"He's suddenly very clingy"
My little boy turns 3 and in the past 2 weeks he really has turned clingy and insecure – especially around his school. Normally he loves it and waves goodbye but lately he is clinging onto me and begging me not to leave him (I am a fulltime working mom). I've tried to leave him home with his nanny (who has been with him since birth) but that doesn't work and he also begs me not to leave. When I see him again he is angry with me and turns his back on me for a while. Is this a normal phase? He has never, ever suffered from separation anxiety before. The only thing different is he is on asthma medication now – having been diagnosed 2 weeks ago. We are also renovating our bathrooms and I am wondering if that could be unsettling him. And finally his dad and I are having problems but we have kept it away from him – we never fight in front of him and his routine has continued as normal. What can I do? Annie Lambert

Sheryl answers:

Separation anxiety, in a reasonable dose, is a normal part of growing up. According to developmental studies, it usually occurs at 9 months and can re-occur at 18 and 36 months. This is because the bigger children get, the more they realise how little they actually are!

This is the paradox of growing up. As they grow, they begin to see that they are no longer completely in control of you and everyone else in their world. So even if they want you to stay close, you won’t because you have work to do and bills to pay. From your child’s point of view, this is a shock!

Up until now he thought that his wish was your command. He thought that he had power over you and that you would do what he demands! Now he experiences his vulnerabilities. When you don’t do as he says, he is forced to get in touch with his vulnerabilities and this can be very stressful for him.

Colluding with him and never exposing him to small amounts of separation means you are robbing him of the opportunity to learn that he can survive some distress and understand you will always come back. This will strengthen his capacity to build emotional maturity and resilience. If you quit your job and stay with him 24/7 he might get the message that his difficult feelings are dangerous and must be avoided at all costs. This will not build his emotional maturity.

Now this is not to say that you can leave him to "build resilience"’ at 3 weeks or 3 months of age. But your son is 3 years old and he can be exposed to some of his anxiety and see that he survives. Here’s how:

  1. Always say goodbye. Even if it is stressful for both of you. Let him know about your comings and goings. Knowing gives a sense of control which is very therapeutic. It also builds trust in your relationship since he knows that you won't sneak out – which will cause him to become more anxious.
  2. Give your son a transitional object such as his dummy or blanket. This will help him to self-soothe. These objects are healthy for kids and will help him to feel comforted.
  3. Always leave him with caregivers who you trust will take good care of him. Give him an object of yours so that he can "hold onto you" when you are gone. This can be your T-shirt or pillow, etc.
  4. Stay "present" even when you are absent. In other words, let him create something for you in your absence: such as baking cookies with your domestic worker for you when you get home, etc. This way he will keep you in mind. This is very helpful since he worries that if he can’t see you, you don’t exist. Now you can help him with that.
  5. Play hid and seek with him so that he can learn that even if you are not seen you still exist.
  6. Children are very perceptive. If you are pre-occupied with difficult feelings about your spouse, in your mind, your child can feel that you might be a little unavailable (emotionally) and this can also contribute towards separation anxiety.

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