Q. I have just finished a parenting course and, because of it, I have been giving my children more of my time and attention, and we are having more fun. I have three kids – six years , four years and two and a half years. My problem is with my youngest. He has gone from an independent little boy to one seeking my attention all the time. He follows me everywhere and won’t even stay with his dad. I’ve tried being calm and I try to ignore him when he is hysterical but all he wants is to cling to me. It’s starting to wear me out mentally and physically. I’m not sure why the change in behaviour as the only change in the house is that I have been giving all three boys a lot more of my time to listen, talk and play together. The youngest has probably been getting extra time as we are together when the other two boys are in Montessori and school. I was putting it down to my giving him so much attention that he now expects it all day and it’s starting to affect my time with my other two boys.
A. It sounds like you have been a victim of your own success. Your son has responded to and enjoyed the special time and attention he gets from you but now finds it hard to give it up and wants to hold on to you for the whole day. Many parents report this problem to me when they start setting aside regular time to play with young children. Despite going well initially, the play can end up in conflict when the child does not want it to end and finds it hard to manage their feelings of frustration.
This is particularly a problem for two year olds who are at a developmental stage when they believe the world revolves around them and that their parents should be at their beck and call. It can also be an extra challenge for your son being the youngest as he is likely to compete with his older brothers for your attention while finding sharing the hardest and having the least social skills.
Knowing when you need to change
Generally, such clinginess is a temporary problem and tends to fade as the child develops emotionally, learns more social skills and gets used to the routines of when he has his parent’s attention and when he has to share. However, you may need to take more active steps to rebalance things especially if you find yourself becoming, as you say, worn out physically and mentally.
At this point you are likely to become frustrated or resentful and if you express this to your son, this can exacerbate the problem and make him cling to you more. As a parent you need to be self-aware about your levels of stress and frustration and see these as early warning signs that something might need to change in your approach.
A key balance to achieve in parenting is between the needs of your children and your own needs as a parent. The most effective parents prioritise their own wellbeing as well as their children’s to ensure they are on “top form” to tackle the demands of being a parent.
Creating routines to change a habit
The first step to rebalancing things with your son is to establish a clear routine when you are together alone during the day, that includes individual playtime with you, as well as time he has to play/occupy himself alone. You can do up a picture schedule (by drawing out pictures or taking a sequence of photos on your phone) that shows what is expected.
This should include a mix of having fun time with you, then doing something he likes by himself, before doing something again with you, eg a chore or a snack. Initially each of his own tasks should be short and something that is relatively easy for him to accept doing independently.
Once all the three children are there, it is important to have times when you play or listen to all three together. During this time you have to work hard to alternate your attention between all three and in particular to praise any “sharing” moments however brief – “you shared the blocks, good boy” or “good listening” or “that was great waiting” or “good boys for helping”, etc.
Include his father in the routine
It is important that you support his father in having one-to-one time with your son and the other children. Simple things like his father having his own playtime with him, or taking him for a walk or reading to him before bed can all make a difference. If he is initially clingy to you when his father tries to do these things, you might first do them together and then back off and let them get on with it.
Sometimes, the best way to approach this is for you to go out and to let their father take over all the parenting for a period, for example, you might go out for a walk for a half hour before bedtime. This might not only help break the pattern of clinginess but it also gives you a break as well as boosting the children’s relationship with their father and his confidence as a parent.
Distract him when he is upset
Finally, it is important to find effective strategies when he gets upset or hysterical. The key is to remain calm and positive. You might need to take time to soothe and reassure him as well as positively distracting him.
This does not mean that you have to “give in” to him when he is upset. For example, even if he gets hysterical you might still go out – “Mummy is going out now and will be back in a minute” – and leave it to his dad to distract and soothe him.
Once he sees you remain calm and warm, yet firm about the rules you need to set, his behaviour should settle and his upset become less frequent.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.