Q. My husband and I separated several months ago. Ever since then, our usually outgoing, happy, 4-year-old daughter has been clinging and whiny. She wants to be with me all the time, which can be extremely annoying, but if I tell her to stop following me around, she begins to cry.
Almost every day, she asks if her daddy is coming back. He's not, and that's my choice, but I'm worried that the truth will upset her even more. What should I be doing to help her through this crisis?
A. Following a separation, young children will often cling almost desperately to the remaining parent. Pre-schoolers boys as well as girls tend to be more dependent upon their mothers than their fathers. Nevertheless, your husband's presence in the home was essential to your daughter's "picture" of the family as constant and unchanging.
Her father's departure altered this picture, disrupting her sense of how the world works. To reduce her anxiety, she clings to you, her remaining parent, as if to say, "Don't you leave me, too!"
This is no doubt an extremely vulnerable time for you as well. Your security has been turned upside-down, and your emotional resources are stretched to their limit. Under the circumstances, it may be difficult for you to respond patiently to your daughter's intense, often overpowering need for reassurance. So, if it hasn't already, a vicious cycle may be developing: The more anxious you are, the more anxious your daughter becomes. The more insecure she acts, the more anxious you become, and so on.
If you feel yourself being caught up in this cycle, it may be wise for you to see an experienced family counselor of one sort or another. A competent professional can help you restabilize your new family situation.
Under the circumstances, it isn't unusual for a child to regress to behaviors typical of earlier stages of growth behaviors associated with safety and security. Your daughter's clinging is one example of this. She's asking for reassurance that you alone are capable of meeting her needs. And whether you realize it or not, you are.
Let your daughter know that there are times for closeness and times when both of you need to be in different places, doing different things. If you don't want her sitting on your lap or following you around, be clear and firm about that. If she cries, just give her a comfortable place to do her crying in.
Giving her unlimited access to you, while it's what she wants, isn't what she needs, and you will only make matters worse.
Answer her questions clearly and honestly. By no means should you editorialize about the separation. Just stick to the facts. Tell her that daddy isn't coming back to live with you, but make no attempt to explain the reasons behind that to her. Tell her what role her daddy will continue to play in her life, and remember that he will continue to play a role in your life as well.
In the long run, the best thing for your daughter are two parents who do their best to put aside the animosities that contributed to their breakup and make every effort to communicate often and well.
(John Rosemond is a family psychologist in private practice in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at the Charlotte Observer, P.O. Box 32188, Charlotte, N.C. 28232.)