Lockdown has changed so much for children. They see very few of the familiar adults and friends who usually inhabit their small world. Much-loved activities are no longer available. Playgrounds are restricted and libraries are shut. And most importantly, children may hear, see or sense anxiety all around them – at home and on television.

In this intensely difficult time, how can we best support children who are feeling insecure and apprehensive?

Emotions are contagious

The answer begins with us. Fearful adults can spread anxiety, making children more prone to clinginess. Feelings that spread like wildfire are caused by a very real phenomenon – emotional contagion – where we literally ‘catch’ another person’s feelings without realising it.

Everyone experiences emotional contagion on a daily basis. Some of us are more ‘contagious’ than others. It is likely that children who are more susceptible to emotional contagion will be clingy.

To support these children best, we must establish how susceptible they are to the emotional atmosphere around them. To do this, we can carry out the following emotional contagion quiz.

Emotional Contagion Quiz

For each question, use the following score system:

ALWAYS  3 | SOMETIMES  2 | NEVER  1

Add up the scores.

The higher the score, the more susceptible the child is to emotional contagion.

Scores over 20 mean the child is highly susceptible.

What next?

What does a child do when they feel insecure? They seek out someone they trust and cling on for dear life! Developmentally, such ‘clinginess’ is healthy and sound. The act of seeking and the feeling of trust are the basis for all good relationships. In order for a child to have the confidence to seek us out for comfort, we need to put into place a variety of effective approaches that reduce anxiety and build up confidence.

Boosting confidence in clingy children

1. Using the physical environment to support feelings

Warm, inviting environments can reduce anxiety and restore calm, leaving a child free to enjoy their learning. We need to be intentional about the different areas in our setting so that children know where to let off steam, where to calm down or where to be comforted. Talk often and intentionally to the children about the feelings each area will support. “Going outside helps us feel more energetic!” “Being in the quiet den helps us calm down when we feel cross.”

In this way, children can learn to access an area according to their emotional need at the time.

2. Using the emotional environment to support feelings

Clinginess decreases when children feel safe and secure. Practitioners set the emotional tone of the setting. By creating a warm, safe and trusting emotional environment for children to learn, we create potential for anxious children to explore and interact with others.

3. Creating an emotional language vocabulary

How do we learn a new language? We learn it by being exposed to it day after day. In the same way, children need to be exposed to emotion words. “Who’s happy to go outside?”, “I’m so excited about our new playground!”, “I’m a bit worried.” Introduce new words and use them often. Help children understand what they mean, so that they have a word for every feeling they experience. This helps build children’s emotional literacy and resilience.

4. Using transitions to support feelings

Be aware that transition times are likely to be emotionally challenging and that a day that is clearly signposted builds children’s confidence. Visual timetables are proven to help children feel more secure and confident, simply because children know what is happening next. Display timetables clearly, encouraging anxious children to refer to them throughout the day.

5. Giving clingy children a new start

Some children may have intensified and prolonged bouts of clinginess, especially during stressful times of change or upheaval. Our role as practitioners is to remain consistent, steady and dependable, creating a safe and secure place for children to be restored to full ‘learning capacity’ once again.

Lockdown is difficult for all of us but particularly for our youngest citizens. Anxiety is rife and clinginess has increased. But the answer is always simple – connection! Environments that encourage connection, strong emotional communication and familiar routines hold the potential to transform clingy children into more confident ones.

It takes time and energy to support Intense clinginess, something we may feel extremely short-changed on. But the benefits are many and impact the trajectory of children’s lives. We can give clingy children a spring in their steps and a renewed love for learning.

Now that is what I call a result!

About the author:

Helen is a mother of 4 and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She is Education Director at Arc Pathway, a sensitive profiling and next steps early years platform for teachers and parents. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary sector and early years, co-founding and running her own pre-school in 2005. Helen has written books for the early years sector, including Developing Empathy in the Early Years” (winner of the Nursery World Awards Professional Book Category 2018) and Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years” (Early Years Alliance 2019). She regularly writes for early years publications such as Nursery World. 

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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