“Pick me up!” “Don’t let go!” “Come with me!” For many parents of toddlers, these phrases are like the soundtrack to life. And the “clingy kids” effect is pretty common at this age.
While it can be frustrating to constantly reassure young children, a sudden burst of clinginess is typically part of normal development, says Marilyn Franklin, Ph.D., a licensed child psychologist and assistant clinical professor at Wayne State University.
But since it can also be a symptom of separation anxiety, especially clingy kids can often cause parents some concern.
“Normal separation anxiety is if you drop children off at school for the first day for the first time, and they have a temper tantrum,” Franklin says.
Sometimes, though, a child’s clinginess goes too far. When that happens, it’s normally diagnosed as separation anxiety disorder, which is different from the typical separation anxiety kids experience as toddlers, Franklin adds.
Why the clingy kids?
At around 8 months, kids may start to cry when they leave a parent’s side.
“The reason this is happening cognitively is because they are developing object permanence,” Franklin says. “Before 7 months, they don’t recognize that something is gone. A little baby, they let anyone hold them, but after 7 months they might freak out if someone else does.”
That clinginess typically peaks at 8 to 10 months and begins to subside by age 2 or 2 1/2, Franklin says.
Things that might trigger further clinginess and separation anxiety include “going to school for the first time, moving into a new house, losing a pet or a family member or experiencing a fire,” she says.
Still, these periods of clinginess shouldn’t last more than a few weeks.
How should I react?
“Parents definitely shouldn’t ignore the child,” Franklin says. “That will make the child more anxious. If the child is trying to tell them they aren’t feeling safe, the more attention you give them, the better they are.”
If a child is refusing to sleep on her own or having a meltdown over going to school, avoid giving in. This can make the situation worse, Franklin says.
“That reinforces the anxiety,” she says. “As a parent, you want to be firm and set that limit, but listen to them and support them.”
Strategies for helping kids cope with mild separation anxiety include establishing a routine, sending a note in the child’s book bag for them to read at school and allowing the child to have an object from home to take with her when she leaves.
When the clingy kids phase goes to far
If your child has a major meltdown every time you leave her sight, and it continues for weeks, it could point to a bigger issue.
“Kids who cross the line – they can’t function,” Franklin says. “If your child is following you around and doesn’t want to leave your side, that’s one thing, but if they can’t function without you, it crosses the line there.”
Separation anxiety disorder is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder for kids under 12. For children exhibiting severe behavior, Franklin suggests contacting a therapist.
To help your child cope, consider using mindfulness, which means focusing on the moment instead of what is going to happen in the future.
Another helpful method is a relaxation technique called a body scan, where, in one version, you tense every muscle in your body one by one and then release it.
“With a therapist, you can nail down where the anxiety is coming from, and parents can educate themselves on things to do and things not to do,” Franklin says.
Illustration by Brett Mosser