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.