On Psychology

Jewish World Review April 28, 1999 /12 Iyar, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

When a Son Becomes
Too Clingy With Dad

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: I am the father of two lovely kids. They are twins, a boy and a girl, both one year and five months of age.

Lately, I've been having some trouble with my son. He seems to be in constant need for me to pick him up, hold him in my arms, and walk around with him. If I refuse, he starts crying, and if I let him just cry over a minute or so, he gets hysterical and really wild. He screams so loud, you just have to pick him up and calm him down.

In the last few weeks, it has gotten really bad, as he also refuses to go to bed, and stays up until midnight seeking attention all the time. He only behaves like this with me. He doesn't seek that kind of attention from his mother. In fact, when he accidentally hurts himself, I am the only one who can calm him down fast by picking him up. With anybody else it would take a least a few minutes or so.

Medically, he's fine and healthy. His development is also normal. He recently started walking on his own, and picks up new words every week. So I guess this is a psychological problem. Any advice on how to make these "attacks" stop or how best to handle them?

Econophone A: Two things seem to be going on here: one good and one not so good. The first is called identification, the process by which children begin to take on the characteristics of someone else -- usually the same sex parent. This is the good thing.

Identification is critically important in the development of children's personality and social behavior, for it helps children incorporate very complex behaviors into their developing sense of who they are. Identification is not, however, the same thing as mimicking or merely imitating a person's behavior. Rather, it is more like wanting to be that person.

The first person with whom children identify is usually a parent. Identification with a parental figure usually begins after the first birth day and becomes particularly strong in the toddler years. That's when "dress up" games often include wearing daddy's shoes or mommy's hats. It helps them feel like they are daddy or mommy.

Identification with a parent is enhanced when children grow up with parents who are warm and affirming toward them. Rather than being confused as to which parent to identify with, most children generally eventually select the one with whom he or she shares the most in common. That means little boys generally identify with their dads, and little girls with their moms.

Your son seems to be in the early stages of identification with you as the same sex parent. This is a good thing. The difficult part is that his identification can take on a clingy, "I only want my daddy," quality which can, at times, becoming exhausting. Take it as a tribute to the positive, affirming quality of your parenting that your son wants to identify with you so strongly.

A second thing that seems to be going on is excessive dependency. This is the not so good part.

During the first year of life, infants struggle with the tension between trust and mistrust. It is during infancy that children develop either a sense that the world is a pretty predictable place which he can trust to take care of his needs, or a sense that the world is largely untrustworthy and chaotic. The resolution of this struggle will shape the way in which the child interacts with the world throughout his life. The best way that parents can help an infant develop a sense of trust is by responding quickly when they cry.

Beginning in the second year of life, the struggle changes. Now the task is whether or not the child will develop a sense of mastery or self-doubt. It is during this period that children begin to get a sense they can master and control their environment -- or not.

In contrast to the first year of life, when quickly satisfying an infant's needs helps to develop a sense of trust, during the second year of life parents who rush in too quickly rob their children of opportunities to develop a sense of mastery and self-competence.

This is one reason why parenting can be so confusing. What may be helpful parental behavior during one stage of life, may suddenly become counter-productive in another.

Herein lies your problem. From your description, it sounds as though it is difficult for you -- painful, in fact -- to hear your son's cries. Thus, you rush in quickly because even a "few minutes" of crying is difficult for you to tolerate.

What you need to do instead is to begin to allow your son opportunities to discover that he can comfort himself when he bumps his head or becomes frustrated in some other way. The reason he goes wild so quickly now, is that he has no confidence that he can do this. So he panics. You need to help him understand that he is more competent than that.

There are several things you can do to help him develop this self-confidence. First, you can model for him ways to cope with frustration and life's inevitable "bumps." The fact that he identifies with you so strongly is a plus. When you model frustration tolerance yourself, he will be motivated by his strong desire to identify with you to internalize these strategies.

Second, you need to stop rescuing him so quickly when he does become frustrated. Rather than picking him up, distract him by engaging him in some other activity.

Third, begin to set limits on his bids to be carried around. You can say things like, "You're a big boy now. That means you can walk by yourself." And when he does throw a temper tantrum, resist the temptation to pay attention to this behavior. Giving him your attention when he escalates his whining, attention-seeking behavior will only serve to reinforce his escalations. Set limits on this kind of behavior, and then enforce them.

Finally, look for times when he is behaving independently and provide him with praise and encouragement. Say something like, "Wow! You did that all by yourself! What a big boy you are becoming!"

This doesn't mean that you should never hold your son or pick him up when he is hurt. Of course you should. But you need to keep in mind that your son also needs opportunities to discover just how competent and autonomous he can be. Fortunately, he has a wonderful, caring adult to help him learn this lesson: his daddy.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn