Why Is My Child So Clingy?

We are starting to socialize more, we’re seeing some issues arise as families start returning to a version of life that is closer to normal. It really shouldn’t surprise us that most kids are going to have a somewhat extreme reaction to more socialization. In general, they’re either going to be SUPER excited to get out of the house and see other people or they’re going to become really clingy and shy.

Let’s talk about the clingyness, why it’s happening, what our natural instincts might be, and what we should really be doing to support their independence.

First, why are they becoming so clingy?

I’m hearing complaints about clingyness even from parents who would typically classify their kids as “extroverted” or “outgoing” or “independent.” To understand this we have to go back to that understanding of safety, and that staying safe requires energy.

You may have noticed that doing typical things again like getting groceries, or going shopping in person, or even just meeting up with friends for a socially distanced coffee, is much more draining NOW than it was a year ago. It’s simply because we’re out of practice, we got used to expending very little energy on socializing over the last year and unconsciously re-budgeted that energy to other areas of our life.

Well, now that we’re socializing again, we’re getting used to the amount of energy that requires again, so it’s going to take a while for our brains to re-calculate how much energy we need to expect to expend when we’re with other people. Because there’s lots to do!

We have to pay attention to others, their body language, their tone of voice, their energy levels, their perspectives, their wants, needs, and desires. It’s a lot!

Especially for young kids many of whom can’t even remember pre-pandemic because this last year has been literally a quarter of their life, if not more- that’s going to take some adjustment. When kids run low on energy because the social demands on them are more than they budgeted for…

They get clingy.

They try to force us to compensate for them. They come back to their home base and hide behind us so that we’ll do all that difficult socialization for them, we’ll take on the demands they can’t meet themselves.

This is totally normal, this is our survival instinct!

For a lot of parents, especially if your child wasn’t shy before the pandemic, this can feel manipulative. Our instinct is to say “oh you’re fine, go play.” or “You know these people!” or any other number of dismissive things because we’ve seen them do it before! They’ve played with these kids before, been to this house before, been to this playground before- whatever. But remember- for a lot of our kids this pandemic has been a HUGE chunk of their life.

If you have a 4 year old, this pandemic has been literally a quarter of their life! If your kids are younger than that it’s been even more! They’ve learned a lot and forgotten a lot in the last year, it’s not hard to see how adjusting to new expectations will take a little while. It’s just like when kinders start school and we start hearing about extreme restraint collapse- after a month or two they adjust, but it takes while!

This is the same concept, only it’s not school-based restraint collapse, it’s just general social restraint collapse.

How can we reduce that mental load on them?

You can make these outings as predictable as possible. You don’t need to prep them for every eventuality, but remembering to go back and prime them about how to greet people, how to ask to join play with other kids, how to ask for a break when they need it, how to find the bathroom, when food will be offered. These are all things we haven’t had to spend any energy on for the last year because we’ve been at home!

As adults, we had likely 20+ years behind us doing those things, so they come back very naturally, but for a young child, these things take up a lot of brain power and require active thought.

Prepping them, role playing, showing them where things are when you get there, using visuals to support them in the order of events- really helps to mitigate the volume of energy they need AND helps them re-budget their energy better. Make sure that you’re giving them opportunities for breaks doing rejuvenating things.

What those things are are going to be different for every child, so pay close attention and identify the things that refill your child’s cup and give them that before the event and after it.

Allow them to “dock”.

I like to think of children as our little satellites and we’re the mothership pun 100% intended! They go out and explore and then they get low on energy and they come back and dock and hang out with us for a bit, and then when they feel refreshed they go out and explore a bit more.

Usually we see this pattern mainly in kids 1-3 years old mainly, but I’m seeing it emerge in preschoolers and kinders too right now because their social exposure got disrupted. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them, just that they need to kind of revisit that stage of social development as they re-adjust to so much social stimulation.

Don’t be surprised if your child is revisiting some earlier stages of social development in general.

If your child had difficulty with hitting when they were younger and you kind of got past that, you may notice it cropping up again.

Don’t panic! Don’t freak out!

If it just kind of fell off as they got more socially competent before…great! If it didn’t, make sure you look at why it’s happening. You may need to be giving the more breaks, they need some more direct instruction on how to handle those situations, or they may need some help working on their executive functioning skills.

You may also find your kids need a slightly earlier bedtime, social interaction takes a lot of energy, it requires us to be far more alert and “on”…so they might not be making it to the end of the day the same way they were when those demands weren’t on them. If you’re noticing that on days where they’ve had a lot of social interaction that they’re fading faster, move bedtime up by half an hour to an hour and give them that extra rest time. Especially when it comes to kids 3+, they don’t always go to sleep right away. Most kids take about half an hour to wind down before falling asleep, so moving their bedtime up might really just be giving them an extra half hour to decompress and that’s totally fine.

I hope that gave you a new perspective on why your child might be acting more clingy than typical and some ideas on how to adjust your response so that they get over it as quickly as possible and without any adverse reactions.

Remember, stress is tolerable as long as we have those supportive relationships helping us navigate it.

Also remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup, so if you don’t have the energy to help your kids navigate a social situation, don’t feel guilty for just opting out.

A lot of parents say that they feel guilty for saying no to all the opportunities for socialization that are now coming up but all of this applies to us too!

If we don’t have the energy to support our kids with the social navigation, then consider your options maybe you go by yourself if you’re able, maybe you go for a short period of time and just drop in and accept that you won’t be there for long, or maybe you just don’t go, that’s fine too!

I know there’s the desire and tendency to want to “catch up” on all the socialization we lost over the last year, but unless you are EXTREMELY extroverted and your children are too. I caution you to take it slow and build up to it gradually.

If you want to talk more about this join us in the Parenting Posse!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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