Clingy & Possessive 2.5yo


Hi Faith!
I have been thinking over the past 10 days that I am sure you could shed some light on what is happening with my 2 1/2 yo. son. I stay at home with him and there have been no changes to routine or the environment that I can detect. In the past my son has been friendly and charming when around others that live in the home (dad, older sister, and grandmother) but over the past 10 days or so it is as if a switch has been flipped. He now tells people to “go away!” when I talk to them. He is very possessive of me. I try to keep conversations short but he still would rather me not carry on with anyone at all! I want to teach him to “share mama” but I also want to listen to his needs and give all of myself to him. Do you have any idea what is happening? Is this common at this age? How should I react when he screams at me to stop talking to others or cries when other are around? Sincerely, ML

Dear ML,

How absolutely frustrating, both for you and for him! While every kid is different, it’s not ‘typical’ for kids to go through a clingy phase at this age, with no changes to routine or environment…18 or 19 months old is much more common. But what IS ‘typical’ is this: I’ve noticed is that kids often go through a kind of change at two and a half, where they just seem to need a little bit MORE. More time outside, more wrestling, more activities. If they don’t get the new challenges that they need, they often create challenges for themselves and those around them, by “misbehaving” in some way.

New Boundaries
Children at this age have also discovered that they are definitely, absolutely, their own person. Once they realize that they are not ‘part’ of you and that the two of you are separate, there is often a phase where kids do some experimenting with “who’s in charge.” There are two parts to this: who is in charge of what he does, and who is in charge of what mom does. Children will experiment with this by ordering mom around: I’ve seen kids forbid their moms from singing, insisting that moms do things a certain way or they’ll throw a tantrum, or they’ll throw a fit because mom closed the door when he wanted to be the one to close it…sound familiar? I suspect that what you’re going through with your son may be something along these lines. Does this ring true?
Re-establishing Authority
If it does, then the thing to do is to let him know firmly and calmly who is in charge. The tricky part is to do it in a way that doesn’t turn your child into someone who’s being “bad.” (Once a child takes on the identity that they’re “bad,” it can be lots harder to get them to do what you want.) Here’s my suggestion on how to go about it:
When someone wants to talk to you, look directly at your son and say, “I’m going to talk to Daddy for a minute. You can be in my arms if you are quiet, but if you want to cry I will put you down.” Then talk to Daddy, and follow through with what you said. It will probably lead to a few shrieker-tantrums at the beginning. Go ahead and have your (short) conversation, then matter-of-factly say to your son, “I’m done with my conversation now. Would you like a hug?” Make sure that your attitude is that it’s fine for him to choose either one: staying quietly in your arms, or crying on the floor. Don’t let it be a big deal either way. Afterwards, as he’s recovering from crying, you might make an offhand comment, “You were crying and crying. Next time, maybe you’ll choose to stay quiet in my arms.” This approach will have a few effects: first, there’s no obeying or disobeying; there are only choices that are more comfortable or less comfortable. Then, he’ll notice that his tantrums are not having the effect of getting you to do what he wants, OR of getting a rise out of you. After a few days of consistently going through this, he will probably start to make the more comfortable choice (of staying quietly in your arms). Be consistent and be calm, and be compassionate as you go through these growing pains together.
One word of caution: as he starts to calm down and be polite around other people again, be careful not to fall into the trap of over-praising him or making a big deal over it. Being polite to others shouldn’t be a big deal, it should simply be the way you expect him to act around other people. Making a big deal over it simply turns it into a big deal, which isn’t what you want.
Give Him Extra Love
This next little while may be tough for you and for him. In addition, he may be possessive because he really is needing more of you right now, for whatever emotional growth phase he’s going through right now. So make sure that you ARE spending time with him where it’s just the two of you, where you’re giving him lots of eye contact with smiles, hugs and kisses. Whenever you’re ‘stepping up’ your discipline, it’s important to ‘step up’ your love and connection with each other as well.
And, of course, good luck! Give yourself some extra love and care in this time, too. Ask for help from your husband and grandma, to take a bath, go out for a walk on your own, or meet a friend for coffee.
Warmly, ~Miss Faith

Comments

  1. Mindy Leone says:

    Dear Miss Faith,
    YOU ARE SPOT ON. I am experiencing this with my son. Indeed you are wise to say the least. The light bulb is now on! I am excited to share your response with my family. With them on board, we can all work together to make this testy time have a positive outcome.
    Know that we will be trying your suggestions and hopefully my son will get both confirmation of who is in charge of who and will gain a deeper understanding of the love and dedication I have for him. And he can exercise positive choice making in this new world of his as “separate” from me.
    Be well and best regards!

  2. This is great, thank you! I really enjoy your blog.

  3. such great timing. i have a 19 month old and he is super clingy right now and i couldn’t figure out why. knowing it’s a normal phase makes it so much more easy to be patient through. any idea on how long it usually lasts? his daddy is feeling a little left out…

  4. Hello Faith,

    I am having difficulties connecting with my son when he get’s angry. Lately, when he asks for something he cannot have, or does not like the answer my husband and I have given him, he will go over to his bookcase and start throwing the toys around the room. My initial response is to go over, get down at eye level, and tell him that throwing toys is not ok. When I begin to talk to him about throwing, he then begins to hit and scratch! My husband and I have been sitting him on the stairs, until he can calm down. I don’t know what else to do??? Do you have any other suggestions on this issue?

    • My suggestion is to give him a big dose of empathy. You say “no” to something and he goes and throws the toys. You say, in a forceful voice, “Wow! You REALLY WISH you could have that cookie/go to the park/whatever it is. You want it SO MUCH.” Don’t talk about his feelings of being upset; instead, talk about what he loves about the thing that he wants. “You really LOVE cookies, don’t you. They are so yummy! If you could have a cookie RIGHT NOW, what kind would you choose?” He says chocolate. “Really? I would choose snickerdoodle. I LOVE snickerdoodle cookies. You know who else loves snickerdoodles? Daddy does. Do you think we should bake cookies one of these days?” Only now, when the emotion has shifted, look around and ‘notice’ the toys. “Oh no! Toys on the floor! These don’t belong there, silly! Let’s put these away.” Hand him one to put away, and the two of you put them away together. I suspect that he’s throwing the toys because he knows it’s something that you don’t like; if you don’t give it a reaction it will probably fade away. If it doesn’t, then when you’re cleaning them up together one day, you might say, “I don’t want you to throw toys any more. They might break! From now on, you can hit this pillow.” Then help him redirect when you see him going for the toys. That’s not my first choice, though, because that gets into the two of you concentrating on him being angry, instead of helping him move beyond it as quickly as possible, and connecting back to his passion for the thing he was denied.

  5. Mindy Leone says:

    Hi, Faith! Let me just say that you were spot on. I really looked through your lenses and it all made sense with my son. I did exactly what you suggested (calmly and lovingly told him that I can hold him while I have a brief conversation but if he cries I will need to set him down) when he becomes upset during my interactions with others and it worked well. I would estimate that I did it a few times before he got the hang of it. I find that patience is a really challenging thing for toddlers to master! You really have to build it slowly. BTW— I read that article about French parents and was inspired.
    Some days are better than others. Some days there is no problem, no challenge when it comes to “sharing mama.” But other days he is clingy and possessive. That is OK. It is then that I understand that he needs me more at that time and maybe it is for a reason. Then he is reminded that “I can hold you while I talk to____ but if you cry I will need to set you down.” We are getting there. Also, I have found wrestling (gently) greatly helps with getting his physical energy out as well as giving him a chance to connect with me. He loves playing “Mama tiger and William tiger” as we growl and rub faces together as we are tangled up.
    Thank you so much for your insight, Miss Faith! I love your blog and always check in!!
    Cheers.
    Mindy, Philadelphia PA

    • That’s great news, Mindy! I’m glad it worked, and I’m sure it’s a process–everything is, with children (and with ourselves). I read that article about the French parents as well –I posted it on the Joyful Toddlers Facebook page, for anyone who’s curious– and research has backed her up. Not about the French, per se, but that teaching children patience is highly correlated with higher cognitive function. Not to mention that it makes them many times more enjoyable to everyone who interacts with them! Sounds like you’re well on your way.

  6. Kylie Rathborne says:

    Hi there,
    Baths have recently become a major sticking point with my 2.5 year old. He has them with his dad and usually they love it, splashing and laughing hysterically. It is there special time together and usually the only time they spend together during the week as my husband works long hours. In the last two weeks, my son has refused to get into the bath, standing and screaming in the bathroom instead of jumping in as he used to do. His favourite thing to say is “only mummy do it”, but even if I come in to try and diffuse the situation he still won’t get in. Usually it ends in my husband giving him endless opportunities to get in and if he won’t, he picks him up and gets in with him. Major tantrums ensue, and I worry about his hurting himself while thrashing around all wet and also that their special time together has turned into a nightly battle. We recently had a new baby, and I am conscious of giving him extra love to help him through this transition, but he has embraced her amazingly well and is a delight the rest of the day. Help!

  7. This is all very familiar. Our son is 2yrs 9mths now and has been very clingy for the last couple of weeks, getting very angry (scratching, pulling hair, hitting, throwing things etc) when daddy does something instead of mummy (even turning the TV on or off!). It is all very wearing but I am happy to give him the time and attention needed while he is going through this phase.

    However, we do have a problem with nursery. His keyworker there is lovely and he will tell you that she is his ‘favourite’ but he has started giving her a hard time too and hits out at her if she asks him to do something that he doesn’t want to do. Yesterday he was particularly upset when I picked him up from nursery as he wanted attention from her and she was dealing with another child. Turns out he had been competing for her attention all day but obviously with many children to look after she has to share her attention.

    Do you have any advice as the nursery are becoming concerned with his behaviour and I find it all so sad as outside of the attention seeking and independence testing he is such a lovely, well-mannered and gentle little boy.

    • Thanks for writing! Your poor little guy…this sounds like a challenging time for him. My first idea is that it’s time to teach him that while it’s fine to feel however he’s feeling, he still needs to act in appropriate ways. So if he hits you because you you’ve asked him to do something he doesn’t want to do, give him the words you wish he were saying: “You’re trying to say, ‘Please play longer, Mama.'” After he gets used to you ‘translating’ for him, stop and expect him to repeat after you, and when that’s solid, you can encourage him to come up with his own words, always being willing to help him if needed. Once he’s asked you nicely (even it’s you translating for him), then you can respond to his request. “Sure, I don’t mind staying a bit longer, when you ask nicely like that,” or, “You love playing here! Shall we come back another time? Let’s do one more fun thing and then we’ll tidy up.”

      As for his nursery keyworker, that’s a tougher one. If it’s starting to feel like an issue at nursery, ask her if the two of you might set up a time to chat without kids around. Then the two of you can brainstorm about things that you’ve tried and how they might work. She might have some good ideas for you, and vice-versa. The important thing when a child is going through a challenging time is that keyworkers and parents feel like they’re a team together, helping this little boy move through this stage and come out with new skills on the other side.

      Good luck!

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