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How to Separate From Clingy Kids

What to do when a child doesn’t want to say goodbye

Rachel Ehmke

Walking away when your child doesn’t want you to go feels terrible. Kids make it pretty clear that they don’t like it, either. Their tears, pleas and clinging hands stay with you even after you’ve said your goodbyes.

A clingy phase is something many parents face in the early years. It’s a typical stage of development that tends to start when kids are still babies, around age one, says Stephanie Schwartz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It really reflects the fact that babies have developed strong attachments with their caregivers,” Dr. Schwartz explains. “These are the people who feed them and bathe them and play with them, so they notice when they’re handed off to an extended family member, babysitter or friend. And it’s normal that they’re alarmed by that.”

Stranger anxiety

Kids experiencing panic when they’re in new situations or with new people is sometimes called stranger anxiety, and it can last for a couple years. It does tend to fade as kids get older, but Dr. Schwartz says it’s common for toddlers and school-age children to still face some difficulty with separation.

Crying, clinging and tantrums can all be pretty typical reactions to separating from parents. Most kids will start to get comfortable after an adjustment period. Time spent “warming up” to get used to the new place or person helps, especially if kids are doing something fun. Repeated exposure helps, too.

Tips for saying goodbye to a clingy kid

Prepare your child. Before a separation is going to happen, let your child know what to expect. Highlighting things that you think your child will enjoy about the situation — like getting to play with friends or eat birthday cake — can help put a positive spin on things.

Dr. Schwartz also recommends being as transparent as possible about when you’ll be coming back. “Don’t say you’re going to be back in five minutes if it’s going to be five hours,” says Dr. Schwartz. “I think it’s important to build that trust — a child learns to trust a parent when they say what a situation is going to be and then they follow through with that.” 

Have a goodbye ritual. Rituals are reassuring, to kids and adults alike. Dr. Schwartz recommends getting kids involved in creating the routine, because it can make it more fun for them. But she stresses that any goodbye ritual should be short. “Try to keep the moment of separation as brief as possible. Dragging it out tends to make it more difficult.” A good routine might be something simple like a kiss and a hug and saying, “Have a great day!”

Practice separating. Like anything else, kids will get better at separating with practice. What this looks like can depend on what makes your child anxious. If your child doesn’t like when you leave the house, you can help them practice separating by going to check the mail or taking the garbage out. You can work up to running an errand like going to the drug store while a friend watches them, suggests Dr. Schwartz. “Gradually practicing separating in small doses can help your child build up the feeling of being able to accomplish it. Starting small can be a very useful tactic,” she advises.

Validate how they feel. Having a caretaker leave can feel genuinely scary to kids, so you don’t want to downplay that. Instead, try to let your child know that you can see and appreciate how they are feeling. You can pair your validation with some encouragement. “At the same time you want to communicate confidence in their ability to do hard things,” Dr. Schwartz says. So you might say something like, “I hear that you’re really scared about going back to school tomorrow and I totally get it. But I also know you can do it even though it’s really hard for you.”

Reinforce bravery with rewards. You can help motivate your child by setting a goal and letting them know that they will get a reward for accomplishing that goal. For example, maybe your child could get a reward for doing their goodbye ritual and going into the classroom calmly and quickly. Rewards can be tangible or intangible — and they don’t have to be something over the top, like actually giving kids ice cream for dinner. Think about what’s motivating to your child — it might be something as simple as a sticker. A good intangible reward might be earning a privilege they don’t normally have or doing something special with a parent or sibling.

Enlist help. Teachers or babysitters can play a role in helping kids adjust to their new situation. They might say something motivating like, “I have a surprise for you in my pocket as soon as you say goodbye to your mom,” or, “There’s something special I need you to help me with as soon as we get inside the classroom.”

Setting a clear boundary about what is and isn’t a parent space can be helpful, too. Some schools expect parents to say goodbye to their kids at the entrance or just outside the classroom. This lets kids (and parents) know what to expect, which can make the transition a little easier. 

What to do when your child is being clingy at home

Some kids struggle with separating from a parent at home — and it might be just one of their parents. “It’s pretty common for kids to be more clingy with one parent,” says Dr. Schwartz. “There often is a primary caregiver and sometimes kids cling to that caregiver and sometimes they cling to the other.” This obviously might cause some hurt feelings, but it can help to remember it’s a phase that lots of kids go through.

It’s important for both parents to be on the same page about how to respond. So if a child is saying, “I only want Mommy for bath time,” dad might say, “I know that you want Mom, but she can’t do bath time tonight. Dad is doing bath time tonight.” And then Mom needs to back that up — “I know you want me but tonight it’s going to be Dad.”

The asked-for parent might feel guilty saying no — especially if they technically could be helping out at bath time — but giving kids practice separating is important, and so is setting aside special time for your child to just be with their other parent.

What to do when separation anxiety doesn’t go away

Some kids continue to have serious trouble separating from their caregivers, even after they’ve had plenty of time to adjust. These kids might have something called separation anxiety disorder, which is the most common anxiety disorder in young kids.

When psychologists are diagnosing separation anxiety disorder, they look at three main things:

Intensity: How severe is the child’s anxiety? Kids with separation anxiety disorder experience anxiety that is much more intense than is typical. For example, instead of just crying during a goodbye they might be hysterical and screaming.

They might have difficulty separating at home, too. Dr. Schwartz says, “A lot of times kids with separation anxiety disorder seek out their parents to sleep with them or need a parent to sit with them at least while they fall asleep. Or maybe they won’t go upstairs to get something they forgot from their room while their parent is downstairs.”

Frequency: Does it happen every time? If a child has the same panicked reaction pretty much every time and it doesn’t get better after several weeks, that could be a sign. Dr. Schwartz notes that kids with separation anxiety disorder may also have a reemergence of symptoms throughout the day, even after having calmed down previously, because they’re still thinking about their caregiver.

Impairment: How is their anxiety getting in the way? If a child is so anxious that their fears are stopping them from doing the things they need or want to do, that’s a big sign they need help.

Coping with your own emotions

For parents one of the hardest parts of having a kid who doesn’t want to separate is dealing with your own guilt and worry that you’re causing your child pain. Dr. Schwartz likes to tell parents that “Feeling anxious in and of itself isn’t dangerous or harmful, it just feels uncomfortable. We are building up their coping skills and their ability to tolerate challenging moments.”

Finally, if you notice you’re having a hard time managing your own anxiety, this is a good time to fall back on your own set of coping skills.