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LITTLE TIES THAT BIND

Kristi Bailey's daughter Allison, 4, loves to cling to her mom. Like plastic wrap. At a mothers-of-twins pizza night, Allison wanted to be held the entire evening. When Bailey showered on a recent morning, Allison loitered outside the door and knocked periodically. When Bailey takes Allison to a weekly play group, she sits on her mom's lap in the house until playtime is almost over.

Bailey has a lot of patience with her daughter, but it has its limits. Sometimes she simply has to pry Allison loose and set her down: "She cries, but I just have to be stern with her."

Unusual behavior? No, experts say. It's perfectly normal. Bailey and Allison are experiencing the bonding process that cements the parent-child relationship. In some children, the need to cling is more intense and continues longer than with others.

Allison's twin sister, Ashley, for example, is more independent. But when the girls were babies, Ashley was the one who needed to be held. What's important is that parents understand a child's attachment is only natural and needs to be handled with care.

The problems come when parents set a pattern of reacting in ways that can short-circuit a child's trust in the world: ignoring the child; pushing away the clingy child in exasperation; or, in the case of the parent who does not get the child's attention, feeling rejected, jealous and angry.

Typically, the initial and strongest attachment is to the primary caregiver: the one who feeds, bathes, clothes, wipes and cleans, and wakes up in the middle of the night to sing lullabies to baby.

Typically, that's Mom. And, typically, that might leave Dad feeling left out. This is especially true for new parents.

"That first-time parent feels a lot of rejection and frustration," says Kelly Hogrefe, who oversees school-age child care and conducts parenting workshops for a YMCA in Anaheim, Calif.

"It's like, "What have I done wrong?' There's a lot of anxiety. "Why doesn't this child like me?' "

The answer is not that the child doesn't like you; he or she just prefers someone else for the time being.

"In some instances, it's so strong they have a very difficult time being cared for by anyone else," observes Dr. Martin Stein, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on the psycho-social aspects of child and family health.

Child-development experts have this to say to the parent who gets the short-end of their child's attention: Your turn will come.

The most critical stage unfolds during infancy, when children are first learning to love and trust.

Attachment starts to become noticeable around six months old. That's about the age when a child starts to cry if its mother or the person it feels most comfortable with leaves the room.

"Six to 18 months is the most intense time of clinging," Stein says. "This should be seen as normal."

As children grow and mature, the intensity and focus of their attachment fluctuates. Mommy's boy grows into daddy's little man; the little girl who wants to marry her daddy leaves that behind to play with makeup and shop with mom.

"The parents have to be flexible," Santa Ana, Calif., pediatrician Dr. Milton Schwarz advises. "These things change back and forth."

When Anna Backlund's son, 6, and daughter, 3, were babies, they gravitated toward mom. She worried about her husband's feelings. "I asked him, "Does that bother you that they want me all the time?' He said no. But he's a really balanced person, my husband."

As Mikael and Alyssa grew older, she says, "we became equally important to them. I think a big part of that is because I'm gone some of the time." She spends 32 hours a week cutting hair in the beauty shop she owns. On Saturdays, it's just dad and the kids at home.

In the past year, Backlund has noticed a shift in whom her son prefers to spend time with: "He's grown up a lot and he's into hockey, and his dad is getting a lot more attention."

It doesn't make her jealous. "It's good," Backlund says. "It gives me more time with Alyssa."

Find ways to be playful with the child, Stein urges, and the child will eventually come around.

"Kids can be discriminating about what activity they enjoy with one parent or another," he says. "If they put up a big resistance and want to have one parent help rather than the other, you have to try to deal with what is reasonable."

Sometimes, to get what they want, children also can be quick to manipulate an unsuspecting parent who welcomes more attention. "I'll never forget when my son would meet me at the door when I came home from work," Schwarz recalls. "I'd get this feeling, gee, he's so glad to see me. Then he'd ask me if he could do this or that and I'd say yes and he'd run into the house and say, "See, Mom, Dad said I can do that."'

During the school-age years come the golden periods when boys idolize their dads and girls consider their moms their best friends.

But when they become teenagers, neither Mom nor Dad quite measures up. What parents need to keep in mind: It won't be like this forever.

"The good news on all these ages and stages is they grow out of it," says Karen Busche, a Newport Beach, Calif., therapist who specializes in family counseling. "The important thing is not to take any of this too personally."

But do take it seriously and respond.

Children who are denied the security of attaching themselves to someone often grow up to be adults who are unable to develop healthy relationships.

"The child who is neglected or abused or isn't played with a lot is not going to develop a sense of trust," Stein says.

The challenge is to remain patient _ even when you'd swear your child has bonded to you with glue.

The advice from Busche: "I say you cling and you let them cling."

But what is a parent to do when the need arises to cook or clean or tend to some other business? Try distraction: Hand the child off to another adult or engage them in an activity.

A child's personality has much to do with the degree of attachment.

"We really don't understand the nature of it, but some children attach very intensely with mother," Stein says. "Some children need their primary parent with them when they're among strangers. Other children need that less."

As the mother of twins, Bailey sees this difference in daughters Allison and Ashley. While Allison clings, Ashley explores: "She'll go into a stranger's house, find where the toys are and you won't even know she's there."

Of Hogrefe's three girls, it was the middle one _ from about 4 months on _ who stuck to her side the closest and longest.

"For a good six months she didn't want to go to her Dad if I was around," Hogrefe remembers. "If he would hold her and I was there she would scream for me."

Being left with the baby-sitter produced the same results. And when it came time to go to school, "it was so hard for her because she missed me so much," says Hogrefe, a stay-at-home mom back then.

Her daughter, now 13, eventually outgrew it.

Bailey is more understanding of Allison's need to be in her shadow because she went through a similar experience with her son, Bradley, the oldest of her three children."I did have a little bit with my son, so when it happened (with Allison) I said, yeah, OK, I remember this."

Now, at 6, Bradley likes to be with his dad. "When my husband is home, my son is right at his side the whole time," she says.

But the bond between her and Bradley remains strong. On those days when Bailey volunteers at his school, he's not embarrassed to be at Mom's side out on the playground.

"The teacher laughs. She says, "I can't believe how attached he is to you."'

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