Is your 3-year-old attached to mom too much? Learn how to handle excessive attachment when your child is clingy to one parent.
Sometimes, a strong attachment to mom isn’t always a blessing. Take the case when my then-3-year-old was attached to me… and only me.
Despite my husband having been away at work the whole day, my son wouldn’t want anything to do with him. Instead, he preferred I do everything, from feeding to bathing and even hanging out. Dropping him off at child care was a struggle, since he’d cry and try to run after me as I said goodbye and walked toward the exit.
And when I’d be busy with something, he’d get angry and upset, adding to my already-depleted patience and attention. It made me wonder… Can kids be too attached to their moms?
What to do when your 3-year-old is attached to mom
As understanding as you try to be, having a 3-year-old attached can be problematic for the entire family. Maybe your child is extremely attached to you, wanting to be around you all the time. He demands your full attention every minute of the day and wants you to comfort him when he’s upset.
He wants mommy for everything, from changing his clothes to reading books and tucking him in at bedtime. Meanwhile, when your partner makes a simple request or offer, he runs into your arms crying. But if you make the same request, he willingly complies with zero tears.
To make matters worse, he rarely plays on his own, and doesn’t really have a secure attachment to any toy. He’d rather be by your side than spend time with his siblings.
No wonder you’re worried you’re doing something wrong, or unsure that you’re not being firm enough. How can you address his clinginess and teach him to be more accepting of other people’s offers to help?
As difficult as this is right now, know that this behavior is normal child development and won’t last forever. Not only that, you can take certain steps to make that transition smoother and easier. Take a look at what to do to help your overly attached child take to other adults in his life:
1. Don’t make your child feel guilty
For any parent who has felt “shunned” by his or her child, it’s understandable that this extra attachment can feel discouraging. It’s not easy for your partner to put in so much effort to spend time with your child, only to be rejected over and over. Never mind if he can’t do much about work hours or his schedule.
Still, the last thing you want to do is to make your child feel guilty, or that she’s hurting dad’s feelings. She’s entitled to her feelings and shouldn’t be punished for experiencing them. Show empathy and focus on taking action on nurturing a strong relationship with dad—where he’s a secure base as well.
That said, while you respect your child’s feelings, let her know you can’t always accommodate them. Just because she can feel sad for wanting mom to feed her, that doesn’t mean that you’ll drop everything you’re doing when dad is available to do so.
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2. Don’t deny your child a chance to spend time with others
Part of the reason your child continues to be attached is that he doesn’t have many opportunities to spend time with others. Sometimes, this is your lifestyle: your partner might work long hours while you’re the primary caregiver who’s home with him all day.
But other times, they don’t get the opportunity to be with each other because you’re there all the time.
It might be easier to step in the minute he cries, but that could be contributing to the problem. Stepping back can be hard at first, but you don’t always have to “save the day.”
Instead, allow your partner or another family member to manage without you. One of the easiest things you can do is to simply leave. Get out of the house to grab coffee alone, or take a 20-minute walk each night. This forces your child to adjust to your partner and to “practice” a routine that works for them.
You can also involve dad with household chores more regularly. It’ll help if he does the same tasks, like bathing every night or feeding your child breakfast every morning. That way, your 3-year-old knows that both parents are as capable.
And finally, have dad take him out for quality time. Instead of you stepping out of the house, encourage the both of them to do something fun out and about as well. They can go to the park, grab smoothies, or take a swim at the pool. Allow to the opportunity to create a special bond between the two of them.
3. Don’t give your child a preference
I’m normally a fan of choices (“Do you want to wear the red shorts or the blue ones?”). But with a 3-year-old attached to mom and no one else, giving him a choice isn’t always the best idea.
While choices do empower and give him a voice, save it for matters where you’re okay with either option. Giving him a choice of who he wants to read books with means that he’ll choose mom every time. This doesn’t exactly give others the chance to be with him at all.
Instead, refuse his requests, and simply say, “Time to read books with grandma!” Keep it matter-of-fact, then head straight into action.
Yes, you’ll see tears and tantrums, but consider it a temporary hassle for long-term gains. Over time, his attitude can change, and you can even praise him for good behavior. In the meantime, giving in to every meltdown only reinforces the clingy behavior (and the results) you don’t want to see.
4. Don’t correct your partner in front of your child
Some of us can be “gatekeepers,” preventing our partners from even being able to do anything for the kids because we step in right away. We correct when we see them doing something “wrong” (aka not the way we would’ve done it). We re-do their work, or remind them how to do every little thing.
You can see how this can make dad feel, but have you considered the message it sends to your child?
Seeing you correct your partner all the time makes it seem like dad can’t do anything right. That you’re the one who knows how to do everything, and do it correctly. From her perspective, would you want to go with someone who knows what she’s doing, or someone who seems to be making mistake after mistake?
Avoid correcting your partner at all, or if you really need to, do so in private. It’s okay if he doesn’t give your child her usual snacks, or gives her the red blanket, not the green one. Your child probably won’t mind, and if she does, then this becomes a great opportunity for dad to learn.
But allow that to happen on its own, not by correcting him 24/7.
5. Don’t talk poorly about dad
Whether said in jest or not, comments and complaints about your partner can be making matters worse. Sure, you’re entitled to your own feelings, and especially after an argument, you may not be feeling so positive about him.
But hearing you speak badly about him, or even admitting that he had hurt your feelings, can affect your child’s views as well.
After all, if it seems like dad hurt you, she won’t want the same to happen to her. The next time dad takes her to the bathroom or plays a game, she’ll feel less inclined to do so when she had seen or heard you earlier talking poorly about him.
This doesn’t mean you’re dishonest with your feelings, but be mindful of the message you send to your young child. While you and I know that arguments come and go, she may not understand the complexities of relationships yet.
Should she see or hear you feel upset, do the next best thing and let her witness you and your partner apologize and make up. At least she’ll see that, while arguments happen, so too do resolutions.
6. Encourage your child’s independence
One of the best things to do when your 3-year-old is attached to mom is to increase her independence in the first place.
For instance, she might prefer that you—and not dad—do everything for her, from putting on her shoes to grabbing her snack. But what if you encouraged her to do these tasks on her own more often? Nurturing her independence means she has less need for coming to either of you to do it for her.
The next time she asks you for help, see if she can do it on her own. If she really can’t, do the minimal amount of work until she can do it herself. For instance, if she needs help opening a snack bag, don’t open it completely for her. Instead, tear it just enough for her to open the rest on her own.
As reassuring as it is to have a 3-year-old attached to mom, being super attached isn’t always a good feeling for anyone involved. By being mindful of certain practices, you can help him better adjust to other adults in his life.
To start, don’t give him a preference (especially when there isn’t one), or make him feel guilty for how he feels. Don’t correct or talk poorly about dad, particularly in front of him. Instead, give him plenty of time to spend with dad, and encourage independence so he doesn’t rely on either of you so much.
A healthy attachment is certainly a blessing—in most cases. For the times when he’s too attached, now you have the steps to help him take to other adults besides you.
Get more tips:
- Toddler More Attached to Grandmother? How to Cope with Your Emotions
- What to Do when Your Child Cries at School Drop Off
- 5 Tips to Handle a Clingy Toddler
- What to Do when Your Toddler Doesn’t Want Daddy
- Stranger Anxiety in Toddlers: 5 Things Every Parent Should Know
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