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7 year old clingy, can't play alone, becoming disrespectful

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Dr. Markham,
I have a 7 year old daughter who is also an only child. After years of trying to have another child, we've decided that we are blessed to have her!

She has always been shy and clingy and I'm afraid I have probably made it worse by babying her since she is my only one. We always have extra children at our house and she loves playing with her friends but she never wants to go to other children's houses unless I come along. She does well in school and the teachers love her because she is a pleaser and loves to help. But at home, she can't seem to entertain herself and I struggle with getting anything done. We always seem to be doing what my daughter wants to and she's starting to become more bossy and disrespectful toward my husband & me.

I'm afraid we may have a long summer! How do I help her become more independent, social and appreciative? Thank you! I love your advice!!
-- Jenni


What a great question.

Shy, clingy kids aren't "made worse" by giving them love and attention. Pushing them away from us actually makes them worse. (In fact, this is exactly what I wrote my dissertation about, so I could go on at length!)

How terrific that your shy, clingy daughter loves to have friends over to play, and does well in school. Count your blessings!

But what I hear you saying is that your daughter is not able to play without you at friends' houses, that she can't seem to entertain herself at home, and that she is becoming bossy and disrespectful to you and your husband. I agree that some intervention is necessary in these areas.

It sounds to me like you have a good relationship with your daughter and that she is securely attached to you. Don't undermine that by pushing her to be more independent, which will only backfire. Instead, meet her need for emotional connection on a daily basis and let her depend on you when she needs to.

That means that for now it is fine for you to accompany her to friends' houses. I had a daughter exactly like this and I sat and worked on my laptop. If that feels uncomfortable to you, sit outside and work or read -- the other family doesn't even have to know you're there. Of course, you could point out to her that you are the only parent who goes on playdates, which might make her feel socially constrained so that she is willing to do without you -- but that will also make her feel ashamed. Instead, you can always tell her you will sit in the car outside "while she gets used to" being by herself at her friend's house.

The best way to help your daughter want to play at a friend's house is to nurture her relationship with the parent or caregiver who will be there. Once kids connect with the adult at a friend's house, they usually feel ok about being there. It also helps to teach them how to telephone us so they know we are accessible.

The other option is just to say that you can't go, so the kids will have to play at your house if she isn't willing to try it on her own. Speaking from experience, there is no great advantage to your daughter playing elsewhere and many advantages to the kids loving to hang at your house. As she gets older, she will have no problem going off without you. (As I said, I had one of these kids too so I speak from experience.)

Not being able to entertain herself is actually more worrisome. Is she insecure about her relationship with you so that she hangs on constantly? I assume that you make sure to "fill her cup" by spending good quality time with her. After that, you can transition her into an activity by explaining that you need to go do xyz. Give her some choices. Does she want to sit near you and do an art project? Play with a certain toy? Listen to music?

If she is a very engaged kid, then she may just need a lot of interaction and conversation. In that case, try to get her interested in an activity such as dollhouse play, where she can provide both sides of the interaction. Often, if you begin playing with her, you can then extract yourself to "go take care of something" and she will keep playing.

Your daughter is about to begin reading, so your magic weapon here is books. Very sociable kids who need a lot of interaction are often able to lose themselves in stories. Just find a book at her level (Magic Treehouse?) and begin reading it with her. About a third of the way through, tell her you have to go start dinner or whatever. Does she want to keep reading it herself, or switch to an easier picture book? You will find that not only will she develop into a voracious reader, she will never be bored again.

I would add that kids who watch TV or play computer are often bored and require constant entertaining. Kids who don't use TV or computer learn the essential skill of self direction. So if she watches TV or plays computer, breaking those habits will make her more self-sufficient and will also help her learn to read. (Screen time sabotages reading as kids are learning because it is so much easier.)

"We always seem to be doing what my daughter wants to and she's starting to become more bossy and disrespectful toward my husband & me."

Often, when we are "always" doing what kids want, it means we are letting them be the center of the household and/or that we are not setting limits. That is a frightening experience for a child. They need us to be in charge. When we aren't, they get frightened. Often they get bossy and disrespectful as they try to step into the leadership position that they perceive is not being filled in the household.

Another reason kids get cranky, demanding and angry is when they need to "release" pent-up emotions by crying. If nothing pleases your daughter, she may just need to cry. To explore this, set a necessary limit, but set it with great empathy and respect: "I know you want that but you can't have it. I see how disappointed and angry that makes you. I see that you are mad and sad. That's ok. Everyone gets mad and sad sometimes." Usually once kids have a chance to express their anger, with you staying calm and loving, they will disintegrate into tears and cry for awhile. You can say "That's okay, sweetie, everyone needs to cry sometimes. I will hold you while you get all your sad feelings out."

I want to be very clear that meeting our kids' needs does not mean letting them be disrespectful. Period. Setting limits is part of our job as parents. Staying connected as we set limits is what protects the relationship and thus our child's development. But set limits we must. Here's an excerpt from something I wrote to a reporter recently about disrespect:

Kids learn what is modeled by parents, and to some degree, peers. If parents speak respectfully to their kids, it is rare for young children to "talk back" or be disrespectful in any way.

When they do, they are usually imitating peers and "trying on" a "tough" persona. Parents need to immediately set limits on disrespectful language by saying, "Did you just call me a name? We don't call names in this house," or "That sounded disrespectful. We don't speak disrespectfully to each other in this house. I don't speak to you in that tone of voice, and I don't expect you to speak to me in that tone of voice." If this limit is set in a respectful, matter of fact way, most kids will back off after this "testing the waters."

With preteens, a little attitude often surfaces along with hormones. The same approach is effective, along with an acknowledgment of the teen's upset mood: "Wow, your tone of voice hurts. You must be very upset to speak to me that way. That's not like you. You know I don't speak to you in that tone. Want to tell me what's upsetting you?" Or, if you know already, "I'm hearing that you're very angry at me right now. I hear how much you wish I would say yes to what you're wanting. It's ok to be mad at me, and it's ok to tell me how mad you are. But it is never ok to speak disrespectfully to me."

What's tricky is when parents can't say "I don't speak to you that way." Most of the time when kids begin to "talk back" it's a warning sign to parents that their child is following in their footsteps and speaking disrespectfully. You can't change your child directly -- punishment will just exacerbate this tendency -- but luckily parents CAN nip this behavior in the bud by changing their own way of relating.

Here are three strategies which, when used together, usually eliminate "back talk" in kids from toddlers to teens within a few weeks:

First, notice your own language and model respect and kindness in every interaction with your child. If you find yourself criticizing or yelling, bite your tongue. If you need to set limits, wait until you can speak calmly and respectfully.

Second, strengthen your relationship with your child by looking for every opportunity to positively connect. Kids think twice about hurting the feelings of parents they feel connected to. Be sure you spend at least 15 minutes alone daily with each child giving him your focused, positive attention.

Third, every time your child "talks back," confront the behavior as outlined above. Keep a positive, calm, compassionate tone, but set a clear expectation for respectful behavior from everyone.

Please note: I am defining "talking back" as attitude. If the child is challenging the parent by asking for more after the parent has set a limit, it's the parents' job to enforce limits with empathy ("I know you wish you could stay up later, but 8pm is bedtime. Sorry, end of discussion.")

Jenni, I hope this all helps. Remember that you want your daughter to stay connected to you, not to switch her connection to her peer group over the next few years. Your goal is just to loosen her grip a little!
Enjoy your daughter and have a lovely summer.
-- Dr. Laura Markham

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