My 4 year old son has recently become VERY clingy whenever I (mom) leaves him or goes anywhere. He has always preferred to be with me but now his behavior is extreme; crying, hanging on my leg, chasing me. I have tried explaining when I’ll return, offering special time for good behavior and anything else I can think of. There have been no major changes in his routine or in the household. It is making preschool, volunteering, church, etc. impossible. Is this a stage for some children? How long should I expect it to last?
This is a great question, as separation anxiety can resurface at age four. Separating from mom, dad or siblings is a transition, and as parents we know that transitions are the trickiest part of any day in the life of a child. As with everything we do, a little assessment and planning will go a long way. So I have a few questions!
Have there been significant life changes for your four year old?
*New sibling? Siblings Without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish is a must-read.
* Illness or loss of job within the nuclear family?
*Change in caregivers?
*Increase in parental stress level?
These questions can help you identify possible contributing factors to his separation anxiety. Anxiety brought on by separation will always be intensified when anyone (prior to 4 years old and up!) is hungry, tired or anticipating a stressful situation. Leaving someone you love and trust is stressful! When the above questions have been considered, the next line of defense is to look at the overall schedule you and your child are keeping. Try to plan each week so that there are days during which he does not have to separate from you and he can just enjoy being in his own space with you.
Here are some general suggestions to ease separation difficulties:
*Full bellies and sleep tanks are vital to all happy transitions.
*Plan a quiet one-on-one time with him prior to the separation and talk about what you will do when you get back together.
*When it is time to leave, say goodbye and do not linger. Have a designated person to receive your child.
*Let him bring a favorite toy or photo wherever he goes.
*When possible, set up childcare at your home, with a consistent caregiver, who shares your parenting philosophies.
*Keep your child with you when possible. One of our children stayed with us during Sunday School and church for the first seven years of her life. She has developed into a normal sixteen year old who goes to school every day and happily separates from us whenever possible! Time works this out–all children develop at a different pace!
*Validate your child’s feelings verbally and with your actions by adjusting the schedule and being flexible. There are times when you may need to scale back your own activities, or your child’s to accommodate this period–we took a break from preschool for a while with one daughter and I can report we have seen no detrimental effects on her intelligence!
Your four year old is at a sweet stage (I’ll tip my hand and say that all ages are sweet!) and he is figuring out his independence while still being very much anchored in the security of your presence and love. Savor it.
Recommended reading: Touchpoints 3 to 6 by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow