Managing Toddler Clinginess

Helping toddlers understand why they can’t have your undivided attention all the time

Grace is 20 months and is in and out of a “clingy” phase. Sometimes, all she wants is to be held. Other times, she is off on her own like a free bird. During the clingy times, it is the whining that really gets me. Sure, it’s a wonderful feeling to feel needed, but when you are trying to get dinner on the table, feed the dog, and do all of the other things that need to get done, my arms are just not free to hold her.

So how do I help her develop the skills she needs to be less clingy? Below are some of the approaches I have been trying:

Explain the situation

Grace, mama’s hands are busy right now. Do you see the chicken in my hands? Mama wants to hold you but I can’t right now because I am making dinner. Do you want a hug? I will wash my hands and give you a big hug, but then mama has to go back to cooking. When I am finished cooking, I will hold you.

Offer an alternate choice

This has been really helpful of late. She wants me to hold her which, in that moment, is not an option. Instead, I tell her, Mama can give you a big hug or you can hug mama and give my leg a big hug. Right now, mama is washing dishes and can’t hold you. When I am finished washing the dishes, I will hold you.

Name what they can do

Grace, mama can’t hold you right now. If you want to be close to mama, you can go get a book and bring it over here. You can sit on the floor and read your book and watch mama cook. OR Do you want mama to turn on music and we can have a dance party? We can dance together while mama cooks! OR Why don’t you go and play with Keener? He might like to give you a hug and I know he would love to play with you! Check out my post devoted to naming what children CAN do.

Be OK with the tears

I have been inspired these last few weeks after reading Childwise which reminded me, “Children need parents who are not afraid to be parents.” You know you need to cook dinner, unload the dishwasher, tend to another child, etc. and that this is not the time to hold your child. Try not to feel badly. You are teaching them the ever important life lesson, ‘You don’t always get what you want.’

If I have given her options and she doesn’t choose any of them, that is an OK outcome. I find that validating how she is feeling, staying calm and explaining what is going on often helps Grace calm down the most. Grace, I know you are upset because you want mama to hold you right now. Mama is not going to. You can choose to keep crying or we can have a conversation, you can get a toy and play close to mama, or we can dance! When mama is finished cooking, I will hold you.

Then don’t say anything. Either talk with another child, turn on music for yourself, or start a conversation about a different topic (even if they are still only focused on whining/being held.) I might say, Grace, did you enjoy the park today? It sure was hot outside! The slide was too hot to go down! My goal is to engage with her without giving her the attention for whining. If this doesn’t work, I might say, It sounds like you need a minute. Mama will be here when you are ready to talk/dance/sing etc.

Reinforce the desired behavior

Be mindful of what you are reinforcing. If crying/whining gives them what they want, you can be sure that behavior will continue in the future. Instead, teach them what you want them to do instead. When the time has come for me to hold her, I will say: Mama’s hands are not busy anymore! I am ready to hold you! You can let mama know you want to be held now by saying, “up please.”  Then, I wait for her to say it appropriately before I pick her up. I want to make sure I am reinforcing the desired behavior, not the crying and carrying on.

Remembering it’s a phase

Lastly, remember this is just a phase. As with all of the others that have come and gone (think sleepless nights, breastfeeding challenges, reflux, etc.) this too shall pass. I never want to wish away time with my little ones but during the challenging moments it does help to remind myself that it’s just a phase.

Teaching Kids To Share

Considering Development and Encouraging Theory of Mind

I often find myself asking Keener to share. You have to share is also one of the most common phrases I overhear at the playground. But what am I really asking Keener to do in this situation? What does it mean to share?

As adults, we decide for ourselves when and what we want to share with others, whether it’s  our food, car, or home. But rarely, if ever, do we ask another adult to give up something that is theirs at the drop of a hat. Can I have your car? I want it.  That just doesn’t happen.

When we are asking our kids to share, we want to be realistic in the ask. I personally don’t like sharing my food. On occasion, I am fine going out to dinner and sharing food with friends and family, but if we are being honest, I really prefer not to. Yet, when we ask our kids to share and they don’t want to, we often make them.

There are a few problems embedded in the way we usually ask our kids to share. First, I don’t think kids actually know what ‘share’ means. They hear us say the word share over and over, but most of the time they aren’t exactly sure what we are asking of them. Second, often when we ask our kids to share, they really don’t want to.  So how do we help our kids understand what this world of “sharing” is all about?

Before launching into what has helped recently with Keener, it’s important to note that we need to keep a child’s development in mind when talking about sharing. ‘Theory of mind’ is an important social-cognitive skill where a child can not only understand their own thoughts, feelings, and wants, but but can distinguish them from what others may be thinking, feeling and wanting.

A good example of this skill involves the following scenario. Take a bag of pretzels and put toys inside the bag, and then ask a child what is in the bag. That child will say pretzels, and be surprised to find there are toys inside the bag instead. Then ask the child “what do you think your friend will say is in this bag?” If the child is three years old, he will say toys, because the child is only thinking about what he knows about the contents of the bag. But if the child is four years old, he will say pretzels, because the four year old can understand that his friend will be tricked just like he was. The four year old is better able to distinguish his thoughts and see that they might be different from his friend’s thoughts.

According to Child Encyclopedia, theory of mind develops without specific teaching, but there are ways to help it develop more quickly by:

  • engaging in rich pretend play;
  • talking about people’s thoughts, wants, and feelings, and the reasons why they act the way they do;
  • hearing and talking about stories, especially those involving surprises, secrets, tricks, and mistakes. These stories invite children to see things from different points of view (Red Riding Hood doesn’t know that the wolf is dressed up as grandma).

Language also plays a big role, and below is some of the language I have used to help Keener develop theory of mind and build his understanding about why I am asking him to share:

I know you love playing with the lawn mower. Do you know who else does? Your friend Clark. When he is over, he also loves playing with the lawn mower, just like you do! That’s why it is important to let Clark have a turn, just like you love having your turn.

You have to look with your eyes to see if a toy is available. Sometimes, someone will have something that you might want. If it is in their hands, they want it too! You can either use your words and ask them for a turn or you can play with something else and look to see when they put that toy down. When you don’t see anyone’s hands on that toy, you know it is available for you to play with.  *This one has worked particularly well with sibling based squabbles. Keener will now say to me, “Grace put it down. It’s available — I didn’t take it from her!” with a sense of pride that he now knows exactly when a toy is available for him to take.

What did you play with at school today?  Who else in your class likes playing with that toy? Sometimes toys can be shared, like playdough. There is usually enough playdough for anyone who wants to play with it. But sometimes there might be only one of something, like a truck. I know you love playing with that green truck at school and I’m guessing Will and Thomas also love playing with the green truck! Because that is a fun truck!

Lastly, deliberately model sharing. If Keener or Grace has something, I will make it a point to say Can I play with that toy please when you are finished? Can we please build with blocks together? The more they hear it, the more likely they are to use this language themselves. Give them the words you want them to use.