Q I have a very attached 4-year-old who has a difficult time saying goodbye to me. It is getting a bit better, but the school drop-off is still an issue. I tried an idea you wrote about and gave her a long hug at home, waiting for her to pull away — and 30 minutes later she was still pretty latched on. I love that we have such a strong bond but would also appreciate any advice on how to make separations easier. Right now, at school, one of her teachers will gently guide her to an activity while I leave so that I am not pushing her away. She does not cry but gives me a sad face and later tells me it’s the worst part of her day. Her teachers assure me that minutes later she is happy. My husband says the same thing when I leave the house — she cries when I leave but is fine a minute later. I work during the week, so she goes to after-care. She has a 6-year-old big sister who feels neglected sometimes because the younger one demands so much attention from me specifically. Help!
A I read this question, and in my mind I heard the hundreds of parents who have called me about their clingy children.
We parents hug and pat and console and pry and wrench them off, delivering them into the teacher’s hands. The tears and wailing go on long after the other children have seemed to adapt to the drop-off. We are tense; it is a dreadful way to start a school day. If we work outside the home, we feel tremendous guilt. If we stay at home, we wonder where we have gone wrong.
So, how can we begin to understand this clinginess? And why does the clinginess happen mostly in your presence?
Being 4 is intense for a child. It’s the quintessential “I am big and I am little” stage. One minute, the 4-year-old will be helpful and show amazing glimpses of rational thinking and empathy. Another, this same child will have an epic tantrum. She can swing between these two poles with fierce alacrity, leaving you winded and frustrated.
What you are experiencing is a child who is coming into herself. She is at once deeply connected with you and wants to literally stay close to you, and on the other hand the child is emerging into herself, becoming more separate. She is becoming a person full of her own desires and opinions. It is a wild time.
In order for a 4-year-old to feel safe and grow into some independence, the child must feel safe. And what we have here is a child who, for whatever reason, has warnings going off that say, “Not safe! Mom must stay! Not safe!”
This is her perception, and she has no more control over it than I have over the clouds.
Does this mean that you are doing something wrong? No, not necessarily. You are doing everything you can to try to make her feel better. We just need a new understanding of what we are seeing.
So, if we know her little brain is saying, “Stay, Mommy! I feel safe when you are with me! Stay!” the question then becomes how can we bring some relaxation to her? How can we bring a feeling of safety to these transitions? These are not questions that are answered by pure logic. They are answered in bringing about a feeling. Only you are going to be able to find the key to what helps your daughter feel safe, and even then, much depends on her simply growing up.
Let’s begin by focusing on these messy transitions.
When the environment is calm (not during drop-off) and you and your daughter are feeling close, just casually mention, “It is pretty sad when Mommy leaves you at school, isn’t it?” and see how she reacts. She may stay quiet, she may push back and get angry (in which case, change the topic, and come back to it later). Or she may start to cry a little about it, which is good. She can safely have her tears about missing you without the impending act of you leaving in that moment. You can also take this moment to reassure her that, yes, it is sad, but you love her forever and you always plan to see her again.
While she is experiencing some sadness, what you want to do next is create a bridge to the next time you will be together. “I will see you after day care. I will pick you up.” You always focus on when you will see her again; this brings a feeling of safety, and you can begin to do this when you are not in the throes of the actual transition. When you are in the actual transition, you will repeat the bridge to that next reunion.
Just lightly touch on this when you are not in transition and allow all of those healthy tears to fall.
Another practice that often works is to give your daughter something physical to hold on to. It can be something of yours, a photo album (with baby pictures) of you together, something that connects you.
And go ahead and begin a goodbye ritual that you repeat, no matter what. Squeezing the hand three times to mean, “I love you,” or a certain number of hugs. Get creative, but keep it simple.
And finally, let’s not ignore the 6-year-old. While you are making a little photo book for the 4-year-old, make one for her, too. While you are finding a special ritual for the 4-year-old, find one for her, too. While you are finding a lovey for the 4-year-old, find one for the 6-year-old, too! And while the 4-year-old is seeking you out and clinging, so too are you going to have to seek out her sister and thoughtfully separate some time for her. It can be while you are home. (Enlist the help of your spouse.) It can be a special (but simple) outing. It can be whatever you make it. But mindfully decide to do it; do not wait for time to open up or for your older daughter to approach you.
And when you have her alone, allow her to vent about what a whiny mess her little sister is. Allow all of the messy and ugly feelings to come out. Remember, you are her safe harbor, so you can handle this. You can nod and simply listen: It is hard to have a clingy little sister. It is frustrating to listen to her. As you make room for her hurt feelings, you will sense a shift. That shift is her trust returning; the trust that you are there for her. That she can depend on you. Repeat this kind of bonding as much as you need to until you feel the pendulum reach the middle again. Good luck.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns.