The vast majority of parents love their children and enjoy the time they spend together. Sometimes, though, there can be a little too much togetherness. Several parents have recently consulted Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, about how to manage their clingy children.
“What do I do with my overly, super-clingy child? Whenever we go out in public, my child sticks to my leg or tries to climb up my body while I talk to other adults. It’s very embarrassing. It’s very invasive. And it makes me feel like I have no space. My child is constantly hanging on to me and won’t give me any kind of space or time alone. What do I do about that? How do I teach my child not to be so clingy?”
This type of behavior is fairly common and aligns with a anxiety-based profile, which are children who are anxious, shy, lack confidence and fearful of a lot of different things. This tend to manifest as clinginess, especially in single parent families or families where one parent is absent a lot due to work or some other obligation.
Dr. Boney counsels parents to work on decreasing the child’s motivation to be clingy. Think of the concept of motivation like tanks that are always being filled and then being emptied. Children have attention tanks, access-to-their-favorite-item tanks, food tanks, sleep tanks and other motivation tanks. Some children have a very strong desire for parental attention, and, consequently, they have a giant attention tank. When they are with the parent and getting a lot of attention, the tank is filling, but, when they are alone, the tank is emptying. So, what you need to do is recognize those times when the child is likely to become clingy, like when out in public or where there are others vying for your attention. Then make sure you give good, quality attention before those times. Really connect with the child so that their attention tank is filled.
This is called non-contingent reinforcement, which means that you are giving it away for free, rather than as a reward for good behavior. By doing this frequently throughout the day, you decrease the need for the child to engage in an undesirable way of trying to get attention, like being clingy. If they have become conditioned to know that the attention is coming, they will have less motivation to demand it now.
It is very important to make it clear to children that there are certain times when it is okay to do clingy type behavior and certain times when it is not. For example, Dr. Boney teaches his clients to tell their children that it is okay when the parents are at home and sitting down but is not okay out in public or when they are standing and doing other things at home. Even for children who have never had to deal with these boundaries, this type of conditioning will be effective, if you are consistent with it.
For those times when your child becomes clingy at an inappropriate time, immediately withdraw attention from the child as much as possible. Then, as soon as they stop being clingy or show some signs of independence, quickly reinforce that behavior with attention.
Try to make the child feel as safe and comfortable as possible. Prepare them for new and potentially anxiety-provoking situations by talking to them about it in advance and giving them other options of ways to get your attention without resorting to inappropriate behaviors. Especially in the beginning, reduce and avoid triggers for clinginess, like going to places that will be unfamiliar or scary. Start with places that are more comfortable to them. Avoid arguments and confrontations before going out in public and reduce outings that occur after long periods of absence, like right after picking them up from daycare. Try to work in some quality time together before putting them in a situation where they cannot have all of your attention.
Start teaching and reinforcing replacement behaviors. Start small and use brief and short absences. “Brief and short” are relative terms, obviously, because some parents can’t even go to the bathroom without their child demanding to go with them. This is not healthy for parent or child! Find ways to comfortably distract your child for brief periods of time while you go take a shower or spend a few minutes in another room. Start small and work your way to longer periods.
Praise every attempt that your child makes to be independent. Let them know what you expect from them, and then notice every time they make the attempt to comply. Praise that immediately. Notice times when they would normally be clingy and, when they aren’t, tell them how proud you are of them. Make sure that they know how important their behaving appropriately is to you.
Some parents do not like to hear this one, but it is extremely important that children are able to sleep alone as early as possible. Not doing this makes establishing boundaries more difficult and reinforces dependence. The more independent they are, the healthier and happier children are. Teach your child to take control of their behavior and become independent as early as possible.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about what to do with an overly-clingy child or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.