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Clingy toddler? Rethinking attention seeking behavior.

Mommy come back!
Mommy come back!
photo by Jessica McMaken

At some point it happens to every mother.* Your toddler is happily playing on the floor, seemingly unaware of your presence. You decide to take advantage of this opportunity to toss in a load of laundry, unload the dishwasher, or (gasp!) use the bathroom by yourself. The moment you are out of sight, your child begins scream and frantically chases after you.

What is behind this behavior? What is your little one trying to tell you? Before children can communicate with words, they communicate through their body - in their behavior and in their play. Because adults are accustomed to communicating with words, they may struggle to receive the nonverbal messages their child is sending.

Much of what gets labeled "attention seeking" behavior in toddlers is actually "attachment promoting" behavior. These attachment behaviors  are biologically based to attract and hold a parent's attention in order to meet the child's needs.  A child's attachment system activates in response to physical needs - such as when he's tired or hungry. A child also uses attachment promoting behaviors to meet his emotional needs - such as when he is scared, lonely, unsure of himself or intimidated by his environment. 

There are some attachment behaviors that parents hardly notice. In the midst of a busy playgroup a child may bring a toy to show his mom. The toy is just a convenient excuse for the child to return to his home base in order to refuel his confidence so that he can go back to exploring. It allows the child to assure himself that mom is still there and he is still safe. 

Other attachment promoting behaviors can be more challenging. What about the child who screams every time you move out of sight? This is a common phase for older babies and younger toddlers, but it is often perplexing and even maddening for the parent. It can be easier to cope with if you understand it's purpose.

A child draws his confidence from his mother's presence. While he may not need her at this moment, he is comforted by knowing that she's there should a need arise. When she is in sight, he can relax and explore his environment because he knows his mother is looking out for him.

It may help to think of the evolutionary roots of this behavior. A "cave child" who knows his mother is watching is free to play with sticks and mud without having to keep watch for bears wanting to turn him into an afternoon snack. While most of us don't need to fear bears anymore, the biological system that arouses our vigilance is still strongly intact.

As your child matures he will learn that, though you are out of sight, he is not in danger. If you respond sensitively to his distress cries now, he will gain confidence in his ability to gain your attention and your presence when he needs it and will be more willing to let you out of sight when he is happily engaged. In the mean time, don't fear that you are raising a clingy, dependent child. This attachment promoting behavior is a healthy part of normal development.

*To avoid confusion and awkward grammatical constructions, children will be referred to as "he" and "mother" will represent any attachment figure. The author is well aware that attachment figures include fathers, grandmothers, child care providers and others and does not wish to exclude these caregivers.