Coping with a Clingy Child

Are you the parent struggling to leave your child’s school each day as he clings to your legs, screaming and crying?  Is every morning a struggle to get yourself ready for work and your kid ready for childcare, while she delays in every way imaginable until you’re shrieking in frustration, and then she looks at you with big tear-filled eyes and says, “Wanna stay home wif you!” and you feel like a selfish ogre?

I’ve been there.  Nicholas had a very hard time parting from me, beginning when he was a toddler, even though he’d been going to childcare since infancy.  It was a long, hard journey to peel off my Velcro Baby and grow him into a 12-year-old who casually says goodbye and walks out to travel alone on public transit.  Learning to handle separations smoothly was difficult for me as well as for him: Even at times when I was eager to get on with my day apart from him, his clinging made me feel guilty and doubtful about whether I was harming him.

The good news is that it did work out eventually.  Nicholas has become a little more independent every year and now actually has times when he doesn’t want me around!  As early as kindergarten, I could see some ways in which my insistence on routinely parting from him had strengthened his ability to cope, more than staying with him would have done.

The other good news is that my clingy child was not my fault.  His little sister Lydia was born with a different personality; within the first few weeks, I could see that baby Lydia didn’t need to be held as constantly and wasn’t as anxious about my absence as baby Nicholas had been.  I didn’t create Nicholas’s need for me by being there for him too much; I was responding to the needs he expressed.  Lydia is now a 3-year-old who sometimes resists going to preschool or letting her parent leave her there–and when this happens, we use the same strategies with her that we did with Nicholas–but she is much more typical in her ability to separate from us.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about how to keep everyone’s sanity intact with a clingy child in the family.  (If your struggles relate to bedtime, specifically, check out our similarly gradual journey to getting Nicholas to sleep alone.)

Routines and Rituals

Having a specific way to say goodbye helps to reduce the dragging-out of the painful transition from being with you to being without you.  Rituals may be helpful earlier in the process, too, or for greeting each other when you’re together again.

Nicholas had just turned two years old when he started going to group childcare/preschool instead of a lady who cared for him in her home along with just a few other kids.  The new environment, with multiple adults as well as a larger group of kids, overwhelmed him at first.  He wanted me to stay with him while he warmed up to being there . . . but then he never reached a point of feeling ready for me to go!  No matter how careful I was to ease him into an activity and then say a gentle goodbye, he freaked out every time!  His teachers told me that he always calmed down soon after I left and enjoyed many activities during the day, but all I was seeing was his morning tantrum and then (when I arrived toward the later end of pickup time) his glancing up every few seconds to see if I was there and running to glom onto me when I was.

After a few weeks, the teachers noticed that Nicholas loved doing the Chicken Dance.  When we arrived, we’d hang up his coat and put his lunch in the fridge, then I’d sit on the floor with Nicholas in my lap and talk about what the friends were doing today, and then a teacher would start the Chicken Dance music.  Nicholas and all the friends would start flapping their elbows and gathering on the dancing rug, and I could make my exit!

When he moved into the next classroom, the change of scene set off a new wave of anxiety and tantrums.  That’s when we developed The Magic Goodbye.  I don’t recall exactly where this came from, but once Nicholas had tried it, he was hooked!  He required this precise routine every time he separated from me until first grade.  I can’t promise that it will work with every child, but when I told Lydia that I was going to teach her The Magic Goodbye, she accepted its magical power right away!

The Magic Goodbye

Kneel so that you are face-to-face with your child.  Hold each of his hands in one of yours.

Move both hands up and down–like a handshake with both hands at once.  Say, “A double hand-shaking!”

Now hold child’s fingertips in your fingertips.  Wiggle both hands lightly.  “A double finger-shaking!”

Hold child’s arms just below the elbows.  Move both arms up and down.  “A double arm-shaking!”

Move child’s arms so his hands clap together 5 times.  “A clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!”

Hug child.  “And a big hug for my very special Nicholas to last alllll day!”

Smile.  Stand up.  Say, “Goodbye!” and GO!

Kindergarten meant a change of school for Nicholas.  In preparation, he confirmed many times that I would come into his classroom and get him settled and then do The Magic Goodbye.  I did.  I did it every day, even as the other kindergartners’ parents stopped coming in with them.  Even so, Nicholas remained anxious throughout the school year and often resisted leaving for school in the morning.  This was a bigger problem than in preschool because public school has a defined start time and tardy penalties, and that start time was earlier than the time we’d been leaving the house for preschool.  Just getting ready on time was stressful, and then Nicholas would throw a fit and refuse to leave the house, or he’d whine and argue all the way to school.  It was horrible.

Our solution to this problem came unexpectedly in the first week of first grade.  Nicholas was asking me to tell stories, while we walked to school, about when I was in first grade.  That was my one year in Catholic school, where I learned many songs, including “This Is the Day”, a two-part song which I demonstrated using my two hands like puppets to sing the two parts.  Nicholas was charmed by this song, and it soon became a rule that we sang it every morning, each of us using one hand and singing one part.  We did it every school day and day-camp day for three years!  We still do it on the occasional days when we leave the house together.

Gradual Transitions: Good or Bad?

When your child is going somewhere new and feels anxious about your leaving her there, it seems logical that you should stay a while to help her get used to it.  Does that work?

It can, if you do it right.  If your child’s teacher suggests it, listen carefully to the procedure she’s suggesting; teachers have seen what works well with a lot of children in their specific classroom environment.  Doing it the way they do it at this school helps to get your child into the groove of following school routines.  If the teacher is being flexible about how you handle it, here are some tips:

  • If it’s the first time your child has attended any school or group care, spell out a plan: You will stay the whole time the first day, leave after snack the second day, stay 10 minutes the third day, something like that.  Stick to the plan.  Remind your child each day of what’s going to happen.
  • If it’s not your child’s first experience, only a new one, limit your stay to 10 minutes or less.
  • Talk your child through the process of putting the things she brought (lunch, jacket, backpack) in their places and getting the things she needs to be ready for the first activity.  Coach her to do it rather than doing it for her so that she learns to do it for herself rather than learning that she needs you to start her day.
  • Two or three minutes sitting in your lap, or standing leaning against your leg, may be necessary before your child is ready to join the group.
  • Show interest in the other kids and what they are doing, then step back while your child explores the room.  Don’t let him make it a “Mama and I are exploring this place together” thing. (Nicholas’s issue was not so much shyness or anxiety as specifically wanting Mama to do everything with him, so boundary setting was important.)
  • Don’t get into a long conversation with the teacher.  Let him be available to interact with your child and others.
  • If other children are curious about yours and approach her, but she dramatically pulls away, hides her face, refuses to speak, etc.–say, “Lydia needs some time to get used to being here.  Please wait a few minutes to talk to her.”  If the other child then wants to talk to you, that’s fine; overhearing your conversation gives your child a model for conversations of her own.
  • Definitely don’t conceal the fact that you will be leaving your child here without you!  I recently talked with a mom who thought she’d soften the blow for her clingy 4-year-old by attending preschool with him for the entire first week and then “throw out the idea of him being there alone on some days”–as if it were optional!  No, that’s like a bait-and-switch, likely to upset the child or to result in his refusing to go unless you’ll stay.  Tell him the plan well in advance, and reinforce that you know he’ll have a good time even if he sometimes misses you.
  • If your child ever tells you to leave, it’s time to leave!  Don’t stay longer because you promised to stay 10 minutes today and it’s only been 8 minutes, or whatever.  Respect your child’s judgment if she’s ready to part from you earlier than expected.

Overall, I recommend the “stay a while” approach only if you’re sure your child is going to have a hard time with your departing quickly.  It might be easier than you think!

Find One Friend

One of my earliest memories is going with my father to a church we’d never attended before.  “She just turned four,” he said to the lady in charge of Sunday school, and she led us to the right classroom, where she introduced me to a specific little girl: “This is Jenny.  She’ll be your friend and show you everything.”  She was right!  Not only was Jenny an adept Sunday-school tour guide and very friendly, but she was one of my best friends in high school, and we’ve kept in touch for most of the past 40 years!

You might not have quite such success, but if you notice a child who seems particularly friendly, ask her to show your child around.  Another option is to ask the teacher in advance to arrange a special buddy for your child.  This is especially helpful when your child is the only new one (rather than the beginning of a new grade for everyone).

Go with the Grown-ups

One of the best reasons for school and childcare is to give kids the advantage of learning from more people than just their own family.  Interacting with people the same age is important in many ways, but nurturing your child’s relationships with adults other than yourself is crucial to relaxing that clingy attachment.

I went to preschool two half-days a week when I was 3.  I already knew one of the teachers because she lived nearby, and the other teacher made a point of connecting with me one-on-one when I first visited the school, so I came in there feeling that at least the grown-ups were safe while I was among these strange kids.  I suspect I spent a lot of time at first sticking near the teachers and talking with them.  I don’t remember being 3 in a lot of detail, but I know I often used this approach later.  For instance, I found elementary school recess overwhelming, so I would go chat with the playground aide; even if that particular aide was not really into being my pal, I knew that staying near the aide would mean no kids could get away with doing anything scary to me unobserved.

Nicholas was a very adult-oriented young child.  He played with the other kids, yes, but he also spent a lot of time talking with his teachers.  At the end of his very first day of school, when he was barely 2 years old, I arrived to find him sprawled on the floor asleep; the teachers explained that he had not napped at naptime (thus, he later passed out from exhaustion) so after a while they let him come and sit with them, and it was at that point that they realized how well he could talk!  He’d been very quiet all morning, shyly watching the other kids, but in this calmer setting it took only slight conversational overtures to get him chattering.  Throughout his preschool years, when I asked Nicholas about his day, conversations with teachers usually were among the interesting events.

So, if you can help your child connect with the teachers, that may be very helpful in setting up the feeling that school is a positive experience.

Your Own Space for Your Own Feelings

It’s really hard not to get upset when your child is upset!  More than once, I wound up in tears when my sobbing toddler wouldn’t let go of my leg and was acting like I was abandoning him in a torture chamber!  The problem with breaking down in front of your kid is that it reinforces the kid’s perception that something terrible is happening.  So, do your best to stay calm…

And then, as soon as you’re out of the building, give yourself a minute!  Go ahead and cry, yell, kick something, or whatever helps to vent your feelings of sadness and frustration that this isn’t going better.  Let those feelings out so that you can move away from them and get on with your day.

It’s hard to be a parent who also has a job.  The two sets of responsibilities tug at each other, demanding your time and your brainpower.  Sometimes, no matter how much you love your career and need your income, you’ll feel like you shouldn’t be going to work because your child needs you.  It sucks!

But it can be just as difficult to be a parent who’s at home while the kids are in school.  Everywhere you look are reminders of your kids, so their absence is palpable.  When you’re not literally at home, a lot of your errands keep you constantly thinking of the family that’s not with you, and the ease of going places without the kids might make you feel guilty.  These days, there’s a lot of talk about how truly good mothers home-school their kids, so you can’t even tell yourself, “They have to go to school.”

Whether your time away from your kids is spent earning money or keeping house, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all you have to do while simultaneously feeling like you’re not doing enough!  But try to give yourself some grace by accepting that this is where you are now, this is your day while your child is having his day, and it’s okay that you don’t share every minute of your day because dang it, you’re not the same person.  Both of you will learn more today by having your separate experiences and then telling each other about them, than if you stayed together all the time.

Take It Year by Year

All these special routines, all this strategizing, all this drama to pry your child off you for a few hours a day–and it feels like it’s going on forever!  Be alert, though, for the changes that happen each year (or even every few months or weeks) and ready to adapt as your child is ready.

For us, adjusting the separation routine for each year of elementary school worked very well.  Each of these changes was resisted by Nicholas when I first announced it, but I held firm, and the amount of time it took him to get used to the new routine and stop complaining was shorter every year!  Here’s how it worked:

  • Kindergarten: I walked to school with him, waited for the bell to ring, went into his classroom, stayed 5-10 minutes while he got settled, and did The Magic Goodbye.
  • First grade: I walked to school with him, waited for the bell to ring, walked him to the door of his classroom, and did The Magic Goodbye in the hallway.  After a couple of months, he told me he didn’t need The Magic Goodbye anymore, and we changed to a brief hug and each of us saying the words, “Bye! Have a good day! Love you!”
  • Second grade: I walked to school with him, we hugged and said, “Bye! Have a good day! Love you!”, and then I left him in the crowd outside the school and walked away to catch my bus to work.
  • Third grade: I walked with him to the foot of the steps that lead uphill to the school.  We said, “Bye! Have a good day! Love you!” and then I went to work.  He was now embarrassed to be seen hugging his mom in public.  (Lydia was born about six weeks before Nicholas finished third grade.  I literally walked him to school while I was in labor–at a very early stage–and, having given birth on Saturday morning, walked him part of the way on Monday.  He suggested that I walk one block more each day, which was perfect for my recovery.)
  • Fourth grade: I walked with him to the corner of our block, we said, “Bye! Have a good day! Love you!”, and then he walked the rest of the way to school by himself.  The original idea was that he would turn toward the school while Lydia and I turned toward the bus stop, and I would take her to childcare and then go to work.  But there were a lot of days when she or I were not ready to go at the time Nicholas had to leave, so I’d leave Lydia at home with Daniel while I walked with Nicholas.
  • Fifth grade: We said, “Bye! Have a good day! Love you!” and sometimes hugged before he left for school; I’d walk to the corner with him if I happened to be ready at the same time.  Often, though, he was eager to walk with friends.

He’s still going to the same school (it’s K-8; he’s now in seventh grade) and occasionally asks me to walk him to school so we can talk about something, or to drive him to school because it’s raining or he’s bringing something heavy.  More than 95% of school days, he simply says goodbye and leaves the house–but the specific words for saying goodbye remain our habit.

I wish I could go back and tell my 2007 self how well this would work out.  I’m writing it for everyone who feels as despondent and inadequate and resentful as I did in 2007.  This stage will pass.  It will get better.

(Meanwhile, Lydia keeps asking, “When can I walk to school alone?”  She’s 3 years old, and her school is 2 miles away!  Different kid, different attitude.)

Too Hard?  Do It Anyway!

It’s easy for first-world parents to feel we’re not doing enough.  Especially if the principles of Attachment Parenting informed the way you raised your baby, it’s difficult to ease off the idea that you must meet your child’s every need.  Distinguishing what she truly needs from what she wants can be tricky, and sometimes what a child wants because it feels comfortable is not what she needs to grow.

Don’t home-school or quit your job just because your child demands that you must hold him always.  Appreciate that he loves you, tell him regularly that you love him too, but keep insisting on some time apart.  It will be good for both of you.

The exact details of what your child needs at what age, and of what you can do to make your parallel lives function effectively, will be different for every family.  I hope my example of how I’ve gradually gotten my kid out the door will give you some useful ideas, anyway.  If you want to share details of what worked for you, please leave a comment.

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