Why is my child suddenly clingy?


What’s Happening? Why Children Suddenly Cling, Don’t Want to Be Alone, or Refuse to Dress, Walk or Feed Themselves.

The last thing Katie needed when she was trying to manage returning to an office  and caring for her kids was her five-year-old son Sam suddenly morphing into a limp rag doll sprawling on the floor incapable of dressing himself. And if that wasn’t bad enough, a once relatively peaceful bedtime had mutated into a nightmare of one desperate call-back after the other.

The harder she pushed him to do what he was perfectly capable of doing, the stronger his resistance and the louder the shrieks. 

Katie is not alone, nor is this sudden shift in behavior limited to toddlers and preschooler. Older school age children, tweens and teens are “off” too.  What’s up? What’s happened to the children who mere weeks ago could independently dress and feed themselves, start and complete their work without constant reminders and never worried where you were in the house. Now, however, these same capable children claim they are incapable of making a decision, ask over and over what’s going to happen, don’t want to be left alone and are waking in the night. 

These “regressive behaviors” are indicators of high stress. All systems have shut down. It’s as though the children have slipped back into infancy incapable of caring for themselves in any shape or form.  It’s frustrating and irritating when this happens, and sometimes even frightening, which is why it is so important to realize that the children are telling us with these behaviors is, “My world has been rocked!  I need to know and believe that you will take care of me.” Developmental psychologist Erik Erickson described 8 stages of psychosocial development we all go through during our lifetime. While the term psychosocial development may seem mysterious, as a parent you see, hear and experience examples of psychosocial development every day.

The first stage, which is trust vs mistrust, occurs from birth to 18 months. It is the foundation of a secure attachment. During infancy you sensitively responded to your baby’s cues, knowing that doing so allowed him to trust that you would consistently and predictably meet his needs. Your responses fostered a sense of security. 

The second stage Autonomy vs. Doubt describes the period from 18 months to 3 years of age. It is during this stage that your child began to develop independence. “I do it myself!” became a favorite refrain. When life throws us a curve ball, as has occurred recently, no matter what our stage of psychosocial development we find ourselves needing to re-visit earlier stages. Your child who was demonstrating independence is now saying, “Wait, I’m feeling very little and scared. I need to know you are here for me.” There are two key steps to helping your child re-affirm his sense of trust so he can reclaim his independence. 

1. Recognize the “regressive behaviors” as indicators of high stress, not intentional “misbehaviors.” 

2. Proactively meet your child’s needs and gently nudge him forward. 


The regressive behaviors take many forms, but here are a few examples of what you may see or hear: 


  • Anxiety 
  • Toileting accidents 
  • Wants help with self-care tasks even though he/she is capable of doing them independently. 
  • Gets upset if you are out of sight. 
  • Wants to be held or carried.
  • Can’t fall asleep without you near.
  • Wakes frequently in the night and struggles to return to sleep. 
  • Fearful – won’t enter a room without the lights on 
  • It takes two hours to complete basic tasks that should require ten minutes max. 
  • Can’t make decisions 

When a child is demonstrating these behaviors, a natural reaction is to push harder. But your “power” is in staying tuned into what your child is telling you he/she needs now, instead of resisting or negating it.


Be proactive. BEFORE your child demands help, offer your assistance and support. For example, you may say: “It’s time to get dressed. Do you want me to help you, or do you want to do it yourself?” “I’m going to go put in the laundry. Do you want to come with me, or stay and play?” “Do you want me to carry you down the steps, or walk?” The key to success is to proactively offer assistance EVERY time. If sometimes you offer your help, but the next time you push your child to do it herself, you unwittingly create a sense of mistrust. She doesn’t know IF she can count on your support or not. The result is that the child becomes MORE DEMANDING and NEEDY instead of less. 

Gently nudge forward. Many may fear responding to your child in this way will create a “bad habit,” of dependency. This is a valid concern. The key to nurturing independence is in meeting the needs AND gently nudging forward. If your child wants your assistance, help her but as you do, say, "Okay, today I will help you. Soon you'll be comfortable doing it yourself." Your child learns she can trust you to meet her needs, and assures her that she is competent and capable. One day she surprises you by responding to your offer of help by saying, "No thank you. I will do it myself." And she does." 


Dr. Mary and Lynn

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