Q:Our 18-month-old daughter has recently started clinging to me, following me from room to room, and wanting to be held more than ever before. I expected more, not less, independence from her at this age. Is this a sign that in some way I’ve caused her to become insecure about something? How should I respond to this?
A:Children do become more independent as they get older, but sometimes independence grows in a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward fashion. This is one of those one-step backward times.
Envision yourself venturing to explore a deserted house, one that has both attracted and repelled you with its mystery. You would probably begin by opening the front door and standing there for a while, pondering the possibilities. Then you’d take a few tentative steps into the house. Then, hearing a strange noise, you’d retreat, perhaps all the way back to the front door.
After reassuring yourself that all was well, you’d go a bit further into the house, then stop, then perhaps retreat a bit. So it would go until you were satisfied that you were safe.
Something like this is happening with your daughter as she moves toward independence. Until now, she has not had a sense of her own identity. As self-consciousness begins to develop and the drive toward independence awakens, she is thrown into conflict. To become a person in her own right, she must leave the safety of her relationship with you and venture into uncharted territory. Before she puts this distance between herself and you, she must first be absolutely certain that you will still be there when and if she needs a safe place to retreat.
The game of tag, played by children of every culture, is symbolic of this conflict. In tag, there is always a place designated as “home”—synonymous with Mother—where the child who is “it” can’t get you. Home is safe, but no fun. Out there, where the “it” of insecurity awaits, is exciting but frightening. So the child alternates between clinging to home and flirting with the danger of “out there.” As she experiments, her clinging diminishes and her flirting increases.
You haven’t made your daughter insecure. Such is the process of growing up that she must take the risk of insecurity and learn to deal with it. Henceforth, your job is twofold: (1) to make sure she doesn’t take on risks that are too great, and (2) to provide guidance sufficient to help her deal with risks that are appropriate for her age.
Research has shown that the more available and reassuring parents are during this stage, the more quickly their children will become independent. While the clinging and the following may seem oppressive at times, it’s best to allow it. Avoid responding in ways that will cause her to feel frustrated in her attempts to get to you. A child who leaves “home” and then finds that she has trouble getting back won’t want to leave “home” again.
So let your daughter cling, and she will cling less. Let her follow, and she will eventually, in her own time, follow less. Hold her when she wants to be held, and she will ask to be held less and less.
Believe me, there will come a day when you’ll wish she asked you to hold her more often!
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.