Clinginess vs Separation Anxiety
Throughout your little ones life, you will find them beginning to explore their world and want to become more independent.
However, you may also find that your little one progresses through periods of clinginess and intensive attachment, and some may also have periods of separation anxiety.
It can be really tricky to know what is “normal” and age appropriate and what behaviours may need further attention. This blog will aim to answer these questions and also give you tools to help your little one develop through these phases.
What Is Clinginess?
Periodic clinginess is very normal, in fact it’s a sign that you and your child have a healthy relationship and it is ultimately a sign that your child considers you to be a comfort
Babies and toddlers who have developed a secure attachment with caregivers have learned through their experiences that you are always available and sensitive to their needs and feel the need to have you close as they continue to safely explore their world.
For newborns, the first 0-12 weeks of their life earth side, will involve lots of skin to skin contact, holding and cuddling. Newborns will actually believe they are still apart of you and as such, will feel most comfortable on, or near you.
While these first few weeks and incredibly exhausting, it is important to allow your little one to be clingy and to provide them with lots on skin to skin contact and cuddles.
As your little one then progresses to 12 weeks of age, you will likely see them happy and content to be at a distance from you and this intensive clinginess will reduce as they begin to further explore their world.
When things get scary or unpredictable, your toddler comes back to you to gain reassurance that you are still there to keep them safe.
Toddlerhood are the years where your little one is striving for their independence, however, are still needing to feel safe in their new ventures or in unknown situations. Periodic clinginess is a sign that your child trusts you – that you are doing things right! The ‘scary’ situations that I am referring to for a toddler can be hard to identify, because they’re often not very scary to us as adults.
Anything a child perceives as unpredictable can spark it, whether it’s a minor transition or a major shift in their little life. Some common “triggers” can include:
✖️Beginning Day Care or moving rooms
✖️Starting a new play group
✖️Mum or Dad returning to work, or increasing their work hours
✖️Developmental milestones, such as language development
✖️A new sibling arriving
✖️Going on holiday or travelling
Certain processes and events may also spark an increase in clinginess, as your little one may associate these with you leaving. These can include everything from getting in the car to drive to daycare, to asking your little one to put their shoes on, as this means mum or dad goes to work.
Simple and often common actions can trigger so many thoughts and emotions in a toddlers mind.
These stages of clinginess are often short-lived and generally happen as the event is occurring. This means, you will often see that your little one is fine and content, until the moment they realise you may be leaving or there is a change to their routine.
Example: For some little ones, they will be happy when getting into the car and driving to daycare. They may even be happy with waking into daycare with you, however the moment you say “Okay, mum/dad is leaving now”, the meltdown ensues and the clinginess heightens.
While these are generally short-lived phases, sometimes they can be prolonged depending on how we, as parents, respond and react.
As a parent, we only ever want the best for our little ones, however, in some cases, we can facilitate this clinginess and may result in this temperamental clinginess turning into separation anxiety.
This isn’t at all to suggest that we can’t soothe and attend to our little ones and definitely doesn’t mean you as a parent are doing anything “wrong”, however, sometimes the way we respond will then in-turn affects the way our little ones respond and react.
Clinginess is normal and to be expected as your little one ventures out and explores the world. If you have a more “shy” or “introverted” toddler, you may find that their clinginess peaks in new and different environments or around new people.
For each child, these triggers may be different and the way you respond to one child, may be different to how you would respond to another. It is important to remember that while our little ones all have many similarities and will travel through similar phases and developments, they will require different needs to be met and as such, some trial and error to see what works for your little one, may be needed.
What is Separation Anxiety and how does this differ to clinginess?
The term “separation anxiety” is often used to describe a toddler who is clingy, however it is important to understand and recognise the difference between expected, periodic clinginess and genuine separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety often stems from clinginess, however continues to develop over a period of time and often worsens.
Many children who suffer from separation anxiety will also demonstrate physical distress and disturbances, such as:
✖️Stomachaches and headaches
✖️Increased bedwetting or day time accidents in an otherwise dry child
✖️Increase in night terrors and nightmares
✖️Distress and fear about being alone or away from you
✖️Difficulty sleeping alone or without you being with them.
✖️ Resistance in going to daycare, school or situations where you are not present with them
✖️Expression of “fear” or “distress” when thinking or talking about being away from the parent
Many of these symptoms will overlap with those of normal clinginess, however the biggest differentiation between clinginess and separation anxiety is when it begins, how long it lasts and how it affects your little ones otherwise normal functioning.
Clinginess will be short lived, generally lasting between a few days to 3 or so weeks and will level out as your little one progresses through it. It will often only occur as the event is happening (such as when a parent announces they have to leave).
Separation anxiety will last for 4 weeks + and will continue to heighten or get worse over time. Periods of clinginess will reduce and no longer be evident from around 5-6 years of age, separation anxiety will continue from 6+ years of age. Most separation anxiety will occur before an event happens and continue throughout the event, until your little one is back you or in a known environment.
Example: if your little one is attending daycare and has been for 2+ weeks and is crying at every drop off, but seemingly settles down quickly after you leave, it is likely your little is travelling through expected clinginess.
However, if your little one has been attending daycare for 4+ weeks and is continuing this protest after you have left and is unable to settle into this environment, your little one may be suffering from separation anxiety.
So, How Can We Help Our Little Ones?
Because of the closeness in symptoms between the two, many parents will find it tricky to navigate through these behaviours. If you believe your little one may be suffering from genuine separation anxiety, I would suggest to speak to your GP about your concerns.
They will be able to provide you with further guidance, reassurance and support and also provide you with referrals to a child psychologist or occupational therapist if your little one does need some further support.
However, below are some helpful and beneficial tips you can use, to help strengthen your little ones independence and allow them to feel comfortable when being away from you.
Understand Who Your Little One is.
If you have a naturally “shy” or “introverted” toddler, they won’t want to be the life of the party and may find these situations overwhelming. They will stay with you and come to you for comfort, which is very expected. You don’t need to try and change your little one’s personality, but providing them with opportunities to explore and feel safe are important.
Take into consideration your little ones age and recent changes.
If your toddler has recently had a routine change or environment change, it is normal for them to progress through a period of clinginess. Continue to follow the new routine, reassure your little one and be there for them when they need comfort or guidance.
Try to not dismiss your little ones feelings as often even small changes can create a level of chaos in a little ones world. You may need to become creative in how you handle these phases. If your toddler demands that you stay in the playroom with them for a bit longer, but you really need to clean the kitchen, then you could set up some toys near the kitchen so you are within eyesight.
Alternatively, you can always look for ways to include your child in these activities and provide them with "special" jobs that they can easily complete.
If your child won’t let you be away from them, hold them, cuddle them and continue to reassure them you are there. Implement games such as “Hide and Seek” and try to make separations and reunions as positive as possible (even if your little one is upset).
Avoid creating an expectation for anxiety.
Many parents may have already figured out their little ones triggers and as such will try and “overload” their little ones with thoughts and feelings. This in itself can actually increase your little ones clinginess and facilitate their separation anxiety. Little ones are often very responsive with our body language and will often pick up on our stress and anxiety as well.
Do your best to remain calm, positive and reassuring when you know there will be the need for separation or encountering a new environment or task.
Prepare your little one for this by talking about what will happen, but focus on the positives!
Instead of saying:
“ When we go to Anne’s house, mum and dad will leave and miss you very much”
Say something to the effect of:
“ While you are at Anne’s house, mum and dad will be at work, BUT I can’t believe how much FUN you will have at Anne’s house! What fun activities do you think you will do ?”
You may also need to pay close attention to your body language and verbal communication when exposing your child to new situations, separations or environments.
✖️Do you pull your child close to you?
✖️Do you grab your child’s hand?
✖️Do you pick your child up and turn away?
✖️Do show signs of panic or distress?
✖️Do you purposely avoid these situations?
✖️Are you speaking for your child? Saying things such as “I know you will be scared/upset/worried” or labelling them constantly as “clingy, anxious or shy?”
Verbal communication and body language have an incredible influence on how your little ones will respond to social situations. It is almost expected that if you are distressed, panicked or anxious about this event, your little one will then begin to associate these events with those emotions and this will continue to compound from clinginess into separation anxiety.
Model confidence, calmness and comfortableness (even if you have to fake it until you make it) and your little one is likely to model this too.
Provide frequent, gradual exposure and don’t avoid
Avoiding separations, new environments and people is likely to only make this clinginess and separation anxiety worse.
Find creative ways to expose your child to new environments, people and situations and do this at a pace that you and your little one are comfortable and confident with.
Some fantastic ways to do this include:
✖️Play-dates with family and close friends
✖️Walks to the park
✖️Having friends with little ones of similar age over
✖️Going to play centres
✖️Walking around shopping centres
✖️Walking in public spaces (both quiet and busy depending on how your little one is progressing)
✖️Attending local activities and events
When your little one finds these new places or people scary, it is natural to want to protect them from them, however provide more opportunities to talk, interact, observe and become comfortable, rather than reducing their exposure.
You don’t need to overload your little one, but facilitate these opportunities where possible and remember to pay close attention to your responses as well.
Understand and support, without discrediting your little ones feelings.
As adults, we generally know the process to certain situations, we know there isn’t anything scary about shopping centres and we know that when we leave our little ones, we will come back.
However, your little one doesn’t always understand these processes and to them, these can be genuinely scary situations.
Be understanding and patient with your little ones fears.
Becoming frustrated and annoyed will likely only perpetuate these. Take time to listen, understand and support your little ones.
Instead of saying:
“ There is nothing to be scared of, you are being silly”
” I know this is hard for you, I am here with you. How about you take one step at a time, or go over there and wave, and I will wave back?”.
Look at naming the emotions when they happen, not when you think they may occur. It can be easy for parents and adults (who know the process and know how little ones may respond) to say
“I know you will be scared/anxious/upset”.
However, I would encourage parents to allow their little ones to explore, before naming their experience for them.
By saying “ I know you will be scared” your little one will now think they SHOULD be scared.
Take notice of your language and try to change how you approach this. Encourage and be positive about trying and then if you see your little one become upset, help them to label these feelings.
“ I can see that you are upset/angry/sad, what is making you feel this way?”
“ I can see that all these people are making you feel a bit overwhelmed, what can I do to help?”
Avoid “lying” and “tricking” your child when separating.
If your child is progressing through a clingy phase or is harbouring some separation anxiety, the worst thing you can do is try and trick them when separating.
While this may help to avoid the melt-down on the surface, this is also saying to your child “I am unpredictable, will leave without notice and don’t let your guard down when I am around, because I will disappear”.
How does a child then ensure that you won’t leave?
They cling to you and won’t let go.
Teach your child that when you leave, you will come back and try to avoid sneaking out when they aren’t paying attention. While in the beginning, this may seem like the "harder" option, your little one will begin to trust and be confident that when you are leaving you are coming back and when you are there, you aren’t leaving unless you tell them.
Develop solid separation rituals and try to avoid long stalling or lingering. Keep these transitions as routine as possible reassure your child that they are safe and that you will return.