent both at home and in social situations outside the home
  • Meltdowns or tantrums when parents are leaving the house/dropping them off at school or kindergarten

As a parent, it’s important that you’re prepared with techniques for handling tantrums and can support your little one through the big feelings they’re experiencing. It’s also wise to maintain great communication with your child’s teachers if they’ve just started a new school to ensure that everyone’s on the same page and prepared to support your child in the best way possible. 🙌

 

What causes clinginess?

 

Parents often want to find out the root cause of an issue, so that they can fix what’s wrong. Unfortunately, clinginess and SAD are struggles that can be hard to pinpoint the cause of, making them difficult to “fix”.

In a lot of cases, clinginess in children appears to be hereditary, and children with a sensitive disposition or temperament may be more prone to clinginess. But clinginess or SAD can also be caused by the following outside factors:

  • Moving homes
  • The death of a loved one
  • A new sibling
  • Divorce
  • Starting a new school
  • General major life changes or events

Children will usually display more clinginess during times of change. If the family dynamic is changing or big transitions are taking place, it’s normal for kids to express more clinginess and need for connection with their parents as they adjust to the changes. 

Kids can also be quite sensitive and pick up on challenges their parents are facing, even if their parents are putting on a brave face during a divorce, a death in the family, unemployment, mental health challenges or any other issue they may be struggling with. A child may display clingy behaviours as a response to the imbalance they pick up on in the family sphere. 👨‍👩‍👧‍👦

How clingy a child is may also depend on their temperament or personality – some children are more sensitive than others and feel things deeply, while others are more carefree and may be able to handle changing circumstances better. 

Parents may very well notice very different behaviours in their children during tumultuous times, and it’s important to support your child in the best possible way as they navigate the changes. 

If your child is having a difficult time coping with big changes in life, such as a death in the family, child counselling may be a great option to help them through a rough patch. 

 

How can I help my clingy child?

 

There are several ways you can help your child who is exhibiting signs of clinginess or experiencing SAD. 

If you’re dealing with a clingy child, try to understand your child’s viewpoint and situation. If there have been significant changes to your lives, such as divorce, a death in the family or moving house/school, your child may need some time to adapt to their new circumstances. This is perfectly normal, and as a parent you should give the child some extra support to help them through these changes. 

Clinginess and SAD aren’t things that can be “fixed” with a quick trick or a life hack – supporting your child through clinginess and anxiety is an ongoing process that requires patience. A child who is being extra clingy to their caregiver is a child who is seeking extra protection, support, approval, and love. 💕

Here are some ideas of ways to support your child who is acting clingy:

  • Avoid shaming or punishing them for their clingy behavior
  • Be a safe haven for them where they can express any feelings they want to share
  • Spend extra time connecting with them
  • Prepare them in advance for times that you’ll be separated from one another
  • Do everything you can to make them feel safe and supported
  • Be sure to give them praise and encouragement

A lot of kids become clingy when they’re in a new situation or interacting with people they don’t know. This is perfectly normal and appropriate, but it’s important for kids to gradually find their independence separately from their parents. 

For parents, supporting their children through changing circumstances or new situations is key to achieving this independence in a positive and nurturing way. ☝️

If your child is displaying clingy behaviours, you should try to identify what could be contributing to their clinginess and take steps to ease their worries if possible.

Gradually building up to independence with plenty of support and help is a great course of action – for example, if your toddler or preschool child feels very distraught when you go out for the evening, it may be wise to start small: have a grandparent or trusted babysitter take care of them while you go out for a 30 minute walk. As your child starts to see that you will return and that it’s safe to spend time with others, you’ll soon be able to step out for a whole evening. 

Similarly, when your child is starting kindergarten or school, it may be beneficial for you as a parent to spend some time with your child in the new space before leaving them there on their own. This will make it possible for the child to get used to the new environment while still having the safety of their parent nearby.

Clinginess in children is perfectly normal, and usually nothing to worry about. Children often struggle with change, and may just need some time to adapt to a new situation. 

However, if the clingy behaviour you see in your child is causing issues in your lives, for example if your child isn’t able to attend kindergarten or school due to their anxiety over being separated from you, this needs to be taken seriously. 

If you feel that your child is clinging to you in a way that is detrimental to their developmental progress, we recommend that you get in touch with your GP who will be able to advise you on what to do next. 

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