It's No Accident. In Less Than A Week, I Can Show You How To Get Time For Yourself.
One of the most difficult stages of raising a young child is from 18 months to 3 years old. During this time, it can feel like there is a ball and chain connecting you to your child. It can feel like you are under your child's control. Your child seems to be dictating your every move, and actively restricting your movements.
Clingy toddlers translate to exhausted parents. During this phase, you may experience guilt, frustration, and sometimes anger because you want to break away from your child so you can breathe.
Let us look at this clingy behavior through my 5-Step System.
Step 1. Connect
I know when you have a clingy toddler, it seems like you are "over-connected". However, the steps in this system are the same for every age and in every situation.
With a young child, connecting means trying to put ourselves in their shoes. From your child's perspective of what is happening between you, once they are walking there is an abrupt change and life becomes scary. While your child was still crawling, you were right there so when they cried; you would pick them up and carry them with you.
As soon as a child starts walking, they are physically separate from you.
* In the transition from womb to birth, we know that children find great comfort in swaddling, which is very much like being in the womb
* From the stage between swaddling to crawling, you are holding and carrying your child
* From crawling to walking, life becomes more demanding and challenging
* The physical separation can create feelings of "panic" and isolation for your child
All eyes on mum or dad
When your child starts walking, they look to you as their reference point to the world and their anchor of safety so they do not get lost. You are, in effect their GPS, global positioning system. Through your eyes, a brief separation seems small; from your child's eyes, the separation seems insurmountable at times. If your child cannot see you, they feel they are lost.
Toddlers send out honing signals and protest separation. You child may cling to your legs, throw themselves against the bathroom door, yell, whimper with tears streaming down their little cheeks and arms outstretched, or plead with you not to leave them. Your child has not yet developed "object constancy", a developmental stage when they know you exist even though they cannot see you. Until your toddler achieves object constancy, they feel if they cannot see you, that you are gone; they are lost and alone in the world.
Step 2. Calm
Your child is in a "panic" about the separation. For them to calm their panic, you need to remain calm. Remember, emotions are contagious, if you are calm and confident your child will calm more quickly and feel more confident. If you are hyper-excited, your child will quickly "catch" your hyper-excitement and become overly reactive.
Step 3. Listen
You need to listen to your child's protest about separation. The way your toddler knows you are listening, is that you respond to their distress by preparing them for the separation. In my clinical practice, I teach parents to play a revised version of the game peek-a-boo.
* Tie one end of a strand of yarn around your waist and the other end around your child's waist
* Have your child "leave" by going behind a wall where you cannot see them and they cannot see you for a second
* Quickly "return" into sight
* Giggle with excitement when you find each other
* Extend the time you are out of each other's sight
* Extend the distance between you and your child
* Move down a hall, behind the wall and quickly come back
* Always express delight when you see each other again
* When out of sight, say aloud, "Where oh where is Scott, I wonder where Scott went; he was here a moment ago. I know last time he went around the corner, he came back, I wonder how long it will take this time before I see him again?"
This practice helps the two of you play out separation while still connected by the strand of yarn. You create a fun game in which your child can feel safe. With this game, your child begins to understand that you can be gone and you do come back. When all is going well, you can move to the final stages.
* Help your child cut the yarn but let the yarn drag on the floor; don't remove it yet
* Continue playing the game with the strand of yarn dragging on the ground
* Keep the game short and fun
* Later, start playing the game without yarn
* If your child resists, go back to leaving a strand of yarn on each of you until your child not longer needs it
Remember, "In order to get from what was to what will be, you must go through what is"
As with all new skills and changes in behavior, persistence is an essential tool.
Replace yourself to get a breather
After your child is comfortable playing the peek-a-boo game, you may start giving your child a transitional object.
* Give your child a scarf of yours (it smells like you) to learn how to fold
* Practice folding the scarf before you go off to the shower
* Soon your child becomes confident about folding the scarf (one or two folds is enough)
* Excitedly tell your child what a good job, he or she did folding the scarf
* Bring extra scarves for your child to fold while you are in the bathroom
* Practice, going in and coming out quickly, then for longer times
* Excitedly tell your child what a good job, he or she did folding the scarf
Notice that the focus is on your child's accomplishment, not on your leaving. You left your child with a task, you are a part of the task and you appreciate the effort your child put into learning to fold.
You may choose a project of building something or arranging cards, anything that takes some concentration and physical effort. When you do this, you have listened to and addressed the physical separation by giving your toddler a way to connect, without you remaining in the same room.
Step 4. Limits
Your goal is to help your child face their fears without overwhelming them. This is a developmental stage that you can make easier and less threatening. The limit you were setting in the peek-a-boo game is; I stay here and you go away, you stay here and I go away. The peek-a-boo game helps make separation fun. Remember when setting the limits
* Stay out of power struggles by focusing on something fun
* You want the limits to be achievable without inducing panic
Finding the activity that is uniquely satisfying for your child may take some trial and error. If you are calm and confident, you communicate that emotion and the limit will become a built in part of your child's growing mastery of the world. Over time, you will provide choices of activities.
* Your child learns they get to have control by making a choice based on two options you have provided for what to do while you are gone
* Giving options gives your child control
* You are involved and connected because you are the one providing options
Step 5. Fresh Start
Whenever you get out of the bathroom, or arrive home from a short absence, no matter how difficult the separation process was for your child, reinforce your toddlers' growth and development with interest in what they did while you were absent. Forget any difficulty during your leaving process. You provide a fresh start.
* Praise and recognize your child's effort
* Spend a little quality time with your child each time you return
Whenever your child's resources are challenged, point out and comment on your child's success. Fresh Starts are essential. Your child is learning mastery of their world without you as their honing device for a few minutes. There is no judgment of your child with "good boy" or "bad boy".
Encouraging growth requires recognition for whatever effort you toddler made to cope with the stress of separation. The "good job" is recognition for whatever they accomplished on their project. "Wow, look at what you made." You want to reinforce your toddler's efforts to grow and manage distressing feelings. This trying developmental phase is the beginning of teaching good problem solving to your child.