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Please Don't Leave!

Philip's reaction to strangers may seem extreme, but as many mothers and fathers know, babies and small children often feel frightened or tense in new situations. Even parents who aren't contending with a clinger have probably seen the type: She's the toddler at a birthday party who hides in the folds of her mother's skirt, or the 5-year-old who sobs every time he's left with a new babysitter, or the infant who buries her head in her dad's neck if a stranger so much as glances at her.

Attempts to pry these bashful youngsters loose can be both heart- and back-wrenching. But there are a few steps a parent can take to make the process easier for everyone. First, however, it helps to find out what's behind a child's clinginess.

In many cases, clingy behavior is simply a normal phase that kids go through on the way to becoming more independent. According to Dr. Stanley Turecki, a child and family psychiatrist in New York City and the author of The Difficult Child, babies and small children pass through several developmental stages in which they become particularly dependent. Between 7 and 9 months, for instance, many infants start to show signs of uneasiness or fear at the sight of an unfamiliar face. At this age, it's common for babies to act possessive of a parent or babysitter and to cling to her like cellophane; they're also likely to become attached to an object that brings them comfort, such as a blanket or a teddy bear.

This period of extreme neediness usually peaks at about 1 year, then gradually subsides. However, any stage of development that involves separation and independence may cause a youngster to feel insecure. At 2, for instance, toddlers often become apprehensive as they begin to explore or play on their own. And when kids enter preschool, their fearfulness may make an encore appearance. Robin Elia, a mother in Yaphank, NY, recalls that when her son, Christopher, started preschool, he used to clutch her leg, sobbing, every morning. "I gave him the nickname Velcro because I had to peel him off me each day." Christopher eventually adjusted to his new school routine, but he needed to be eased into it with plenty of gentle prodding from his mother.

Born to Cling?

Other children seem to be clingy by temperament — as if they had exited the womb with a firm grasp on the umbilical cord. As babies, they often suffer from irritability and seem to need to be comforted, rocked, or held all the time. Later, says Turecki, these sensitive kids may become unnerved by anything — a new caregiver or a visit to a friend's house, for instance. "They have an especially hard time adjusting to new people and places," he explains, "and they look to their parents for constant reassurance."

Children who are naturally shy or timid might also experience separation anxiety. Here, the trouble has less to do with approaching new situations than with leaving familiar ones. Kids who are intensely attached to their home, their parents, or a favorite babysitter may respond to separation with behavior ranging from mild protest to tears to panic. Marie Cummings, who lives in Maywood, NY, says that her two-year-old, Patrick, can't stand being away from her. "He tags along, all over the house," she says. "If I'm cooking dinner, he'd rather bring his blocks into the kitchen than play with his brothers in the next room."

Of course, not all clingy kids are born that way or are passing through a developmental phase. Some mothers and fathers unwittingly inspire fearfulness in their children by acting overly suspicious of strangers or by warning them excessively about the dangers of the outside world. Kids pick up on nonverbal messages as well. If parents are apprehensive about letting their child explore new situations, they might be subtly discouraging him from becoming more independent. Likewise, parents who "baby" a child because he's the youngest may perpetuate his dependency.

Clinginess can also be a response to a traumatic event, such as a divorce, a death, or a move to a new town, says Antoinette Saunders, a clinical psychologist at the Chicago-based Capable Kid Counseling Centers, an organization that works with families. Even a simple but abrupt shift in routine — switching from a morning preschool class to an afternoon one, or heading off on a family trip — can cause some youngsters to become worried and insecure, leading them to latch on to a parent in order to feel safe. "Children are usually very good at dealing with minor changes," says Saunders. "But some feel threatened if they haven't been adequately prepared first, and they require lots of reassurance."

Confidence Builders

With little or no intervention from Mom and Dad, most kids overcome their clinginess. "If the behavior is relatively recent and mild — and not associated with other problems — it's most effective simply to treat it casually and provide emotional support," says Turecki. That means not overreacting to a child's fears with smothering hugs and words of sympathy. Instead, if he seems fearful or tense, simply tell him gently, "I know this is difficult for you, but it will be all right."

To help a child feel more confident, parents might want to take additional measures. With an infant, for example, it's best not to get into the habit of staying in the nursery until he falls asleep, according to Dr. Edward Christophersen, chief of behavioral pediatrics at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO. Babies who learn to soothe themselves at bedtime — by sucking their thumb, babbling, or playing with a stuffed animal — usually go to sleep more quickly than those who are eased to sleep each night by a parent's singing, rocking, or nursing. Once mastered, these self-quieting skills carry over to other situations as well. A child who knows how to make himself relax when Mom and Dad are away is less apt to become alarmed when faced with unfamiliar people and places.

Equally important, says Christophersen, is a child's ability to play independently. Even if a youngster agrees to let go of Mommy's leg in order to draw a picture, he might dissolve into tears if he can't focus on the activity long enough to put her out of his mind. To teach a toddler to amuse himself, give him an occasional pat on the shoulder as he plays — but don't talk to him frequently or pick him up. "If you provide him with brief physical contact, you'll be giving him reassurance without interrupting what he's doing," Christophersen says. If the child is older — say, 3 or 4 — sit down and play alongside him; as he becomes engrossed in the activity, quietly get up and walk away for about five seconds. Over the next few days, lengthen the absence by a few more seconds. Parents should continue to pat the child now and then to remind him of their affection. Even school-age clingers can be trained to play alone if parents introduce a suitable project — such as constructing a model or doing a puzzle — and then gradually withdraw over a period of time.

It's important to let a clingy child experience longer separations as well. Saunders suggests that parents make a point of hiring a babysitter from time to time so that they can go out for an entire evening. "If you can't bring yourself to part with your child for even a few hours," she explains, "the message you'll send to her is, 'There really isn't anybody else in this world that you're safe with but me.'" As the moment of departure draws near, a child may become agitated, but parents should remain firm and supportive. Offer her a favorite teddy bear as a companion, or promise to call her at home later. Then leave right away; protracting the good-bye scene will only make the separation more painful for everyone.

Some childrearing specialists advise parents to prepare their children — even babies and toddlers — for these separations by talking about the event. Make sure your child understands that you will return, and when you come back, remind her that you've fulfilled your promise. Keep in mind, though, that making too much of a separation in advance might make an already timid child even more worried — so experiment a little to find out which approach works best. Often the outcome will depend on a child's age.

Some Extra Support

A child who seems especially shy may need a bit of help adjusting to a new place or person. Turecki describes an 8-year-old boy who became miserable upon arriving at his first summer camp. Although the counselors were sympathetic to the youngster, he remained disconsolate and refused to participate in any of the scheduled activities. The staff was advised not to dwell on the child's anxieties, but to give him an individual tour of the grounds so that he could familiarize himself with his new surroundings. Sure enough, the boy soon settled happily into the camp routine.

If a child's clinginess is a reaction to a major change in the family, such as death or divorce, parents should try to help her express what's troubling her. Sometimes it's useful to read to a child about other kids who have gone through similar ordeals; most libraries carry children's books about these difficult experiences. "Address the situation, talk it over, read about it, play out the problem with dolls or puppets, even draw pictures of it," suggests Saunders. "Gradually, your child should begin to feel that she has some control over the situation — instead of feeling that the problem is controlling her."

In extremely rare cases, a child's reluctance to stray from his parent's side may be a sign of a more serious psychological problem, such as a phobia. If a youngster refuses to go to school or leave the house, or if he experiences full-blown panic attacks, mothers and fathers should consult a psychiatrist or psychologist to sort out what is at the root of his fears. But remember that for the vast majority of kids, clinginess is perfectly normal and temporary — so don't rush to a therapist just because a 3-year-old fusses about being left with a babysitter. Chances are, with a little effort, parent and child will be able to resolve the problem.

A case in point: When Robin Rierdan realized that her clingy baby, Philip, was developing into a clutchy toddler, she decided to take measures to help him overcome his fearfulness. At first, she sat outside on the front steps each day as Philip played near — but not with — the other neighborhood kids. Then, as he became more familiar with the children, his mom suggested that he spend some time at a new playmate's house. "If he wanted to come home, that was OK," she says. "We'd just try the experiment again the next day." After a few months, the youngster began to venture out on his own — hesitantly at first, and then with visible enthusiasm.

Now, four and a half years later, Philip is still on the shy side, but his self-confidence has grown steadily, and his social skills are perfectly normal for a child his age. "He's come a very long way," says Rierdan. Of course, many moms and dads enjoy being needed by their kids. But as Rierdan and countless other parents have discovered, it's cause for a deep sigh of relief — and plenty of parental pride — when a clinger finally cuts loose.

Classic Cures

Certain scenarios seem to bring out a clingy child's worst fears — and send him scurrying for the security of a parent's pant leg. With a few time-tested strategies, however, parents can help a timid youngster get control over these situations and loosen his grip.

You're visiting a friend who has an infant close in age to your 10-month-old son. Her baby is playing quietly with her toys on a blanket on the floor, but every time you try to put your child down next to her, he cries loudly and wants to be picked up. It seems as if he won't spend a minute with anyone but you. It's not unusual for a child this age to demonstrate such clingy behavior. Sit down on the blanket with him on your lap, and begin to play with the toys and the other baby. As your child begins to feel more secure, remove him from your lap and gradually withdraw to a chair where he can see you. If the visit works out, repeat it soon, to reinforce your baby's behavior. Eventually, you may be able to leave the room for short periods, so long as another adult is present.

Although her new teacher seems friendly and sympathetic, your 4-year-old is terrified of starting preschool. This morning, she threw a temper tantrum in the parking lot and you had to carry her into the building. Talk to your child about what to expect from the daily classroom routine, and reassure her that you'll return to pick her up in a few hours. If your schedule — and the teacher — permits, stay with her for the first few days as she adjusts to her new surroundings and classmates; then, over the course of the week, spend less and less time in the classroom until she's been weaned from your presence. It may also help to have the teacher match her with a friendly buddy who can show her around and play with her. This new playmate will invariably introduce her to other kids, and in time your child will feel less overwhelmed.

Recently, your 7-year-old has strongly resisted going to bed at night. Every evening, he requests a drink of water, a lullaby, an extra blanket, a story — and when you try to leave the room, he bursts into tears. Begin by attempting to find out what's bothering your child. Try telling a story together, setting up a situation similar to your child's and asking him to help you develop a plot. His responses may provide a clue to his anxieties. Another solution: Several hours before bedtime, have a discussion about the nighttime rules: Once a story is read and the lights are out, you'll sit in his room for a while until he feels safe, but he must rest quietly in bed. If he breaks the rules, leave the room for 20 seconds or so. When you reenter, explain again that you'll remain in the room only if he tries to fall asleep. In this way, experts say, you'll be providing support without encouraging the sort of elaborate bedtime rituals that many clingers rely on.

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