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Is Responsive Parenting Causing Clinginess in 13 month old?

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I have a bright, sweet, beautiful 13 month old son and right now I feel like I'm failing him. Compared to the other kids we come into contact with, esp at playgroups, he is quite clingy and can't seem to play by himself for too long without me. And after all my reading and researching and being so careful trying to do right by my son, my husband feels he really should start playing more independently from us and that I should be doing my chores around him instead of waiting for him to have his naps and then doing them, which is what I usually do as it's easier.

I love my son so much, we can't have any more children and I want to give him the best of me & avoid seeing him sad. But now I feel I've become an overprotective mother and he is at risk of becoming spoilt and dependent on me. My son and I are very close, and cuddle and play and go for walks and read lots of books together all day long. We socialise 3 times a week with other groups of Mums and bubs.

I keep waiting for him to want to move away from me and strike out on his own, not force it on him. I feel like everything I've worked so hard to do for him – regular naps and meals, consistency, lots of love and attention, giving so much of my time talking and teaching and reading to him – has been wrong and I really should have been just getting on with my own life like everyone else around me and taking him along for the ride. But at the same time, I hate seeing kids stuck in prams being dragged round shopping malls, cafes and supermarkets, surely that can't be right either? I just don't know what to do anymore. What do you think?


Dear Jenny,
First, I want to say that your son is a lucky boy and you have not failed him in any way. Spending time with him in the way you describe is terrific for him. You have helped him lay an emotional foundation for success in life. In fact, brain researchers now believe that such responsive engagement is essential to optimal brain and nervous system development. Thousands of studies shows that responsive parenting results in less clinginess ultimately, and healthier children who grow into healthier adults. There's some evidence that it also raises their IQ.

You say that he gets to see other kids and moms about three times a week, with you. That's important. At 13 months, kids do not really play that much with other kids, but it is important for them to be around each other. It is best, though, if kids can be around each other with a parent there also, to help them navigate, solve disputes over toys, etc. If you can work it out for him to see kids even more often in other contexts and in your presence (library reading hour, the playground, museums, etc), that would be good as well, and expand his world. Toddlers--and he is beginning to be one, now--often get bored at home.

The only question I would have about your raising of your son is that you seem not to be proceeding with the chores of daily life in his presence. It is actually good for kids to observe those chores and be part of them. Kids shouldn't be the center of attention all the time; that's just too much pressure on them. They need to observe family activity and participate it.

Here's an example. You need to clean the kitchen. Do you:
a. Play with him and wait to clean until he is napping.
(Not sustainable; if carried to extremes not good for either of you.)
b. Put him in front of the TV.
(Not good for him, see Your Toddler and TV.
c. Let him play while you clean nearby.
(Always a good choice. Never interrupt a child absorbed in playing.)
d. Let him help.
(Great choice for his development!)

If he wants you to play with him, you could say "Let's play a little, and then let's clean up the kitchen." After playing for a bit, you say "Ok, I need to clean the kitchen. Do you want to keep playing with your cars or do you want to help me clean? You could sweep and wash the floor." If he chooses to play, great. Set it up so you can see each other while you clean and he plays.

If he chooses to help, great. Give him a child-sized broom while you do the dishes or clean out the fridge or whatever. Naturally, a 13 month old will not create a clean kitchen floor, but he will enjoy doing it. The Montessori folks recommend small brooms, and you can find them online, but you can also just let him use the huge one. He can sweep everything toward one corner, and then you can work together with the dustpan.

If you've already swept, hand him a mop. Will the floor end up clean? No. Will there be water all over? Yes. (Although you might skip the bucket and rinse the mop yourself in the sink. Buckets of water are great for toddlers to wash the porch, though.) Will he love it, and learn something, and feel he's contributing? Yes! Will you get the fridge cleaned out or the dishes done? Yes. See the Toddler Gameplan, particularly the last section on giving your toddler the opportunity to experience competence.

This example is really designed to show you that your child will benefit from participating in the chores of daily life. It's a great idea to take him on errands (as long as he doesn't get carsick) and involve him in the tasks. ("Will you help me pick out which pasta to buy?" "Can you hand the cashier the money?" "We have to pick up Daddy's medicine at the drugstore, and get more shampoo for you. Do you like this one or this one?") All of this is great for his developing cognitive and verbal abilities, and it is still part of his emotional development, because it is all part of your relationship.

Now, will you be quick and efficient with these errands, or with the kitchen cleaning? Of course not. It will take three times as long. And you may have to cut them short to tend to a hungry or tired child. I agree with your distress at seeing unhappy children lugged on errands. You have to keep in mind that your child is your priority. But will you get something done? Yes. And is it good for your child to have these experiences? You bet. And will he regard them as fun, if you handle it so that it becomes fun? Absolutely. And you can sweeten the errands with a trip to the playground. He also needs to just run around.

Now, let's talk about clingingness.

First, you are assuming that your attentiveness has made your son "clingy." It is entirely possible that he would have been exactly as he is (or more clingy) if you were not a responsive mother. To some degree, out-going-ness is an inherited trait. Your son may simply be highly sensitive, which makes him more shy around other people at this point. You'll be interested to know that responsive parenting is especially important for shy kids and helps them to retain their sensitivity to others but to become more secure in their own skins. Shy chimps raised by responsive chimp moms become leaders, shy chimps raised by less attentive moms become second class citizens.

Second, you and your husband should know that clinginess comes in stages. My own son was definitely "attached at the hip" to me at the age of 13 months. He only ever wanted to be with me. But at the age of four he wanted to ride the schoolbus to preschool, at six he was having sleepovers with friends and at the age of 12 he was on the New York subway by himself. At 14 he wasn't even homesick at camp for three weeks; at sixteen he spent a month in Spain. Clinginess at 13 months does not indicate that he will be clingy forever. It indicates that right now you are the north star of his compass, as you should be.

Third, you should know about the attachment research with 13 month olds. Studies have shown that 13 month olds who have healthy attachments to their parents are very aware of their parent's presence. They play happily nearby but check in frequently. They ask for help. If the parent leaves the room they wail. When the parent returns they ask to be comforted.

13 month olds who are insecure about being able to depend on their parents for comfort are clingier but act similarly. But when the parents return to the room, these kids don't comfort easily. They are angry at the parent.

13 month olds who have given up on their parents being able to comfort them don't seem clingy at all. They almost ignore their parents and initiate with other adults. When the parent leaves the room they may seem not to notice. When the parent returns they may seem not to notice. But their blood pressure is heightened and their stress hormones shoot up. Over time, these kids do poorly in relationships with others, from peers to teachers. They may seem not to be clingy at 13 months, but they are severely wounded inside.

Separation anxiety at 13 months is normal. So while parents might think a child who separates easily at 13 months is happily independent, they would almost certainly be wrong. You have already learned that you need to think for yourself as a parent and not be unduly influenced by the strong opinions of others (including experts like me!) who don't know your child as well as you do. Take your cues from your son.

I can't judge from your letter whether your son is "too clingy" but I would suggest that you continue to parent responsively. All the research shows that is what will help him develop optimally.

I do have an idea, though, that may help you and your son. It may be that your involvement is so great that he depends on it. You want him to depend on his own inner resources. So be sure you let him lead while you respond and reflect. Example: He's in the sandbox. You sit on the edge. He starts digging. You say "I see you're having the bulldozer dig a big hole." You observe some more. Then you say "Now the cars are all driving into the hole and piling up." You don't initiate the play, or direct it in any way, you observe and reflect. If he hands you a car, or says "Mommy dig" then you do, but you're under his direction. You're an actor, he's the director. Kids need to direct their own play in order to develop; play is their work. Reflecting helps him feel seen and understood, and develop his play. And letting him take the lead lessens his dependence on you.

Of course, if the sandbox is at the park rather than in your backyard, you will want to back off even further to open the opportunity for him to engage with other kids. If he wants you next to him, you can still play your observer role, but broaden it to include the other kids. "Now Tommy's truck wants to fall in the hole too!" But the more silent (friendly, approving, but quiet) you are, the more comfortable he will become with being out in the world with you nearby but not fully engaged, thus giving him an opportunity to engage with other kids.

You don't say exactly what is clingy about his behavior with other moms and kids present. Part of his behavior is a matter of what he gets used to. But part of it depends on his feeling that you are accessible. He may actually act less clingy if you sit closer to where he is engaged with the other kids. You say "he can't play by himself for too long without me." Think of the times he returns to you as refueling. Welcome him, so he knows you're accessible. If you shoo him back to the other kids, he becomes more clingy. ("Hi, Sweetie. Did you want to come say hi to mom and get a drink of water and a hug?") Then, after he gets a hug and a drink or a snuggle for a couple minutes, ask him if he wants you to take him back to the other kids.

Three other research findings that may or may not apply to your situation, but that you should know about.

1. Research has shown that moms who give kids too much uncertainty in their communication can produce clingy behavior. Kids need firm limits and clear communication. Waffling in the name of democracy does not help them. Showing your own anxiety sabotages them. Directive behavior without empathy makes them rebellious and hardened; but waffling behavior makes them anxious and clingy. Give only simple choices, and not when the stakes are high. So you say "While you play in the sandbox with your friends, I will sit right here on this bench." You don't say "Do you want me to sit here? Or here? Or would you prefer me to sit there?" Changing your mind is ok: "Oh, you want me to sit with you at the sandbox for awhile today? Ok, I can do that." But kids need to feel that the parent is clearly in charge.

2. Research has shown that kids need to feel they can get angry at their moms or they can become more insecure and clingy.
Especially when there is a close relationship, sometimes the unconscious message we give our kids is that certain feelings are off limits. So know that your son will have a range of feelings that will come and go, and make sure he knows that you love him regardless, that all feelings are part of being human, and that we sometimes get angry at those we love but the anger passes and the love always remains.

As an aside, you said you don't want your son to be sad. There are worse things than being sad-- like feeling you can't show your sadness. So I don't suggest you intentionally do things that make your son sad, but I do suggest you change your attitude to regard sadness as just part of life, and to allow your son to experience all emotions. That doesn't mean you can't comfort him. It means you don't make any emotion into something that isn't allowed. Sometimes, your son will be sad. He will get through that sadness because he has you to love him through it. That's the beginning of resilience, and he needs those experiences to learn how to get through them.

3. Research has shown that fathers (or a second parent) are critically important in kids' development.
If your husband can spend as much time with his son as possible, including on outings, it may help your son to be less clingy with you.

Many blessings to you and your son and husband. I'd love to hear an update sometime.
Dr. Laura

Thank you so much for your wonderful response Dr Laura, my husband & I have just finished reading it together. We will certainly take on board the excellent suggestions you've made, especially the respond & reflect idea as well as incorporating chores and errands into our day. I'm in the midst of reading a Montessori book so my head was going this way anyway & he's now getting pretty dextrous with the dustpan and brush! On a personal note, thank you so much for reassuring this Mum that she's doing right by her little boy. You're an angel! Blessings! Jenny

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