3 Ways to Deal With a Clingy Child

Daughter gripping fathers leg while sitting on ground at park
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You’re well on your way to teaching your child to be an independent person, and then all of a sudden, it occurs — your little one becomes a stage 5 clinger. Whether for a week, a fortnight or longer, you wonder what could have happened to make your child refuse to leave your side (or scream like a banshee when he must).

As it turns out, though, children go through phases of clinginess (and, in the end, some children are just clingier than others). Clinginess can be a sign of a healthy relationship — it says that your child feels safe and comfortable with you.

To that end, avoid ignoring, discouraging or punishing clingy behavior, as it can have lasting effects on your relationship. That doesn’t mean you have to cater to his every demand, though this is probably the time to be a little bit more relaxed about what you say yes and no to.

If the clinginess becomes overwhelming, rest assured that it’s likely a phase (particularly if it came out of nowhere). Create a few changes to your routine and you’ll likely minimize your child’s desire to stick to you like glue.

Be Predictable

As you likely already know, children thrive on routines; however, a young child might not quite realize that you have their schedule set in stone day in and day out — they mostly live in the present. Provide consistent reminders about what’s happening next and what your child will do later in the day. If you think your little one will understand, create a visual calendar that uses pictures to show each activity planned for the day.

Give warnings when something is about to change. If you’re dropping your child off at daycare or school, give a five-minute warning about five minutes before you’ll be separated. Then, give them a two-minute warning. When it’s time to say goodbye, tie your return to a concrete event, such as, “I’ll be back to pick you up after naptime.”

Say Goodbye

Speaking of saying goodbye, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it when it comes to clingy children. Minimize your child’s anxiety over your absence by going through a “so long routine:”

  • Tell your child when you’ll return.
  • Use a consistent phrase to say goodbye, such as “See you later, alligator.”
  • Don’t linger or come back if your child starts to overreact; this indicates to the child that you will return if they continue to throw a fit.
  • But don’t sneak out either, as it breaks your child’s trust.

Build Independence

Of course, independence is your ultimate goal, but a clingy child benefits from an obvious, outward recognition of their autonomous skills. Give your child age-appropriate tasks to complete on their own, such as picking up toys or setting the table.

Offer praise when your child does something independently, such as playing on her own for a designated period of time or using the bathroom. This sends the message to the little one that they don’t have to cling to you to be successful.

As your child grows and gains independence, the clinginess will likely diminish. In fact, you’ll probably long for the days that your little one begged for you to carry him around!

However, if you’re concerned by your child’s excessive clinginess, and it doesn’t seem to be passing, talk to your pediatrician about it (as well as your daycare provider, school teacher or anyone else who serves as a caregiver to your child). The doctor might recommend visiting a mental health specialist, while the others could clue you in on any situations that might be causing this “I need you now, mommy” situation.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.