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.

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