My 8 year old is very clingy

I’m having a challenging time with my eight-year-old boy primarily related to his obsession with me at the moment – he constantly wants to spend time with me. He can be extremely moody and nasty at times, throwing tantrums, especially if I am not available to him or if I spend time with my two other children (aged four and five).

He was very close to my father who passed away last year and I am aware that this might have affected him. I have tried to give him more time and set aside a reading time with him each night but he always pushes for more and interrupts me when I do anything else.

I took him away on an overnight with a friend of mine and her son. When we came back he said that wasn’t enough, that he did not spend enough quality time with me on the weekend. I find myself resenting his constant clinging and controlling behaviour of me.

The current situation is getting me down greatly and I am also conscious that my three and four year old are witnessing his negative behaviour and tantrums. I would be grateful for any help you can provide.

Frequently, children go through periods of feeling insecure which makes them seek out their parents’ attention and reassurance. In your situation, it sounds like your son might be particularly affected by the loss of his grandfather.

Such a significant bereavement can make a child clingy and insecure – if he has lost his grandfather he might fear (even unconsciously) that he could lose you in the same way and this increases his insecurity. In addition, you may be going through your own bereavement and loss – and during these times many parents can become “introverted” or less available to their children who particularly need them.

It is common for children to “act up” at these times and their distress can display itself as “attention seeking”, demanding and competitive behaviour which can easily become a pattern. If you refuse his attempts to have more time, he can interpret this as rejection and this can make him more needy and seek you out more.

If he can’t get your attention positively, he is likely to resort to getting your attention in negative ways such as tantrums and rows – this can lead to you getting angry and cutting off more which can further increase his rejection.

Accept that he needs you more at the moment
The first step in moving forward is to empathise and understand what might be at the bottom of his behaviour. Accept that he might need you more at the moment. Being sensitive to his feelings and not just seeing his behaviour in negative terms can make a big difference. In addition, be sensitive and understanding of how you are feeling and where you are at. How are you feeling about the loss of your father? Do you need more support about this at the moment? How can you reduce your own stress levels?

Ensure you have a special daily time with him
As you are doing already, establish a good routine that allows you to have a check-in time with him as well as some activities one to one. If he is demanding of your attention at other times when you are busy, try to be upbeat and positive as you redirect him “we will have our talk later . . . can you help me now with this?”.

Be careful not to express frustration or to use any negatively rejecting language. Having a positive tone and a smiling face is important. If he does throw a tantrum, try to “pause” and unhook from the negative interaction and talk to him later about his behaviour.

Consider ‘love bombing’
Remember that it is the one to one that seems to matter most to your son – for this reason the overnight with friends did not work so well for him as primarily what he needs at the moment is your attention. The psychologist Oliver James recommends using the technique of “love bombing” children who might have got into negative behaviour patterns as a means of repairing the relationship and resetting their “emotional thermostat”.

This means setting aside a day or overnight when you can completely follow your son’s lead and give him your undivided attention and love for an extended period. Pick an activity that you and your son might really like (such as a hill walk or a special trip). This is something you should do at some point with all your children and will require the co-operation of your partner and a bit of planning.

Talk about the bereavement with him
Check in periodically with him about how he is feeling about the loss of his grandfather. This is a conversation that might come up naturally at certain anniversaries (such as birthdays) when you might recall memories about his grandfather or you can set aside time to read through a children’s story book on bereavement with him.

This will give you an opportunity to check in on how he is feeling and to explore any fears he might have. Such conversations could bring you closer together and help you both cope. There are some good Irish organisations and resources online that can help such as

Treat him as the eldest in family
As he is the oldest you can try to give him special responsibilities in the household. Discuss how you need his help in minding the younger children and in helping the family (this could be something you raise when you have a conversation about his grandfather above). Can you involve him in helpful chores around the house that you can do together such as doing the laundry or tidying up or gardening?

This would mean he can get your special attention while you complete useful household tasks together which is likely to make you both feel good. It can take time to motivate and get children involved in chores but it is well worth the effort.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, June 2013.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.
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