Is your child overly attached, refusing to leave your side? Learn 5 ways to help your clingy toddler feel comfortable alone or with others.
My clingy toddler refused to leave my side (even at home!) and shadowed me everywhere I went.
Getting a load of laundry done or tackling the dishes in the sink felt like a miracle. He’d scream if someone else so much as extended their arms to give him a hug. And socializing with other kids in a play date or family party didn’t help at all.
On one hand, having a toddler cling to your side can be an ego boost, a bit of reassurance that he has a secure attachment. But boy, does it get tiring after a while, especially when his clingy behavior came without warning.
Perhaps you can relate.
Maybe your toddler roots firmly to your lap, refusing to play with other kids at the park. Play dates and parties? Nope. She wants nothing to do with anyone but you. Even getting dad to pry her away doesn’t help—she wants you nearby within eyesight, and whines if you’re not.
It doesn’t help when she’s extra clingy right at bedtime when you’re ready to end the day. If you happen to be pregnant, too? It’s enough to muster the remaining patience you have.
5 ways to handle a clingy toddler
So, what do you do if your toddler has separation anxiety and can’t bear to be apart from you? When—as horrible as you feel admitting it—you dread spending time with her?
Thankfully, my story had a happy ending, and I know yours will, too. As with most developmental stages, even challenging ones like dealing with a clingy toddler will come to pass. Many toddlers cling to their parents, even when every other child seems to do the opposite.
But that doesn’t mean you’re left waiting for her to stop being so attached, or wondering if something could be wrong. You can do plenty to reassure and ease her separation anxiety and make life much easier for both of you.
1. Be mindful of new changes
Kids seem to behave extra clingy and attached for no reason, don’t they? They might’ve been fine all along when, out of nowhere, they refuse to leave our side. All those months of independence and being fine with others are gone, just like that.
Except I’ve found that many times, their behavior is tied to changes at home, both big and small.
You see, she may not be able to explain that she feels anxious about adjusting to school—instead, she clings to your side and throws a tantrum. Digging deep into changes contributing to her behavior will help you be more patient and empathetic when she has a meltdown.
Then, establish consistency in whatever way you can. Maybe it’s doing the same rituals before daycare drop-off, or eating meals at the same times. Offer a lovey for comfort, and shower her with kisses at bedtime. The predictability of her daily life will help ease these clingy phases.
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“Hi Nina! Thanks for all you write. It’s very inspiring and more than anything, ticks all the boxes of the things I’ve been experiencing since I’ve had my 4 year old and 2 year old boys! I find my 4 year old quite demanding and defiant, but like you say, I can’t beat his personality down into fitting into what I think is suitable. Thanks again, Nina! So comforting to know I’m not the only one experiencing all these small kid emotions — it’s great to be reassured it’s NORMAL!” – Margaret Biggsy
2. Watch how you respond
It’s easy to feel impatient or get upset with your clingy child, but managing your response is so important. Avoid using a harsh tone, but do hold firm and don’t give in to unrealistic demands. You’re the one in charge of the situation.
Acting distressed or making a big deal will only make her feel like there’s something to dread when she is away from you. Instead, reassure her you’ll come back like you always have (and follow through when you say you will!). Your job is to be confident and reassuring, but firm.
3. Allow independence and autonomy
Your toddler will behave less clingy the more comfortable she is making her own decisions. This helps build her confidence to take action without your help all the time.
How? Encourage self-sufficiency and independence. Rearrange your home to make it easier to do things on her own. Allow her to make her snacks and show her where to find them. Make the items accessible in lower drawers instead of hidden and out of reach.
Kids love to help. Take advantage by asking them to help around the house! I like to give my boys a rag and ask them to “dust” the furniture. It’s a win-win for both of us. The house gets cleaner, I get a little breathing room, and they feel like they’re contributing to the family.
4. Encourage regular time with others
Up to this point, your toddler has grown used to you—and only you. Avoiding others to avert a meltdown may seem like the easier solution, but doing so only reinforces her belief that she should stay with you.
Instead, encourage regular time with other people to help her feel less anxious and more comfortable without you nearby.
Schedule regular time with your partner or other trusted adults in her life. Implement a weekly routine like Saturday afternoons with grandma or nighttime baths with dad. Encourage her to get used to being with other people besides you.
Stretching a notch above her comfort zone will ease her into feeling comfortable with others. The only way she can get used to being away from you is if she has plenty of opportunities to do so.
And make sure to put your foot down and avoid entertaining her unreasonable demands. For instance, if it’s dad’s turn to bathe, then it’s dad’s turn to bathe—even if she’s crying the whole time.
Otherwise, she learns that you’ll eventually cave in when she throws a fit. Or worse, that there is something wrong with having anyone else bathe her but you.
5. Allow your toddler to experience his feelings
Your toddler isn’t trying to be difficult. After all, he’s learning how to deal with big emotions without the full vocabulary to talk about how he feels.
Never punish him for his separation anxiety or push him to mingle with others when he doesn’t feel like it. Instead, show empathy for how he feels and reassure him that everyone feels this way sometimes. That you would also feel the same if you were in his shoes. Give him the little extra support he needs.
Don’t make him feel shame or distress for having a hard time being away from you or for not playing with other kids. He might be introverted and quiet during this clingy toddler phase, but that also lends itself to rich imaginations and the ability to see his world in a creative way.
Make him feel heard and understood, even with the uncertainty or unfamiliarity of his environment. You’ve been his secure base since he was an infant. Validate his feelings as part of normal child development so he’ll be able to flourish on his own.
Clinginess can drive any mom crazy, especially if you need a break, have a new sibling coming, or are exhausted from being the only one your toddler prefers.
Ease her into feeling comfortable with other people. Be reassuring yet firm, encouraging her to try things on her own. Think about looming life changes that make it hard for her to separate. Pencil in time for her to play with other children and adults. And above all, make her feel heard and supported.
Continue to build on a strong relationship, conveying your confidence in her whenever you’re apart. It’ll go a long way in helping her become the independent toddler she can be.
Get more tips:
- Little Ways You’re Actually Judging Your Child’s Emotions
- How to Comfort a Child Who Misses a Parent
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Children
- Scared at Extracurricular Activities? How to Help Your Child Cope
- How to Get Things Done with a Toddler
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