Dealing with the clingy toddler

By Kristi York on September 16, 2015

I feel like I’m in a scene from The Big Bang Theory, only I’m in the bathroom instead of Penny’s apartment, and my three-year-old son Jake is the mini Sheldon Cooper on the other side of the door.

This lack of bathroom privacy is just one example of the larger issue – my toddler is relentless. While I’m reading my older son’s school permission form, he’ll ask: “Mom? Can you un-hold that?” If I’m trying to have a conversation with my husband, every 10 seconds he interjects: “Mom? Can you stop talking to Dad?” When I go to grab something from the basement, he’ll yell: “Mom? Where are you? Can you come to me?” And forget about phone calls – it’s nothing but, “Mom? Can you please say bye?”

Sometimes, when he says “Mom?” and I say, “Yes?” for the nine hundredth time that day, he pauses blankly. He doesn’t even have a question. It’s as if he was just confirming that I’m completely at his beck and call. It’s nice to be needed, but I can’t help wondering: what is going on in his toddler-sized brain?

“These behaviours all relate to the toddler’s attachment to the parent,” says Dr. Sandra Wiebe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alberta and director of the Alberta Brain and Cognitive Development Lab. “This attachment relationship becomes most crucial in moments when a toddler is upset, although sometimes it may be for a reason that seems ridiculous to adults, like a sandwich being cut in a different way. In these moments, the toddler turns to his trusted caregiver for comfort.”

Obviously, I instinctively support Jake when he feels unsure or apprehensive – but what about his incessant requests for a certain shirt, toy, song or food? According to Dr. Wiebe, this is the very nature of toddlerhood. “Babies can only signal their needs by crying, but toddlers can use language to make their wishes known,” she says. “In some ways, this is the beginning of a lifelong process of renegotiating boundaries as children become more autonomous. Of course, the things toddlers want might not always be best, or even possible. The challenge for parents is to figure out the appropriate give and take.”

Right now, it feels like Jake and I are mired in a “give-and-take” scenario where he gives the orders and I take them. Even in moments when my husband, seeing the weariness in my eyes, offers to get Jake a snack, the reply will be: “No, I want Mom to get it.” This isn’t a reaction to stress, nor is it preferential treatment – it is pure bossiness. How do I teach him that his booster chair is not a throne, and I am not his servant?

“Providing your child with emotional support and routinely complying with his demands are two distinct things,” says Dr. Wiebe. She advises that if Jake is anxious about something, it’s important that I acknowledge his feelings and help him cope. In the bathroom-break example, I could say something like, “Mom will be back in a minute – can you please build a block tower to show me when I come back?” Another classic strategy is to offer choices, to help him feel that he has some control of the situation. I have also used the oven timer to create a fair compromise: we play together for 10 minutes, and when the timer beeps, he continues playing while I tackle a nearby task like emptying the dishwasher.

However, Dr. Wiebe says that parents should draw the line when requests become excessive or unreasonable. “If parents always give in to the toddler’s demands, the child may miss out on the opportunity to learn to face negative emotions in ‘safe’ contexts, with the help of his caregivers. In life, things don’t always go our way, and we learn the self-regulation skills to deal with this by working through manageable challenges early on.”

Patience is critical during this stage – the toddler needs to learn it, and the parent needs to have endless reserves of it. “Pick your battles and keep a sense of humour,” advises Dr. Wiebe. “After all, is it the end of the world if your child wears the same superhero pyjamas all day?” I guess it isn’t – and if he’s busy running around and pretending to rescue people, I might get 30 seconds to pee in peace.


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