Needy Toddlers

Lately I’ve been getting quite a few requests for help from parents of toddlers. For example, Kerry writes about her 2 year old twin boys,

Everyone talks about the challenging first year, I and friends on a forum agree the second year is definitely the most challenging…My main question is about needy children where did I go wrong and what can I do about it? Also their sleep is terrible at the moment waking 4 times a night and wanting to sleep next to me (so it is insecurity again). I feel that somewhere they are not getting enough of something to help them feel more secure? I am just not too sure what? When I read your article about high need babies it described my boys perfectly from the signs to the causes. But when are they supposed to get less high need and what do I do in their third year as it is different from what you suggest with a baby? Or is it?

Toddlers can be exceptionally difficult to handle and Kerry is right about the challenges sometimes being even greater after the first year. High need babies often do turn into high need toddlers and it is worth trying to understand the possible reasons behind each particular child’s neediness. Kerry’s circumstances are particularly complicated because she has twins, both demanding her attention. It can be such an added strain for moms of twins, trying to split themselves in two so that each twin gets enough of them.

I would need to know from Kerry how much time she spends with her boys. If she is with them most of the time during the day and if she is a very present, hands on mom, then maybe her boys need to learn more about how to separate from their mom. Under these circumstances, Kerry should actually expect her boys to bear their own distress for short periods of time, and in that way, help them to develop their own internal resources instead of yelling or running to mom every time things get tough. In other words, she needn’t rescue them too soon every time they get upset.

If, however, she spends most of the day away from her boys for whatever reason, then perhaps they are telling her that they miss her and they need to be close to her. They are taking what they can get. Often working moms find that their young children need them a lot during the night. In the children’s minds, it’s their special time with mom.

It’s hard to know without meeting them what is troubling Kerry’s boys. Sometimes consulting with a parent-child psychologist helps to get a sense of what is happening to bring about a child’s specific insecurity.

Neediness is on a continuum and children differ as to how and when they feel safe enough to let go. Separating usually happens slowly, bit by bit, and there are hiccups here and there when things get scary in a child’s life. Children gradually let go of their mothers as they begin to discover that the world is an exciting, wonderful place to be discovered. I often think how under-rated is the sheer joy of independence. But for some children – for different reasons – the world is more dangerous, threatening and frightening than exciting, and these children need their parents (often their moms) more than other children.

  1. Kerry

    Jenny you have summed it up perfectly. I have started sleeping next to my boys when they need me and I am gratified to see some improvement of thier day to day confidence.

    We saw an OT who feels that they have some sensory sensitivity and this is part of why they are needy. It helps to know that they are not being manipulative but genuinely need me to help.

    I think there are not many toddler help books out there that reinforce that they are still babies and still have lots to learn.

  2. Louise

    Hi Jenny. I am with my son most of the day. He still can be needy. Although he does sleep through the night. It is hard to tell if I should just leave him or pander to him when he decides he wants to be picked up alot. Any advice?

    1. jenny

      Thanks for your comment, Louise. Whether or not you pick your little boy up during the day depends so much on what he needs, how much he is demanding from you and why, and how much time and energy you have, given the other things that you have going on in your life. Because I don’t know you or your toddler, it’s hard for me to judge what is happening with him but the fact that he sleeps well at night suggests that something is going very right! Perhaps the safest thing for me to say is, give him what he wants when you can, but if you are feeling irritated and exhausted by his demands, don’t feel bad to say ‘no’. Your toddler needs to be let down sometimes by you. He needs to learn that he isn’t the centre of the universe and that from time to time he is going to have to sort himself out without your help. This is essential for his psychological well-being. All the best to you and your tot and I look forward to hearing from you again. Jenny Perkel

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