Friday 23 August 2019

Dear David Coleman: My two-year-old girl is very clingy. Please help

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. Since the summer there has been a very notable change in my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter's behaviour. She has been extremely clingy with me. I can't leave the house without her having a meltdown. We started her in a Montessori in September against my better judgement. It was a disaster. She cried solidly for the two hours she was there every day so we were advised to pull her out after a week. She still wakes up every morning and says, "I'm not going back there". I just don't know what has come over her with this change of behaviour.

David replies: I do hear you say that you don't know what has come over her with her increased clinginess and distress. Yet, you also give a clear time-line of when the change happened and note the coincidence of her having a really difficult, if not traumatic, start in Montessori.

It seems to me that the two things are very closely linked. You don't mention it in your query, but I wonder if her start in Montessori was the first time she was away from your care for any significant length of time?

It would certainly make a lot of sense if that is the case. If she was used to being cared for by you, and then was, from her point of view, "abandoned" at the Montessori, it could have come as a real shock to her at her age.

It certainly sounds like the experience of going to Montessori, for that week, was truly traumatic for her. It sounds like it completely disrupted her sense of security. Becoming clingy to your primary attachment figure is a natural response to feeling insecure.

Small children will often, literally, cling on to their mum or their dad when they perceive uncertainty or danger in their environment. We have to remember that we are often the rock that our children rely on for safety when the world around them seems to be unstable.

The fact that, several months later, your daughter is still talking about the Montessori in such negative terms does suggest that it was a deeply negative experience for her. I think she needs more help to process this experience so that she can move on from it and return to her pre-Montessori stability.

Because she is so young (only two-and-a-half), it is unrealistic to expect to be able to get her to talk about what it was like for her in the Montessori each day. However, hopefully her understanding of language is good enough that you might be able to tell her how you think it might have felt for her there.

So, using some very simple empathy statements, you can try to validate her experience of being away from you. You might say things to her like:

"I think you really missed me when you were in the Montessori each day".

Or, "You might have felt very scared that you didn't know anyone at Montessori".

Or, "I think you like being minded by me and not by other people".

Or, "You seemed very sad at Montessori, like it was a lonely place for you".

You will know your daughter better than I know her, so you may think of other things that are relevant about her feelings about the experience of being in Montessori. Try to guess as many different angles on what her experience may have been like.

After you have helped her to connect in to what the experience may have been like for her, she will be much more open to your reassurance that she is safe and secure now.

You can bolster that sense of security she has regained by being very consistent and predictable for her. Routine, rhythm and reliability on your part will strengthen her confidence in her safety now.

Be careful not to try to pull away from her clinginess as this may just underline her feelings of insecurity. Allow her to be close and to rely on you. Lots of nurturing and physical closeness, if she wants it, will help her.

As she grows in confidence again, having processed the trauma of the start in Montessori, I think you will find that her clinginess will reduce and hopefully she'll be able to get back to a place of greater security where she feels able to explore more of the world around her.

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