Whether it’s hanging onto your foot with a death grip, throwing a tantrum when you leave the room or making you sleep with them, some kids are the ultimate definition of a stage 5 clinger.
Why are kids so clingy? Is it just a phase? Do parents enable this type of behavior? We asked the experts for the scoop on why some kids won’t leave your side.
Blame it on evolution
According to pediatrician Dr. Arthur Lavin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, there’s a biological reason for clinginess that goes way back before humanity evolved.
Additionally, compared to most animals who walk or leave their nest a short time after birth, humans are born very early in development. While the idea of a baby being dependent on the parent to survive is seen in a lot of animals, there’s nothing like how long it goes on in humans.
“The human baby requires a connection to an adult caretaker for many, many years,” says Lavin. “Most kids aren’t able to be fully independent until their 20s.”
Different types of anxiety
Lavin says that children may show clinginess due to separation anxiety, the fear of being away from their parents, or because of stranger anxiety, where the fear is more about being around unfamiliar people.
“These types of anxiety can be normal parts of child development,” he says.
Due to these anxieties, kids may exhibit clingy behavior that can take the form of crying or becoming unsociable when a parent or caretaker walks out of the room. Some kids may throw tantrums or protest in response.
Healthy vs. unhealthy separation
Dr. Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist at the Child Mind Institute Anxiety Disorder Center, says that generally, kids start to separate from their caretakers around the time that kindergarten starts. A healthy separation, he says, is when kids can leave the side of their caretakers “peacefully and without difficulty.”
On the other hand, he says, an unhealthy separation “is no separation at all” and stereotypically may include tantrums and protest.
How to “cut the cord”
When it comes to promoting a healthy separation, Bubrick recommends that parents work to praise their child’s independence, set limits and encourage children to respect boundaries. He suggests simple tools can make a big difference, like sticker and bravery charts.
“Kids do best when they are incentivized,” he says. “We want to talk to them about being brave and independent.”
To address a common clingy behavior, such as kids refusing to sleep alone, he suggests a plan that looks something like this:
A parent will sit with the child until they get sleepy. When they get sleepy, the parent will leave the room. If the child does that without protest, they get a sticker in the morning. When they get three stickers, they can get a prize.
“By creating a temporary external reward, as the child becomes better at showing independence, they gain confidence in themselves,” he says.
Bubrick cautions parents not to expect changes overnight.
“You have to build in some cushion for the behavior to go up and down, but over time, it will get better,” he says.
Follow Chicago Parent on Instagram.
This article was featured in Chicago Parent’s March/April 2021 magazine.