So there I was last week—sick with an endless cold, exhausted from a cross-country holiday trip, and pregnant, when my 2-year-old turned into a 35-pound leech. Every waking moment he demanded that I hold him in my arms—standing, never sitting, as if my love weren’t real unless my biceps were burning. When I would run downstairs to get him a glass of milk or grab my iPhone, he would insist on being ferried along on my hip. Awesomely, my husband wasn’t allowed to help. I was apparently the only person on earth who could read to my son, sing to him, change his diaper, give him a bath, make his dinner, hand him his water, and strap him into his car seat. I’m not going to tell you what it’s been like dropping him off at school, because I’m trying to block out the memories.
During these fun-filled days I’ve periodically asked myself: WTF? My son does this sometimes—becomes a Cling Monster. It’ll last a few days, even up to a week. And I never know whether I should indulge his every demand or whether, at some point, I should give him a pat on the back, tell him to man up, and grit my teeth through the screamy consequences. I wonder whether there is anything I can to do make the neediness stop once it starts. I wonder: Is there something wrong with him? And then, of course, I wonder: Is there anything wrong with me? Is there anything I am doing to cause all this?
As I like to do when something parenting-related (or in this case, my child) is nagging me, I did some research and called a handful of child psychologists. And as it turns out, periodic clinginess is very normal—in fact, it’s a sign that you and your child have a healthy relationship. Some kids are also just more temperamentally needy than others. But the way parents handle clinginess can have a big impact on how long it lasts and how bad it becomes. And sometimes, yes, we do actually cause it ourselves. To avoid becoming that parent, read on.
First, the reassuring stuff. Clingy behavior, as renowned University of Minnesota attachment researcher Alan Sroufe explained to me, is absolutely natural. Evolutionary even. Back when our ancestors were climbing trees and jumping across rocks and escaping predators as hunter-gatherers, their babies and toddlers literally clung on to them for support and protection. “Clinging in primates, especially nomadic primates, is a very important behavior to have,” Sroufe says.
Clinginess is ultimately a sign that your child considers you what attachment researchers call “a secure base.” Babies and toddlers who have developed secure attachments with caregivers—who have come to trust, through prior experience, that these adults are available and sensitive to their needs—use these caregivers as mother ships from which to explore the world. “Knowing that you have someone to return to in times of trouble fosters the ability to go out and explore and do things,” says Jude Cassidy, a psychologist and attachment expert at the University of Maryland. When things get scary or unpredictable, your toddler comes back to you and essentially says, Hey, I need a little extra support here. (Or, as my son puts it, “Pick me uuuuup!”) Securely attached toddlers waffle between these two extremes of independence and dependence, which is why your kid will be latching on to you one second and then telling you to go away the next. Children who do not have secure attachments with their caregivers, on the other hand, feel they can’t rely on them when needed; research suggests that these babies and toddlers are actually less clingy in scary situations. Ultimately, then, periodic clinginess is a sign that your child trusts you—that you’re doing things right. (An aside: Every attachment researcher I talk to brings up the fact that “attachment parenting,” a trendy approach popularized by Dr. Sears and crew that involves carrying your kids constantly, co-sleeping with them, and not traditionally disciplining them, is not supported by research. “It drives attachment researchers crazy because it’s not really consistent with attachment theory,” says UC–Davis developmental psychologist Ross Thompson. So don’t think you have to give up your bed to raise a securely attached kid.)
These “scary” situations that I’m referring to for a toddler can be hard to identify, because they’re often not very scary to us. Anything a child perceives as unpredictable can spark it, whether that’s a minor transition or a major shift in home life. Did your daughter switch schools? Start in a new play group? Have you been traveling as a family? Are you traveling more for work? Some kids even get clingy when, in the morning, you ask them to put on their shoes, because they are able to think through the steps: Putting on shoes means I’m going to school, which means I’m going to have to say goodbye to Mommy soon, so I better start holding onto her right now. As Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, explains in her wonderful book How Toddlers Thrive, “a transition is a move from the familiar-and-known (whatever I am doing now) to the new-or-unknown (even if I have done it before, it is new for this moment).” Entering into this new-or-unknown situation “cuts to their core and lays bare a strong vulnerability.”
And when vulnerability hits, your toddler will attach himself to you like glue. “He holds tight to that secure base, that safe haven, because that is where he can find the support he needs in circumstances he could not otherwise manage or control himself,” Thompson explains. It’s clear to me now that my son’s clinginess stems from our cross-country travels, during which we stayed in three different places; it may have gotten worse after returning because he was thrown back into his old routine, which suddenly seemed new again, and because, Thompson says, sometimes kids become clingy after something crazy has happened in an attempt to “emotionally refuel.”