The toddler years are full of growth and development that, generally, send toddlers hurtling towards independence fast enough to make their parents’ and caregivers’ heads spin. But while fast and furious movement towards independence is the rule for toddlers around this age in general, when it comes to many specific, individual toddlers, growth may be a little more complicated than that, and plenty of tots are a little more reluctant to dive into independence head-first.
In fact, for many toddlers, the walk towards independence, like many of their first series of steps, doesn’t go in a straight line. Many toddlers around this stage are still going through some form of separation anxiety, and still others may move back and forth between extreme independence and extreme clinginess without any warning or much of any in-between.
Why some toddlers resist independence
The toddler years are full of changes, in both Baby’s body and their brain, and as startling as that can be for you, it’s sure to be even more so for them, both because you at least have some idea of what to expect while they doesn’t really have a frame of reference, and because it’s their body, their critical thinking skills, and their emotions that keep changing on them. A few reasons they might have to resist their growing ability to stand on their own two feet might include:
- They know they are growing up – and that’s scary. They may want to be babied a little as a way of proving that the world isn’t moving too fast for them. This might include wanting to be carried to places where they could easily walk, wanting to be spoon-fed, or, a little later, resisting potty training.
- These days, they know they're a different person from you – and that’s scary, too. They have the understanding of object permanence to know that, when you leave, you are somewhere else – but not enough to be sure you’ll come back soon. They are learning from the way you act now about the way you’ll act in the future, so if you tell them you’ll be back in an hour, and then you are, it will help build their confidence. On the other hand, if you sneak out, they may learn that they need to stick close to you, or you’ll disappear. This won’t make your partings any easier right now, but may lead to some more seamless goodbyes in the future. For many toddlers, separation anxiety has already peaked at this point, and is starting to decrease, but for a few, it’s still pretty immediate.
- Too many things are changing in their life at once, whether that’s a switch to a new daycare center, a new sibling, or even just a change to their morning routine. It isn’t always easy to tell which changes will really bother a toddler, but when something happens that does, it’s pretty common for them to compensate by grabbing onto something steady in their life – you.
- They isn’t feeling well, but isn’t sure how to tell you, so they are sticking close to you, just to be safe.
Finally, sometimes, a little extra clinginess is just a question of personality. Toddlers don’t have all the markers we usually use to gauge personalities in adults, so it can be harder to tell what those personality traits are, since toddlers have a more limited palette for expressing them. They might be a little shy, but, on the other hand, they might actually be extra social, and be getting upset at the idea of losing their best playmate, friend, and audience, all at once – even if you’re just leaving to go to the bathroom.
Clinginess as a facet of toddler’s personality, and how that personality interacts with a certain developmental stage doesn’t mean that they will cling forever, either. But even if clinging is a part of their personality, working with them to help them enjoy and thrive on their growing independence is a step in the right direction.
Helping your toddler enjoy their growing independence
At this age, it’s normal and not a problem for toddlers to veer back and forth between being independent adventurers and not wanting to stray too far without holding a parent’s hand. Since there are so many reasons why toddlers can be feeling a little clingy in different ways and at different times, there’s no one way to successfully encourage your tot to strike out on their own, but there are a few different strategies you can use in different situations to try to help them enjoy their newfound abilities, from the social skills to make friends with people other than you to the ability to run across the playground away from you.
Ideally, whenever you can, it’s a good idea to try to set up situations where they will want to separate from you, instead of holding on until you need to separate from them. This is often easier said than done, but one way to help make it more likely is to start to leave room for longer transitions. If you show up somewhere that Baby has never been before a little early, you can start to show them around, and get them familiar with the space before it’s time for whatever activity you’re going for. This also can give them the chance to watch the room or space fill up gradually, instead of walking into a crowd.
In more familiar situations, like daycare, or dropping them off with a relative for babysitting, showing up early might give them the chance to start to play and have fun while you’re still there, or even attach to another adult there, which might help them let you go more easily.
Setting up situations where a clinging toddler lets go on their own as often as you can manage it is important because pushing clingy kids to be independent too often can actually have the opposite effect, making them more insecure and unsure of themselves. Making them confident in you, themselves, and the situations they find themselves in is more likely to encourage independence in the future. On the other hand, while encouraging a separation on your toddler’s own terms when you can is a good idea when it’s possible, it isn’t always an option. More than that, it isn’t a failure, or the end of the world, to have a messy goodbye now and then. A huge part of the toddler years is figuring out what works for your family on any given day, and if you don’t quite manage it today, you’ll have a better idea of what might work tomorrow instead.
When your toddler clings to one parent and not the other
It can be upsetting, even to the most mature adult, to feel rejected by a little one. On the other hand, being your toddler’s chosen one can be tiring and frustrating. Either way, whether you’re your toddler’s very best friend, or the parent who always seems to come in second place lately, it’s a stage that generally passes pretty quickly.
Some toddlers cling to the parent they see the most often at certain points in their development. A toddler might do this either out of greater familiarity, or because they’re upset that the other parent is away from them more often. In either case, generally, the best way to address this, besides waiting it out, is to make a point to spend a little extra quality time with them – even if they resist a little at first.
On the other hand, it’s also common for a toddler to latch on to a parent who isn’t around as much, leaving the parent who does more day-to-day care for them feeling left-behind. This may be because of a sense of making the most of the time when the favored parent is home, or because they have so much trust in the parent who stays home with them that they are willing to show off their “bad” side. In either case, again, the best way to handle this is generally just to wait it out, although it can also be a good time to start setting limits about the way they respond to this temporary preference. For example, asking for a specific parent to read their bedtime story is fine – having a tantrum when they doesn’t get what they want is not.
- Melinda Wener Moyer. “‘Caaaarrrryyyyy Meeeeeeeee!’ How to handle a clingy kid.” Slate. Slate, January 10 2014. Retrieved June 26 2017. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2014/01/clingy_kids_is_there_a_cure.html.
- “Helping Raise and Independent Toddler.” AskDrSears. AskDrSears.com. Retrieved June 26 2017. https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/attachment-parenting/independent-toddler.