Toddler Clinginess

It drives parents mad.

You are trying to make supper – listen to the news….have a little glass of wine…..throw the veggies in the skillet….listen to them sizzle….smell the aromas….mmm…..



And you have a toddler clinging to your leg, screaming and crying, making every step nearly impossible. (Or, in my case, you have a screaming toddler clinging to each leg…)

Or you sneak out of the living room because you can’t hold it any longer. You really gotta go. You are in the bathroom, using the facility, having an actual moment to yourself to finish a thought (heaven!) and then he comes in screaming and wailing because he lost sight of you.

Sound familiar?

Toddler clinginess is, unfortunately, normal. If your toddler is showing signs of clinginess – wandering through the house looking for you every time you leave the room, or crying when you drop her off at daycare – congratulations! Your child’s emotional development is right on track. In these most stressful of times, it is helpful to remember that you want your child to be a little bit clingy. You don’t want your child to show absolutely no fear and go toddling off on his own without a second thought to the dangers that might be. A (small) dose of clinginess definitely serves a purpose.

Ugh, fine, you say. But why? Why does my sweet little sugar cry and beg me to pick him up every single time we walk anywhere? He knows how to walk. He loves to walk. Why can’t he walk from the car to Grandma’s house?

Your child was literally a part of you while he was growing in your womb. After birth, babies are still very attached to their mothers. As your baby grows and develops and learns to do things on his own, he slowly discovers that he is not just an extension of his mama….he is not another one of your arms or legs, and you are not just an extension of him. He is learning that he is a separate being from you. Independent.

That can be exhilarating for him. Pure bliss as he learns to run, jump, climb and just be. He absolutely loves it.

But it can also be incredibly scary for him. It’s a big wide world, and he just ran away from his security (you) with pure joy and abandonment. What does he do after he realizes what he just did? Run back to you screaming and crying, begging you to pick him up. So you kiss away his tears, love him up a bit, and reassure him that what he just did was amazing.

As toddlers and preschoolers grow and explore, their emotional development goes in to overdrive. Their brain is growing and developing as well, taking in more, grasping more, understanding more, imagining more. Things they never even noticed before are suddenly scary, such as strangers. When your toddler was younger, she may not have noticed the difference in a stranger’s face and someone she knew, so she didn’t cry when Auntie, whom she just met for the very first time, picked her up. Now she cries when Grandma, who she just saw two weeks ago, wants to hold her. Or, things she never used to be afraid of are suddenly scary. Big dogs. Cute little kitties. Funny rubbery, spikey balls. Enclosed spaces, such as garages, barns or high school gymnasiums. Loud noises. Four wheelers, snowmobiles, dirt bikes. Her brain is so very busy sorting all of this out. What’s safe, what’s not, what’s scary. What’s fun, what’s not. It’s exhausting for both of you.

During this time, your child will run to you for security any time he is overwhelmed, over stimulated, scared, unsure of himself, or just down right tired. So, he will run to you a lot. And cling to you. And it will always be at the most inopportune time.

So what can we do, as parents and care givers? Take a deep breath, especially if you feel yourself becoming frustrated. Remember that your baby is there for love and reassurance. Hug him, kiss him, pick him up. Talk to him, tell him he is fine. Show him you are happy to see him.

If you are doing something that can be put aside, put it aside and give your child some attention. Engage him in play. Show him that he is important to you, that his needs and feelings are real. Validate what he is going through, don’t belittle it and shame him. Don’t yell or speak harshly. Remember that he is doing exactly what he should be at this age – this clinginess serves a purpose.

The art of distraction is absolutely amazing. If you can’t sit and play with him right now, draw his attention to something else and help him to forget that he was worried in the first place. Engage him in something engrossing, something he doesn’t normally get to play with, such as coloring or play dough, or the pots and pans in the cupboard, so that you can return to what you were doing. If you can hold him while you work, then do that, and let him see what you are so busy with in the first place. Chances are, he will get bored and wander away on his own.

There are some cases when clinginess is a bit extreme. It’s good to note the difference between normal clinginess and something more going on. Your child may be excessively clingy if the clinginess lasts, day in and day out, for quite some time. Note if there are any other behavioral patterns that changed when the clinginess became excessive. Did her sleeping patterns change? Eating patterns? Did she used to play by herself and now she doesn’t? Does she cry when she goes to daycare? Does she have any unexplained injuries or bruises? What about exposure to media? Is she watching inappropriate television shows? Listening to inappropriate music? There might be something more going on than normal childhood development. If you suspect something is not right, talk to your doctor.

If you have had a recent move, went back to work, had an addition to your family, a family loss, or any other such life changing event, these situations can also cause excessive clinginess. This is normal. This is how your toddler or preschooler works through the situation. She is feeling insecure, and rightfully so, so she clings to the most comforting, secure, consistent thing in her life – her mom. Be patient with her during this new situation. Reassure her, love her, comfort her, and above all, always make it painfully obvious that you value her and her needs.

Remember, clinginess in toddlers and preschoolers is absolutely normal. It is a necessary stage that they will go through, and it will pass quickly. It is good to keep this in mind during the most stressful moments. And it doesn’t last. It goes so fast. One moment your son will never let you put him down and the next he wants you to drop him off down the block and walk the rest of the way to school, because he doesn’t want to be seen with you. So enjoy these moments now. They definitely don’t last.


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