4 Parenting Mistakes That Make Children Clingy And Codependent
Some amount of clinginess is normal for kids, but there are ways to subtly encourage independence.
Shyness and the separation struggle are challenges parents know all too well. School drop-offs, leaving kids with a babysitter, and playdates — where ideally parents get some space for themselves while children entertain each other — are all occasions when clingy kids can make life way too difficult.
Although some clinginess is typical and should be expected, some parenting behaviors can intensify it. And conversely, there are some tricks parents can use to help kids feel more comfortable when they might otherwise be inclined to latch on to their parent’s leg like a sloth grasping a tree branch.
“Preschool kids tend to be more clingy,” says child and adolescent psychologist Ashley Harlow, Ph.D. “They look to parents for reassurance and support when they're distressed or encountering unpredictable or unexpected situations. But once they enter elementary school — assuming they have experienced reasonable levels of independence — it’s reasonable to expect that they’d warm up to other kids on a playground or that by the second week of school, they’re able to make their way into their classroom on their own.”
Although it’s impossible to raise a child who never clings, there are some habits parents can stay away from if they want to reduce the frequency, intensity, and duration of clinginess. Here are four parenting mistakes that encourage kids to be clingy — and how to change them into opportunities for independence.
1. Letting Kids Get Hangry Or Tired
Anytime a person's basic physiological needs — such as hydration, food, and rest — aren’t adequately met, they feel off. It provides a humorous premise for Snickers ads, but it isn’t nearly as funny in real life when it makes your kids distressed, irritable, and clingy.
“Younger kids will have a harder time self-regulating if they are tired or hungry,” Harlow explains. “So if they had a bad night of sleep, you might see a lot more clinginess than you might expect due to their lower distress tolerance.”
Kids in this situation cling usually because they feel that their parent is a safe and comforting presence amid discombobulation. Thus, the fundamental problem for parents to solve isn’t how to stop their child from hanging on to their leg, but how to set their kids up for smooth transitions by making sure that their most basic needs are met.
Ensuring kids are getting enough rest and are fueled with healthy meals or snacks requires some planning ahead, but they are relatively easy ways to reduce the likelihood that kids will cling. And if a child didn’t get quality sleep last night — something out of your control — consider laying them down for a nap.
2. Responding Out Of Embarrassment
It’s frustrating for parents when kids are clingy at home — sometimes you just want a few quiet moments to enjoy a cup of coffee or use the bathroom without an audience. But when clinginess occurs in public spaces, as is often the case, that frustration is compounded by embarrassment. In an effort to wrest back control of the situation, parents may resort to tactics that increase the intensity of the power struggle or set kids up to be even clingier in the future.
For instance, promising a child you’ll return in a few minutes when you drop them off at daycare, knowing full well that you won’t be back until later in the day, might calm them for a moment. But it can also foster distrust that makes them less likely to let you go without protest the next time you need to leave.
“It's really important for parents to have the self-awareness to reflect on why they are responding to their child’s behavior in a specific way. Responding out of anxiety or what one might perceive as other people's expectations isn’t usually productive,” Harlow says. “Allowing some of that clinginess is, to a certain extent, healthy both for the child and your relationship with the child. A lot of times, the most effective thing and the most efficient thing to do is comfort the child who was clinging to you.”
Gently holding a child’s hand, getting down to their eye level to make non-threatening eye contact, and encouraging them to breathe deeply at the same rate you are, are ways to connect with and calm a clingy child. This approach models the art of self-regulation for kids and can help calm them to a place where they can process any verbal comfort you offer.
If that course of action isn’t effective and scenes like this are more than an isolated instance, your child may be wrestling with separation anxiety, which is an issue to discuss with your pediatrician.
3. Ignoring — Or Overindulging — Your Kids
Harlow acknowledges that it’s a challenge for parents to operate in a healthy middle ground when kids are clingy, and that veering too far toward overindulging them or, on the flip side, ignoring their needs, can worsen the situation. “With my 2-year-old, I've made all kinds of mistakes that are driven by how busy I am rather than from the perspective of a psychologist who slows down and thinks through the functions of my parenting behaviors,” he says.
It is possible to be overly reassuring or to let a child dominate a situation through attention-seeking behaviors. In these situations, it may help to use rewards or reasonable consequences to change a child’s behavior patterns. For example, kids may respond well to an opportunity to earn a small treat when they’re picked up from daycare if drop-off went smoothly earlier in the day. At the very least, remembering to acknowledge that the child did well can serve as positive reinforcement.
But it’s also possible to disarm clinginess by giving kids even a small amount of focused attention, especially during transition times like when a parent comes home from work. Sure, dinner needs to get on the table, but it might take longer to accomplish that goal if you hop straight to cooking as kids can be more distracting, clingy, and exhausting when parents try to push through without spending a few quality moments with their kids.
“Both from my experience in the clinic and my experience of a busy home, if I pick up my child and sit down with her in my lap for a minute or two, the thirst for attention is quenched. And I can set her down, and she can be much more independent when she has that need met,” Harlow says.
4. Waiting Too Long To Address Clingy Behavior
Although most kids will be clingy sometimes, it’s possible to wait so long to address the issue that it becomes more intense than is conducive to healthy development. Harlow has some specific red flags for parents to look out for:
“As the child gets older, it can be concerning when clinginess manifests in ways that undermine their ability to function in different contexts. For example, it might be a sign of separation anxiety if you’re six weeks into school, and a child still refuses to leave home in the morning and go to the bus stop or get out of the car when you get to school,” he says. “And social anxiety might also be a thing to keep an eye on if kids are getting nervous around other kids or adults that they should be more familiar with.”
Harlow encourages parents to trust their gut when worries about clingy kids arise. It’s always a good idea to address concerns with your child’s pediatrician because they will have a handle on healthy attachment ranges and typical behavior for kids at different developmental stages.
After all, clingy kids can be physically and emotionally exhausting, making it challenging to remain clear about your child’s development and your own parenting. Under those circumstances, your healthcare provider can help with either assurances or a plan to support your parenting and reduce clinginess, freeing up the mental and emotional bandwidth for you to be a more present parent.