Some toddlers can become very clingy when they are feeling unsafe, unsure or are worried about losing you. Even toddlers who have not been clingy in the past can go through periods where they are clingier. Often, times when they are sick, or tired, or a bit out of their depth can trigger clinginess. Or bigger events, like the birth of a new sibling or starting childcare. It is normal for toddlers to be clingy and it can be useful to think about the function of the clingy behaviour for them and consider if there are any unmet needs for safety or connection. Remember ‘attention-seeking’ is always ‘connection seeking’.
When toddlers cling to you they are signalling that they are feeling fearful and anxious or overwhelmed. Clinging to you and obtaining cuddles and reassurance helps them to downregulate the stress chemicals that are likely flooding their little body and have brought about the clinging behaviour. Toddlers instinctively know that their feelings of insecurity and fear can be calmed only by you and they seek you out until their need for safety and connection is met. They are still lacking the brain structures to understand or calm these feelings by themselves. Therefore, allowing your toddler to be deeply dependent and connected by enveloping them in your arms and meeting their need for connection is an important start in managing clingy behaviours.
Once connection needs are met, toddlers will naturally move into a state of curiosity and play, for it is out of the security of deep dependence that independence will grow.
Here are a number of tips for helping your toddler become comfortable with being away from you.
Check in with your own emotions.
Toddlers will sense how you feel as they are deeply in tune with your emotional state. If you are getting anxious, impatient or irritated it will further increase their feelings of fear and apprehension. Check that your face is looking friendly, your tone of voice calm and your body language accepting and caring. Take a deep breath in and a long breath out. If you can, cuddle your toddler and see if you can identify emotions that might be there for him, it will help to switch on your care response and help you to calm.
Ensure that your toddlers have time to feel connected with you.
Having moments of deep connection can be really important prior to you leaving or leaving your little one at day-care and upon returning. Filling their cup by having quality time with them, holding them really close, and hugging them will release oxytocin and opioids and feel calming to your toddler, providing them with a sense of security and safety.
Connecting before encouraging exploration or independence is crucial.
For example, if you have arrived at the playground and your toddler is still clingy and wants to watch the other children, spend some time with him/her to observe the environment. Activate their curiosity by talking about what you are seeing without pressuring them to have a go or to leave. You can say things like, ‘You are looking a little unsure shall we watch a bit? ... Wow, that’s a big slide ... Did you see that girl sliding down? ... Oh look, there are the swings ... No one is on them.’ Slow down, stay curious and describe what you see. This takes the pressure off and allows your little one to relax. Soon enough their need for exploration will naturally kick in and they will be wanting to explore. You will notice this because they will begin to wriggle a bit more. Now you can activate their natural curiosity and need for play and exploration. 'Did you want me to take you to the swing?' ... 'Shall we go and check out that slide from a bit closer?’ Give it time. Toddlers need lots of repetition – you can say the same sentence a couple of times.
Repeating activities and experiences
Repeating activities and experiences will help your toddler gain a sense of safety and build skills that will help your toddler feel more confident to tackle activities and situations with less help. It can be tempting to stop going to the playground when your little one doesn’t leave your side when you are there. However, going there to observe a few times without pressuring them can help them begin to see the playground as something fun. Then you can slowly start to engage with the equipment, maybe just starting with one thing. If they are frightened to go down the slide, start by watching others going down the slide, then sliding down alone, then with them and finally encourage them to have a go starting with smaller slides. Show excitement and mask your own anxiety.
Books and stories
You can also read books and tell them stories about similar situations. Books and stories are a wonderful way to provide your toddler with a template that will enable you to teach them about emotions and guide their expectations while at the same time giving them connection time with you. Similarly, pretend play using their favourite soft toys or puppets can be a wonderful way to help them process their emotions and learn how to handle new situations and experiences. Often, toddlers will be even more interested if the situation mirrors a recent experience. 'Teddy doesn’t want to go in the car seat/down the slide/stay at childcare! He is crying! (make crying sounds).’ 'Can we help Teddy? How come he is crying?’ It is often so eye-opening when you hear your toddler project their feelings into their toys ‘He doesn’t want to go in the seat – Oh, he doesn’t want to go in the seat? He doesn’t like the seat?’ ‘How can we help him get in the seat?’ ‘Do you think he needs a toy? Or a cracker? Is he feeling a bit bored in the seat? A bit stuck?’ Acting out emotional situations in this way can build understanding about emotions and teach toddlers how to manage emotionally challenging situations independently.
Dr Christiane Kehoe is the Mama you've Got This Emotion Coach Expert. She is an expert in early childhood behaviour, co-author of the Tuning in to Toddlers program and an accredited trainer of Tuning in to Kids. Dr Christiane Kehoe presents at the Mama You've Got This Toddler Masterclass.