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Having a tiny baby cling to you feels wonderful! But there comes a time when you are ready to be let loose. But your child may feel quite differently about the whole thing.

Clinging to a parent is pretty common in children between the ages of 1 and 3 and will predictably occur at certain times. For example, you want to leave the child with someone else at home or in preschool. Or you are busy doing something and the child wants your full attention. Or you come home from work and your child is insatiable and reluctant to let go of you.

Parents are often upset by clinging or demanding behavior in a young child because they think it heralds a lifetime of such behavior. It does not.

Young children are struggling to achieve autonomy and to give up what has been total dependence on the parent. But this process takes time.

When babies first begin to crawl and toddle around, they may willingly go away from you but will look back frequently to make sure you are still there. Or the baby will move off but then return to be close to you for a while. This has been described as “emotional refueling.” The baby feels independent enough to move away but then becomes concerned about the distance between mother and self and scoots right back.

As a matter of fact, if the child and mother are in a room together and the mother moves, even if she moves in the direction of the child, the baby gets upset and comes right to the mother. This tells us that the baby feels it is important to have the mother “anchored” in one place. Only then does the young baby feel secure. The best way to anchor you is to hold on for dear life.

When children grow older, other dynamics come into play. Children are no longer concerned about keeping mother in sight. They know that Mommy comes back. Now they want to CONTROL Mommy. The child is beginning to realize you are a separate person with your own life and interests apart from the child. Obviously the child isn’t too happy about this state of affairs: “I want to control you and make you pay attention to ME!”

Fortunately this stage doesn’t last too long because children are now gaining new interests of their own and have other things to do besides controlling you.

It may seem paradoxical but the more secure a baby feels the less it needs to cling. So one solution to clinging, crying behavior is to help the child feel secure.

Give the child lots of focused attention whenever you can (See ParenTip: ATTENTION!). This means you are close to the child (close enough to touch), you look at and talk to the child, and you are concentrating on activities that you and the child can do together at the child’s developmental level. For example you might get down on the floor and play blocks together.

Some clinging behavior can be prevented although every child will do some of this. Prevention efforts include playing peek-a-boo so the child happily learns Mommy disappears AND COMES BACK. Be sure to provide “practice separations” like leaving the child with a sitter periodically.

No surprises. Never pretend you aren’t really leaving either at home or at preschool. Always make a big thing out of saying “GOODBYE!” and “I’M COMING BACK SOON!” Praise the child for being big enough to play without you.

Tell the child where you are going and what you will be doing. Tell the child what he or she will be doing while you are gone. “Mrs Franklin will play blocks with you and make your lunch. I’ll be home after lunch.”

When a parent comes home from work often young children are demanding and clinging. It’s easy to understand why–they missed you!

“Reentry” after you have been away all day is almost always a problem because EVERYBODY HAS NEEDS. The CHILDREN want some focused parental attention. The PARENTS are tired and need to unwind and shift gears. The FAMILY needs supper and the house may need some attention.

The easiest way to go: RECONNECT with the children first. This can be very brief but should consist of really FOCUSED ATTENTION on each child. A hug, “I’m so glad to see you, Sara!”, and “I missed you!” Is all you may have time for. But EACH CHILD gets this.

Then take a few minutes to shift gears–I always changed clothes.

If your children are clinging, set the timer and tell them you will be with them in ___ minutes. Involve the children in your relaxation sessions or cooking. Have special books or games to provide when you need to be busy and un-clung to.

If siblings are clinging because each child wants you RIGHT NOW try using a timer. “I’ll play with Jeremy until the timer goes off and then I’ll listen to Hannah tell me about school.” Alternate who goes first because this can be a big issue with squabbling siblings.