It’s Not Just You. There’s A Reason Kids Are Clingy Right Now.
Toddlers and teens alike can’t seem to leave parents alone. Here’s what’s behind it, and how to deal.
It is a strange aspect of parenting during the coronavirus pandemic that you can spend so (soooo) many hours with your kids during the week, and they can still be hungry for more of your time and attention.
Kids cling because they’re looking to feel safe.
One major reason why kids cling to their parents is because they are trying really hard to help themselves feel safe and comforted, explained Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Illinois.
“Clinginess is an instinctual response to perceived threat and anxiety. In evolutionary terms, offspring of all species are more likely to survive if they stay close to their parents for protection when danger is imminent,” he told HuffPost. “Children have this encoded into their biology, and it can be triggered by the stresses and uncertainties of a global pandemic.”
Clinging, then, is the visible manifestation of your child’s effort to cope with all of the changes and the uncertainty in their world right now.
To help, try to dig into the specific source (or sources) of their unease.
“The question becomes, what exactly are they anxious about? Contracting the illness? Death? Like so many things, clinginess should be understood in context,” Mark Reinecke, a clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Child Mind Institute’s San Francisco Bay Area center, told HuffPost.
Older kids might also regress into some clinginess right now.
Clinginess can be a developmental phase for babies, toddlers and preschoolers — and it is absolutely “age-typical” for younger children, Meyers said.
But these days parents of older children might also have kids who are hanging on to them, and the experts say that kind of regression isn’t necessarily surprising. So your 9-year-old who used to be pretty adept at independent play might be following you around the house all day like a shadow. Or you might suddenly find your tween or teen wants to crawl into bed and cuddle at night.
“Older children may regress under acute stress and act in ways that aren’t as common for their current age,” Meyers said. “This regression is a threat-based response to increase perceived safety, receive comfort and reduce anxiety.”
If you have any concerns about an older child who seems to be especially clingy or regressing in a way that’s giving you pause, all three experts interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of talking to their pediatrician or a mental health professional.
Keeping routines is essential.
Probably the last advice that any parent wants to hear right now is that establishing routines is important. Whatever enthusiasm parents had for creating daily schedules way back when school was first canceled is, for so many burnt-out mothers and fathers, long gone.
But experts say that creating daily routines goes way deeper than keeping your kid on track academically; it’s about giving them an underlying sense of security that is very important right now.
“Many children have become more clingy towards their parents [because] they have fewer avenues to socialize with others.”
“Routines provide kids with the structure and expectations about what happens during the day,” said Jenny Yip, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist.
“It can be a flexible, relaxed schedule,” she added, just something that gives them kind of an emotional home base to return to.
One strategy for vanquishing — or at least reducing — clinginess is to make sure those daily routines and schedules include stretches of uninterrupted kid/parent time. Play a board game together, Yip said. Sit down and build or read a book. Giving them your undivided attention for a bit can fill them up emotionally so they’re less likely to hang on you during other stretches on the schedule.
It’s also worth noting that if kids have some level of routine in place, the shift back to life outside the house won’t necessarily be as jarring or feel as dramatic. So to try to get ahead of separation anxiety in the fall (or whenever school resumes), try to stick with some level of daily scheduling throughout the summer, Yip recommended.
Try your best to model calmness and confidence.
Kids are remarkably (perhaps annoyingly) perceptive. So even if you’re doing your best to keep them away from too much news or maintaining some level of routine at home, they might be picking up on other emotions from you that are making them uneasy. In turn, they might cling to you even more, looking for reassurance.
So just check in with yourself and your partner about the kinds of messages you’re putting out there. Experts aren’t saying you can’t or shouldn’t acknowledge how hard this all is, but you should be really mindful of how much fear or anxiety they can feel coming from you. That will also help set them up for an eventual return to school or day care or a one-on-one provider, because it will ground them in some level of confidence that you’re not going to put them in an unsafe position.
“In ambiguous situations, young children turn to their parents for guidelines on how to respond,” Reinecke said. “If the parent is confident and self-assured, the child will perceive this. Is the child’s anxiety inadvertently being modeled or maintained at home?”
And remember, you’re all they’ve got right now.
Many kids are really sad about all of the changes they’ve experienced in the past few months — no school, no friends, no sports or music classes, none of the routines and socializing they’re used to. Sure, they have Zoom or whatever their chosen video conferencing platform is, but it’s not the same thing. As far as in-person support and attention, you’re really all they’ve got.
“Many children have become more clingy towards their parents [because] they have fewer avenues to socialize with others,” Meyers said. “People provide us all with connection and stimulation, and there are few options when we’re stuck at home.”