The Rocky Road to Independence – two steps forward, one step back

Children don’t gain independence in a neat, linear fashion, steadily getting bolder and bolder as they grow up. Frustratingly for us parents, they actually seem to periodically have a burning need to test how strong and secure their base is before they take the next leap forwards. It’s frustrating because what it looks like to us is a period of regression – suddenly becoming more clingy, waking at night maybe, begging to be cuddled to sleep. Your mature, brave, independent little child has suddenly become a limpet and, for many parents, it is not only bewildering but very, very annoying!

Many of us make the initial mistake of thinking that getting them back to independence requires a gentle push from us. We sit at the edge of the playground trying to coax them into having a nice time with their friends, when it seems all they want to do is hang off us. If an adult approaches, them, they hide behind our legs, and we roll our eyes and try to transmit to the other adult via the power of telepathy that we can’t understand why they’re being like that and we’re ever so sorry for their rudeness, while simultaneously trying to extract the fabric of our jeans from our children’s vice-like grip and move them into a more prominent position. When the adult has gone, we tut and shake our head and ask our children what on earth is the matter with them.

The reason this is a mistake is because of what is happening beneath the surface in our children’s mind. We can’t see it, and they don’t know it’s happening, but it is. Their mind is saying ‘woah! This doesn’t feel safe! You’re not secure! Cling on tighter!’ – exactly what we don’t want! But that’s often what happens. The more we urge them to be more independent, the more they cling.

Then one day we give in. We can’t be bothered any more with the painful battles trying to prise our darling little limpets from our legs, and we pick them up and hold them close. And that’s when their subconsciousness breathes a sigh of relief. ‘Thank goodness for that!’ it says. ‘It’s ok, captain! The base is secure! You can get ready to make your next leap into the unknown!’ Often, within a few days, we see our children rushing away from us without even looking back, desperate to join in with their friends’ games.

Give it a try. Next time your child clings, hold them even closer.

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