Dear Dr. Medoff,
I have noticed that lately my four-year-old son will not do anything that requires him to be away from me. He cries hysterically and grabs onto my legs whenever I drop him off at preschool (only two days a week), and he won’t go to other kids’ houses to play. He follows me around the house wherever I go. If I try to close a door to get dressed, he starts to cry. Is there something wrong with him? What can I do? From Vera, Denver, CO
First, let me reassure you that your son’s behavior is not abnormal for his age. Many 3-4-year-old children demonstrate a very strong attachment to their primary caregiver. This is the age where kids are beginning to understand themselves as individuals, are starting to explore their independence, and separating from their parents, but they are not yet completely comfortable with the idea. They must be reassured that if they do indeed venture away from you, you will be there when they return.
Here are some ideas to consider regarding your son:
- First, make sure that his behavior is not due to any major trauma. Ask him why he is afraid. Let him know that he can tell you anything, and you will not be angry. Talk to others who provide care for him, and ask if they have noticed any behavior to be concerned about. If you suspect any problems, make an appointment to see a health professional.
- Examine your family’s life for any recent changes, such as a change in schedule, a move, a death in the family, or even increased stress for you or other family members. Children need routine in order to feel secure. Find out what you can do to re-establish routine, and assure your child that no matter how situations change, you will always be there to take care of him. Rituals such as reading bedtime stories at the same time every night or taking a walk at the same time every morning can really help.
- Ensure that you always follow through on promises to your son regarding your time together. He may be worried about letting you out of his sight because he thinks you will not come back. If you tell him you will be there to pick him up from preschool at a particular time, don’t let anything get in your way. Always be truthful about how long you will be gone – don’t lie and say you will be right back just to get him to stop crying for the moment.
- Let him learn to deal with being away from you. If he cries when you drop him off at preschool, say, “I love you, and I will see you at 1pm. Have a good day.” Walk out quickly. Teachers know how to deal with this type of problem, and most children stop crying quickly once their parents are out of sight. When you are at home, give yourself permission to close doors when necessary and not feel guilty if he cries. Tell him, “I have to get changed. I will be out in five minutes.”
- Slowly increase the amount of time he spends away from you. Do this in small steps. For example, hire a baby-sitter, but stay at home for the first few times that she comes. Have them play in one room while you are in another. When you leave, tell him what time you will back, and stick to that time as closely as possible. In addition, try taking him to a friend’s house, but stay with them the first time, be in another room the second time, and leave the third time. You may also want to consider sending him to preschool more days a week so he can have more practice being away from you.