Q: I have a very affectionate 31/2-year-old. He is constantly asking for hugs and to sit on my lap or to be right next to me, and when I ask him for space, he responds with, "But I really like you!" It's adorable and heart-melting, but it doesn't solve my issue of being totally touched out. We spend a lot of quality time together. He's also in child care 40 hours a week. We eat dinner as a family and then play a game or play with toys together before we begin his bedtime routine, which is also a lot of togetherness (bath, books, cuddling). I am trying to make sure he knows that he's safe and secure and loved, but I feel like I'm missing something somewhere, otherwise he might not be so clingy. Do you have any suggestions for us?
A: For even the most touchy-feely of parents, having a clingy child can be hugely challenging. Beyond always being physically touched, I think parents are also bristling at the feeling of the neediness that drives all of the touching. It can feel like a motor is running in the child, and no matter how you try to satiate his needs, the motor won't turn off — or even decelerate.
As I write this, most of us are collectively trapped inside during the coronavirus pandemic, which may change how clingy your 3-year-old is. In any case, let's take a look at what causes clinginess in children.
Firstly, the younger children are, the more they need to be physically close to their main attachments. This means that if your son is spending a good bit of his day in day care, he misses your physical touch and will use every opportunity to get close to you. He is not trying to manipulate or control you; he is being run by an internal engine that must get close to you. He cannot override this need, and we don't want him to. There is often (not always) a polarity effect of day care and 3-year-olds: When they are in day care, they are fully with those providers, but when they see you, they seem to swing to the opposite side, desperately wanting to be with you. It can be exhausting.
Secondly, the younger children are, the more they figure out the world using their senses. Because their prefrontal cortex is still a ways off from being fully developed, your smell, taste, sound and touch are how they relax; they cannot do this through conversation (as adults often do).
Finally, this kind of clinginess can be a product of your child beginning to exert more power over you. Again, your 3-year-old is not trying to be this needy; he is simply reacting to normal and necessary impulses in his nervous system. But an interesting dynamic can begin with this clinginess that makes it become more of a behavioral issue. It goes like this: Your son wants to be physically close to you, climbs all over you and generally won't stop touching you. You are happy to be close to him, but soon you need to do things, not to mention that you aren't in the mood for this much touching. You pry him off you, calmly explaining that you need space, but that doesn't mean anything to him. All he knows is that you are separating from him, which only makes him needier. He compliments you, follows you and doubles down on his need to be near you, continuing the dynamic of chase-smother-removed-chase-smother-removed. It is tiring.
What can you do? I recommend a combination of connecting with him before he chases you around, as well as setting some boundaries (and allowing the tears to fall). Before he begins to have the opportunity to climb on you and make demands, I want you to connect with him first. Squeeze him in, don't let him go, snuggle him next to you and really hold on — maybe even a little tighter than you're used to.
Put another way, Deborah MacNamara, author of "Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers," described it like this to me: "Young children hunger for connection, and we need to provide more than they need and take the lead in matters of attachment. If your son needs a hug, then you can release him from his relational hunger by giving him more attention than asked for, and even better, provide one before he asks. A child's faith must be in their provider and not in their pursuit of them." Write down on a sticky note, "Provide more than needed," and hang it wherever you need to.
When it is time to let go and move on, get down on his level and say: "Mommy has to make dinner now. I know this is sad, and I hope you stay in the kitchen with me to help!" He may stay, he may cry, and he may beg, but whatever happens, keep going with your work. Stay compassionately silent (because talking will add frustration to frustration), don't punish and keep it moving forward. At some point, he will stop crying and simply feel the pain of things not going his way. That's good! It means he is adapting to life.
This will pass; just try to steer clear of creating a "neediness" dynamic. Good luck!
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.