Updated: Feb 21
Is your child being “needy” and clingy often and you aren’t sure why? Many parents struggle with their kids nagging for attention, but a few of us wondered for the true reasons behind the behavior, and as we know, behavior is always communication. Let’s take look at a few potential reasons together, and find ways to work around.
What Does "Needy" Mean to You?
Start with defining “needy”. What is it exactly that they are doing that makes you feel this way? Are they constantly following you around the house? Are they truly bored and don’t know how to self entertain? Entertaining oneself, playing on their own isn’t our inapt ability, it’s rather a skill that our children learn from us and through us, and develop over time. They don’t simply fall into this knowledge, and we also need to understand what’s developmentally appropriate to adjust our expectations accordingly.
The average time a child is able to entertain themselves is their age multiplied by 5 in minutes, so for a 1 year old it’s developmentally appropriate to be able to self entertain for 5 minutes, for a 2 year old - for 10, for a 3 year old - for 15… Yes, some kids might keep themselves busy for much longer, especially when they are engaged in a new, challenging, yet developmentally fitting activity within their zone of proximal development, but it doesn’t mean that a child at 2 can keep themselves occupied for 40 minutes multiple times a day.
Keep an eye on them next time you feel like they are being too much to understand if they are truly being “needy”, or are you simply busy or distracted in the moment and it is your perception while they are asking for you to meet their emotional needs? The way we see things changes our perception AND our reaction! Sometimes it’s easier for us to push the responsibility to our child to avoid feeling guilty because we can’t give them the attention that they need at the moment.
Does It Come from Discomfort?
Is your child potentially experiencing discomfort that they can’t pinpoint? Maybe they are lacking sleep because they went to bed half an hour too late last night and feeling tired as a result? Do they need a snack? Maybe they haven’t had enough fluids today and they have a headache, which is possible, yet even a 4 year old is unlikely to be able to put their finger on it and communicate it. Did they play on their own for a while and need some of your time now?
Is Someone There?
When you are playing with your children, reading to them, spending time with them - are you present? Or is your child feeling that you are not? Only when they feel our energy, our interest, our presence, see the shine in our eyes, it can truly benefit our relationship, nurture their attachment needs, and help them feel safe and secure. When we make an appearance of being there while truly being in our head, our work, our relationship, and sometimes all of us do that, our children feel this void, and they WILL act clingy and needy. Why? Because they DO NEED you, and that’s one of the ways they can attract our attention. After all, our frustration is still attention - it’s real and meaningful, even though negative.
Dr. Edith Eva Eger points it out in her book “Choice” with quite a few examples, and Transactional Analysis has a great explanation through their “strokes”. A stroke is at its core a unit of recognition, showing that one person recognizes the other. Be it physical, verbal or non-verbal recognition (e.g., a per on the head, a compliment, or a simple smile or nod of the head). “Go away!” or a dismissive wave of the hand are also types of stroke (or recognition), so even through getting negative strokes a person (our child in this case) gets an acknowledgement that they exist. We need these "strokes" to knowe that we are seen, that we exist.
Do you feel like your child gets enough positive “strokes” from a present parent? And if not, maybe you can try to think of ways and time to fit those in.
Is Your Attachment Secure?
Is your child feeling safe and secure in their attachment to you? Do they have too much separation in their life? Do they know for sure that you love them always and unconditionally? And if you are tempted to answer “yes, of course” immediately, think again.
Children under 6-7 don’t have an ability to differentiate between themselves and their behavior. When we tell them that their behavior is “bad”, when we show them they are too much to handle, when we get frustrated and angry with their emotions, they don’t quite understand yet that this upset is momentary. They feel like they are not ok.
Frustration is a normal part of life, what matters is how we express it, how often they feel it, and how we go about it both in the moment and later.
It’s normal for our children to go through periods of boredom to learn what they like, to understand their interests and meaningful activities that bring them joy. It’s a normal part of development, and filling the moments of boredom with constant incessant activities is a mistake. But when their energy is diverted away from creative exploration of self and the world to securing his or her attachment, or to containing their alarm about their world, when he feels like he constantly must perform and measure up to the standards of the caring adults in his life who are in charge of him, or she is often alarmed and anxious that she needs to always be “good” in order to maintain her sense of closeness and connection with her parents, this exploration process is thwarted. Preserving the feeling of closeness is any child’s most important need, and development will halt without it. All they can do instead is long for it, and pursue it in the way they can - being needy and nagging is on top of the list.
How Do You Feel About Being "Needy"?
Another thing to ponder is how is my own relationship with “neediness”.
Do I allow myself to be “needy” once in a while?
Did it (and does it) feel safe to be needy, to ask someone for help, to let someone hold me?
Did I have and do I have someone to express my neediness to?
If you just rolled your eyes thinking that this is not what adults do, think again. As humans we are wired to need each other, to depend on one another, to co-regulate, so giving up all kinds of neediness is really a maladaptive defensive mechanism. Neediness is normal, when it is not expressed in a codependent way where “I get my feeling of self through you”, but in acknowledging that we are all human, we are in it together, and it’s normal to both provide support in certain moments of life, and look for it in other situations. It’s also normal to have our own boundaries and not be able to have those needs met in the moment too.
It’s very natural for children to seek love, attachment, warmth, reassurance from their adults. Seeing someone else as needy is often a result of abandoning our own needs in the process of development as children, teens - with our own parents, siblings, or at school to make others happy, to fit in. Most of the time the things that trigger us the most are the traits that we’ve either abandoned, or suppressed, or rejected within ourselves and might not admit that we have them, OR traits that we know we have, yet we’ve learned to view them as “negative”, and we criticize them about ourselves. Kids and people around us are mirrors and it can be extremely frustrating to admit it because it means looking at our own pain straight in the face. We so badly want it to be about the other person, e.g. about our child, because admitting the opposite is a very vulnerable territory. However, witnessing it and then using this knowledge to learn and understand more about ourselves and our own needs, recognizing them and finding ways to better meet them is a very liberating experience.
Here is an exercise for you if you’ve been triggered by your child’s neediness. Get yourself a notebook, and for one week every time you are feeling that your child is being too much, go through these 5 points and make a note what it was about. You might learn something new in process, both about yourself, and your little human.
Are you struggling with neediness? Or is this not a problem in your home? Often it can be hard to solve the riddle when you are INSIDE the riddle, that's why working with a coach can be very helpful to take a step back and see what's happening with both you and your children, why is it triggering, and what steps can be taken to make your life more peaceful. If you find yourself looking for a way out (or forward!) - book your session with me and let's see what we can do together.