What better a way to start the day than with a distressed child wailing for you at the window as you leave the house. My daughter is 4.5 years old. She is bright, generally happy, stimulated by her environment, interested in playing with other children and very, very 'clingy'.
Up until December 2016 I had a full-time, full-on lawyer job. My daughter wailing was a regular occurrence when I left for the office. It didn't happen every morning but it definitely happened regularly. It wasn't just when I left for the office, either. Her upset could be just as severe on working-from-home days, when I retreated to the study upstairs. Sometimes, she would crumble even sooner, when I would go into her room first thing in the morning. It would normally begin with something along the lines of, "Mummy, why are you wearing that suit?" I don't like it" and would escalate from there. It could happen regardless of who was taking care of her that day, if that person was not me: daddy, nanny or grandparent.
Like every frantic, frazzled, guilt-ridden, working parent, I studied the internet for advice and diligently put it into action. Spend some quality time together before you leave the house. Check. Remind your child that mummy always comes back. Check. Remain bright and breezy at leaving time, even if your heart is breaking inside. Check. Did these strategies stop the meltdowns? No check.
In the meantime, I was feeling unfulfilled in my job. My reasons were many, but most of them were linked to a perceived lack of balance, particularly between my work-life and my family-life. I came to see my daughter's crying fits as clear evidence that my balance was sub-optimal. If I were around more, I reasoned, she would feel more secure and more safe, and would be less distressed about being apart from me. In October 2016, after several months of deliberation and many a pros and cons list, I handed in my notice at work. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do next, but I was conscious that the kids were growing up fast, and I wanted to spend more time with them while I figured out my next move. In December 2016, we said a sad farewell to our nanny and I settled into my new position of Stay At Home Parent.
Did packing it in and being around more stop my daughter's crying fits? Nope. As before, when I worked full-time, some days she will take it in her stride if I leave the house. Other days, we will have full-on hysteria in a whole range of scenarios: dropping her at nursery; going to the gym; leaving for a date night; daddy's turn to do bedtime. The point of this blog is to assure you that, if you are a parent who experiences this with your child, you're not alone. A mum from nursery, on hearing about my career change, sent me an email that went like this: "Well done you for packing it in! Days like today with both kids crying for ridiculous reasons as I left for work make me want to throw in the towel and do something different so I can be around more!" If you're a mother or father feeling guilty about the leaving-for-work crying fits, and you're flirting with the idea of throwing in the towel to be around more, I want to warn you that doing so may not be the magic solution you're hoping for. It wasn't for me. My change of pace has, however, given me more time and space - more presence physically and emotionally - to figure out what does and does not work so well for our situation. I share what I have learned below. Be aware that I am not a health professional, and if you have any concerns that your child’s behaviour is outside the spectrum of ‘normal’, you should go and seek help from someone appropriately trained (yes, the lawyer in me will always be alive and present).
Ten strategies that have helped me to deal with clingy behaviour:-
Stopping regarding my child’s behaviour as babyish or problematic. I read somewhere that, in the absence of any other indicators of psychological problems, 'clingy' behaviour simply means that a child has not yet developed certain self-regulation skills. Reframing it in those terms - skills to be developed - made me a lot, lot more tolerant.
Resisting the urge to compare her to other children. This is strongly linked to number 1; every child develops different skills at different rates, so it's like comparing apples and pears. It isn't helpful and it can leave you feeling shitty.
Recognising that requiring a child to develop a sense of independence before she is ready would, in the long term, only serve to make her less independent. She would be putting on a brave face and suppressing her true feelings to placate me. I don't want her to grow up thinking that showing her true feelings is a sign of weakness.
Reminding her, several times a day, that I always come back. I tell her repeatedly that I will always come back and I will always be her mum, no matter what. I like to drill this in during calmer moments, when my leaving is not imminent, otherwise she is too upset to absorb what I am saying.
Asking her to do a special job for me while I am away. A simple task, for example painting a picture for me, seems to give her a sense of purpose, and at the same time serves as an implicit reminder that I will be coming back.
Giving her plenty of notice when I am going to be going out. It is sometimes tempting to spring it on her and make a hasty getaway. This invariably backfires, making her suspicious about when I might do that again.
Reminding her, upon my return, that although she was worried about me going, I did come back, I also point out to her that, while she was apprehensive, she did have fun while I was away (though that only works if she did, in fact, have fun - modify as required).
Sticking to my plans. As tempting as it has sometimes been to cancel a plan to calm her down (e.g. “OK, OK, mummy will do bedtime tonight”), this only serves as a short term solution. It can also be quite undermining for the other parent.
Putting down the big stick that I have been using to beat myself with. For a long time I have worried that something I have done - or have not done - has caused my daughter to be like this. I have now concluded that this is just her. There is no need to apportion blame; I focus instead on supporting her as she develops the skills she needs.
Reminding myself that we are making progress. This time last year, at a little boy's 3rd birthday party, she would not leave my side the entire time. This year, at his 4th birthday party, she did, once she relaxed. It is easy to be fatalistic when you leave the house and hear the howls as you walk down the street, so take time to celebrate any progress, no matter how trivial it may seem.