Shows a child clinging to mom

How to Help a Clingy Child Play Independently

Your clingy child won't play independently? In this post, you'll learn how play therapists help increase kids capacity for play – and how you can too at home.  

Shows a child clinging to mom

A parent I was working with once said, “My child would still want more from me if I was watching over her and doing nothing else for 24 hours per day!”

What parent doesn’t feel that way?!

Children have a huge need for our undivided attention, and an appetite for us that can never be completely filled. But to stay sane and be able to parent from a centered place, parents need times when they aren’t focusing on their kids.

Parents need breaks too.

So how can you meet your child’s needs for play and your attention?

When is it reasonable to ask them to play on their own?

What do you do when they can’t play without you?

Let’s start with understanding the developmentally appropriate expectations for a child to play independently.

Many children between the ages of 2-4 are able to keep their attention on a task for up to a half-hour. Kids between 5-7 can often focus longer, up to an hour or more on their own.

And if they are really interested in an activity and feeling filled up with a sense of safety, love, and connection, they may be able to play independently for longer.

Beyond daily circumstances, some children have a more or less intrinsic ability to stay interested in a solo activity.

Why Not All Kids Meet Those Expectations

When a child is already stressed or full of difficult feelings, they may not be able to stay focused for as long.

But we can change that.

Using some of the tools explained below, you can help your clingy child extinguish the feelings they have of an immediate need for your attention and expand your child’s capacity to play independently.

Here's what happens to make a child clingy and not want to be alone…

Sometimes, children’s feelings of need for their parents’ attention arise from past painful experiences. It may also be important to adjust your expectations of their ability to play alone, based on your unique child and the stresses they’ve encountered that lead them to feel needy.

Step One: Build Your Child’s Sense of Connection

There are several Hand in Hand Parenting tools that can be used to boost your child’s connection to you and create more emotional security to fill those feelings of need.

When your child is filled up with feelings of connection and safety, they will be able to play on their own for longer.

Let’s explore how three of these tools, Special Time, Playlistening, and Setting Limits can be used to boost connection.

Special Time is a tool that creates pockets of connection in which your child has your full attention and is able to play exactly the way they want to.

To do Special Time you simply decide a time you will focus warm attention on your child, and choose how long you will do this.

When that time comes, call out, “Now it’s Special Time. I’ll play anything you want to play.”

Set your timer for the amount of time you’ve allotted (anywhere from 2-30 minutes) and then give your full attention to your child.

The goal in Special Time is to give your child 100% of your attention, adding extra warmth, eye contact, and touch, and let them decide what they want to do as you follow their lead.

During Special Time you put aside your phone, your distractions, your worries about the dirty dishes, and all efforts to teach your child manners or lessons. Simply follow your child’s play with as much delight as you can.

Even though you may give your child a lot of quality playtime already, these Special Times can fill them up with feelings of connection more effectively than semi-distracted playtimes can.

Kids look forward to Special Time as the time to absorb your full, undivided attention.

The only goal during Special Time is connection. It doesn’t matter if your child putzes around pushing the button on and off on their tablet, tells knock-knock jokes, or pretends to be a superhero while you are the villain.

The connection between you both is the most important focus during this time, not the content of the play.

And don’t worry if your child doesn’t seem to notice your efforts to connect. Sometimes, children protect themselves from disappointment by not relying on our attention at first.

Be sure that your attention will have a warming effect, whether you can detect it or not.

I have seen time and again with families that I work with that even 10 minutes of Special Time a couple of times per week can result in children who are more able to communicate what they are feeling and needing, and who have more resilience when parents ask them to do things they don’t want to do.

Special Time is a wonderful tool that can help fill your child up with love and attention so that they can more easily play on their own. You can get a free guide to Special Time here.

Step Two: Set Limits with Warmth and Confidence

One thing to know is that the warmth cultivated between you and your child during Special Time can allow them to get in touch with the very same icky feelings that make her unable to play alone.

If Your Child Continues To Ask for Play, Do This…

Many parents find that when Special Time ends there is a tantrum. This happens because your child feels a strong need for that good, loving, undivided attention to keep coming. (100% of the time, 25 hours per day!!).

It’s important as parents that we know we can safely, warmly set limits, and that sometimes those limits allow our child to get in touch with, and finally release, stored feelings of need they have been holding inside.

That's right. We don't ALWAYS have to play.

If your child continues to ask you to play and you are not able to, simply set a limit that is both gentle and firm.

This respectful attitude gives your child the message that their feelings matter and that you are the adult and hold the rules. A warm but firm tone is a good model for your child too. They learn how to set boundaries well later on.

It also helps them process old feelings of disappointment and work through them.

Here's How A Warm Limit Sounds…

Offer empathy and then simply state your limit in a warm tone:

“I know you want me to play with you. I love playing with you too! I can’t play with you right now. We will play again later.”

When your child cries, yells, and does what he can to get you to play with him, simply stay with him, listen to his feelings, and state the limit again:

“You really want me to play with you right now. I love you sooooooo much. And I can’t play right now.”

We call this Staylistening, and it is another deeply useful Listening Tool. You can get more ideas for how to respond in this post: What To Say During Staylistening

Step Three: Support Your Child with Staylistening

Children want to be cooperative and play with ease. When they are resistant, irritable, whiny, and won’t listen to your direction it is because their emotion gets in the way of them using their whole brain.

They get stuck in the emotional limbic system of the brain unable to access their cerebral cortex. This is this center that gives kids (and adults) the ability to make good decisions and soothe themselves when upset.

When your child refuses to play alone, even if you have given them really good quality Special Time and lots of warm attention, it is as if they are sending you a signal.

They're saying, “I’m still stuck with some scary feelings I don’t like. I don’t know what to do with them. I need your help.”

Repeatedly hold the limit and offer:

  • Eye contact
  • Connection
  • Empathy
  • Warmth

Setting limits like this will help your child get in touch with feelings about playing alone.

Learn how to set limits in five words or less. 

That Tantrum About Playing Alone Isn't A Bad Thing

As you listen, your child will release those feelings in crying, trembling, or sometimes having a tantrum.

When our children erupt in crying or tantrums, they’re clearing emotional gunk out of their systems.

It can be a transformative process if you help by keeping your child safe and loved. You can partner with your child using Staylistening to help them offload those difficult emotions so that they can come back to their cooperative, loving nature.

As the feelings pour out, healing happens inside. Children draw from your love and your confidence in the ability to get through this emotional hard time.

In Staylistening, you can help your child in an unusual, but deeply healing way.

As you listen to their feelings, you create a physically and emotionally safe space for them to feel the hurt feelings fully.

You do this by offering connection:

  • Get on their level
  • Give eye contact
  • Offer a gentle hand on the shoulder
  • Keep your attention warm as you listen to your child offload all the hurt, anger, and fear that they have stored up

Your child may vigorously cry, tantrum, or shake for minutes or longer until they have offloaded a chunk of feelings. Then they will come back to a calm state in which they can think well again.

At this point, your child may be able to play independently and contentedly for longer than you might expect.

Laughter Can Also Build Your Child’s Independence

Sometimes you can use laughter as a tool to help your child when they don’t want to play alone. The tool in Hand in Hand Parenting that utilizes the healing power of laughter is called Playlistening.

Why Does Play Help A Clingy Child? (And what should you play?)

When you Playlisten, you employ a playful role reversal to help your child work through their difficult emotions and feel more empowered.

Do this by playfully putting your child in a more powerful role in play.

How does that look?

  • You are the one who clings to their leg as they try to go play because you are afraid to do your work alone;
  • You are the one who is “Sooooooo bored” and can’t figure out something to do;
  • You are the one who wants “just one more hug” again and again and again.

Just like mama birds digest food their babies can’t digest, human parents get to help their young digest difficult feelings that their nervous system can’t yet tolerate.

In your child’s world, there is always someone who is faster, better informed, and freer to direct things. When you take on the role of the underdog they get to try out feeling big and confident.

Try these play ideas and see how your clingy child responds:

  • Let your child place the last pillow on the pillow mound
  • Fumble with putting your shoe on until they show you just how
  • Be the one who is left behind as they leave the house

During this play, they get to laugh off some of the stress of the powerlessness of childhood.

Try these six tried and tested games to play to reduce power battles and stress

Play like this can be done in a difficult moment, to help your child offload tension and find more ease in cooperating with your wishes.

It can crop up in Special Time if your child so chooses.

Or try weave Playlistening into your day with a playful story, where you proclaim you absolutely need their attention and you cannot be left alone.

Try this alongside twenty minutes of pillow fighting, “sword fighting” with paper towel tubes or swim noodle, or play wrestling, where you do your darnedest to keep your child from leaving you.

This play can fill your child up with the confidence to face the difficult feelings that come up when you are not able to pay attention to them.

Children need our attention, but they also need times to pursue independent play. If your child has difficulty playing alone, use the Hand in Hand Parenting tools to help them feel connected. They will help them offload the feelings they have about wanting your attention when you aren’t available.

It can make a wonderful difference for you and for your child.

Download our guide to special time here

by Karen Wolfe, LMFT and Certified Hand in Hand Instructor

Karen Wolfe is a licensed marriage and family therapist offering play therapy, parenting classes, and couples therapy in San Francisco and Oakland. Get information here.

Join Karen for an eight-week intensive course in Hand in Hand Parenting, designed for therapists, social workers, early-childhood educators, childcare providers, and other professionals. Find out about her next class

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