Daughter can't leave her mother's side.
December 19, 2013 3:44 AM   Subscribe

My 4-year-old daughter has suddenly become incredibly over-attached to her mother - Why?

We have a very happy, well-adjusted daughter who will be turning 4 next week. For the past couple of months, she has been growing inexplicably over-attached to her mother. Whereas in the past she would happily wave goodbye when my wife would leave for work, she now screams uncontrollably and is inconsolably distraught every time she walks out the door.

Small things around the house that she used to do herself now warrant cries of "I want mom to do it!". A few months ago she was, naturally, trying to exercise a fair degree of independence, but she now wants to spend every waking hour with her mom. If not, floods of tears ensue.

She's not adverse to myself, however, she just physically wants to be with her mother at all times and constantly asks about her when she's not around - something she never did even when she was younger.

My wife and I spend equal amounts of time with her outside of her time at kindergarten and on weekends, and there have been no major environmental upheavals or changes recently that I can think could have lent to this change in behaviour.

Any ideas as to what could be causing this? I'm inclined to think that it's merely a "phase".
posted by Tenacious.Me.Tokyo to Human Relations (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This happened with my kids, and also with the kids of most of my friends. It's such a common thing that I have to assume it has some developmental benefit. My totally unscientific theory is that it's an important step in developing your own identity -- you pick a person close to you and focus on them really really intensely, like a scientist specializing in one particular subspecies, and you don't lesson your focus until you've learned everything you can from them about how to be a person.

My theory is bolstered by the fact that it doesn't seem to matter which parent the child picks. I know kids who developed a preference for the parent of the same gender, and kids who picked the opposite-gender parent. I know kids who picked the parent who was the primary caregiver, and kids who picked the parent who was away at work during the day. As far as I can tell, it's pretty random.

It also seems to be somewhat random how long it lasts. It last much longer with one of my children than with the other. I happened to be the chosen parent, and I tried to deal with it by really talking up my wife when she wasn't around, in a kind of over-the-top way. EG, appropos of nothing whatsoever, I would just say, "Boy, I miss mommy! Mommy is so great! I can't wait for her to come home so I can give her a hug!"

Maybe this had some effect -- it certainly didn't hurt -- but mostly it was just a case of giving it time.
posted by yankeefog at 4:08 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

It is a phase. She's realizing that she has agency, and kids' attempts to deal with that incredible power are often too much as they suss out the boundaries of their influence on the world. You and your wife need to continue to be kind, fair and consistent with her.

Also, ask her teachers about it. They may have read them a story featuring an absent mom that happened to imprint on your kid. They might also have some tips and/or be able to give her a little special "It's okay that mommy isn't here, isn't it?" attention.
posted by Etrigan at 4:08 AM on December 19, 2013

Yes, it's a phase. Exactly. I'm the mother of a 6-year-old son, and a 4-year-old daughter, and she has been in an absolute mama phase since she was about 3.5. Your daughter sounds like a perfectly normal 3.5-year-old.

You should totally check out Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful by Ames & Ilg. It's a short book that outlines the typical personality characteristics and quirks that defines the four-year-old child. So far, in my limited experience, it's fairly spot on and it highlighted to me the cyclical nature of child development, where children drift in and out of inwardized behavior and outwardized behavior as well as shifts in disequilibrium and equilibrium. While not all situations or behaviors will fit every child, it is still a good guide for what to expect. As it was first written in 1979, some of the technology references and cultural norms are hopelessly out of date and the photographs are more nostalgic than anything. But it's a decent, quick read, and provides me with some reassurances about the changing nature of our kids' behavior (and why it's perfectly age appropriate.)
posted by hush at 4:40 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry that I don't have a solution for your problem, but I just wanted to throw in that I am going through the exact same thing with my newly 4-year-old daughter as well. She's happy, well adjusted, no major life changes, etc. but she just wants to be with daddy all the time, night and day, at meal times, bath time, all the time, I must be not only present but in physical contact with her. I'm hoping that this is a phase and it has something to do with brain development and a transition from toddlerhood into childhood.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:03 AM on December 19, 2013

I do not have a child, but I was one once, and I definitely went through this phase. Apparently I temporarily decided Daddy was the Best Person Ever about 2 hours into a family vacation (resulting, it is reported, in some glumness on my mother's part). I think most if not all children experience this.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:51 AM on December 19, 2013

I've seen my two oldest kids go through this phase, and I won't be surprised if the youngest does in a couple years.
posted by Area Man at 6:26 AM on December 19, 2013

When my daughter was 4, she expressed her 4-ness by suddenly and inexplicably being very picky about what clothes she wore. Up until then, she happily wore whatever was picked out for her. But one day, 4-ness kicked in, and if she couldn't choose her own clothes, war was imminent.

I think it's just an age where they realize that they are actual, independent entities, and they react in different ways. For some, it's exerting that independence, and for others, it's scary so they get clingy.

Overall, I think the answer to "Why does my 4 year old...." is similar to "Why does my cat..." They are just strange and wonderful creatures.
posted by The Deej at 6:30 AM on December 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

My 4-year-old, who is a happy and outgoing child who never went through a baby or toddler stranger anxiety phase and is constantly engaging strangers in somewhat alarming conversations because he isn't the least shy or parent-clingy, suddenly bursts into tears every time he remembers daddy is at work, all day long. ("I do not want him to be at work! *sob sob* I want him to be at home! *sob sob*") The worst is when he DOESN'T remember dad's at work and goes looking for him and then just crumples when he can't find daddy in the house and realizes he's at work. He's absolutely inconsolable then.

I assume it's just a phase and I relish the opportunity to get some alone time while he's clinging to dad's leg in the evening.

Also I'm using it to help him learn to talk on the phone, since calling daddy at work is just about the only thing that makes it better. We've progressed from listening intently and not talking to saying "Hi" and "Good" and "Okay" and "I drew pumpkins at school," which is a delight to his grandparents now that he can carry on something vaguely like a conversation on the phone.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:07 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's a phase.

If our experience is any guide, expect it to come back again at about 8.
posted by flabdablet at 8:19 AM on December 19, 2013

Totally normal. In my experience it's best just to go along with it, as frustrating as it can be for your wife to have a four-year-old glued to her side every moment she's not at work.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:31 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing that it's totally a phase. Kids that age become aware of their separateness in new ways and they have very active imaginations and limited capacity to ascertain whether the things they are afraid of are real or imaginary.

Most likely your daughter had some kind of scary thought/dream/experience that made her highly anxious. My daughter saw a dead bug at around that age and put it together in her head that everything's going to die (us, her, her friends, etc.). It's a realization that she had no idea how to process cognitively.

Lots of reassurance is called for, and help her find ways to use her newly blossoming cognitive abilities to help her cope. For example, if mommy has to be away for a bit, show her a clock and let her know that mom will be back when the clock looks like *this,* or if it's for a few days, let her see how calendars work by x-ing out days until you arrive at the day mom is returning. Also, transitional / symbolic objects can help - like she can have mom's favorite shoe or some other belonging that's associated with her mom until mom returns.
posted by jasper411 at 11:04 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

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