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How a Parent Can Be Their Child's Therapist

Part 1: Understanding clinginess, dependency, and the demand for attention.

Key points

  • The struggles of parenting young children have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • A shortage of child psychologists has left parents feeling alone and unsupported in their challenges.
  • Children need to feel comfortable and safe in order to process their feelings.
  • Helping children communicate their feelings reduces unwanted behaviors and builds secure relationships.

One of the most dramatic and immediate social effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the reintroduction of small children to the weekday household, a result of the widespread school closures which began in early 2020 and have persisted as occasional, less-frequent cancellations and delays in our ongoing public health crisis. Just as our children have appeared suddenly in our remote workdays, in the middle of our zoom meetings and conference calls, with their many questions and needs, so too have they naturally taken up a greater space in our inner lives–and therefore the psychoanalytic session.

As a psychoanalyst, I have observed a remarkable shift in the content of many sessions with parents of small children. Where once there was a preoccupation with their own childhoods, there might now be an acute awareness of the childhood of their own children; where once romantic and professional anxieties led the session, now there are the pressing anxieties of a parent. This, of course, is perfectly understandable: many parents are simply spending more time at home with their children. What’s more, this time is being spent under added stress, the consequences of which can only become more knowable as we are slowly lifted out of pandemic life and into some new post-pandemic order. What behaviors and attitudes in children may have gone unnoticed by parents in years past have suddenly become conspicuous and even amplified. Time and time again my patients tell me that their relationships with their children are more strained than ever before, that they can’t get a return call from a child psychologist, and that they don’t know what to do. As a result, I have spent countless hours helping my patients problem-solve difficulties they are having with their children at home. The following is a collection of common concerns that have been brought to me by my patients since the start of the Covid pandemic, and I am hoping to offer this guidance to anyone who is struggling with parenting their children right now.

 Tara Goldberg
A child's collage, 2021.
Source: Tara Goldberg

My child feels that I work too much and is frustrated by my split attention.

Chances are that you agree with your child and you should tell them so! Tell them you work too much and you wish you didn’t. Ask them what they wish you could be doing together instead of you working. Enjoy imagining with your child. So many of us carry the belief that if we talk about something with our children, we will have to make that thing materialize. This is neither true nor good for our children. We need to help our children to freely imagine things that are improbable, implausible, or even impossible so that they can build the emotional muscles that will help them tolerate future disappointment. Times are hard right now, but imagination helps us live well while we experience hardship in our lives. Help your child expand their imagination (while exercising your imagination, too!) and let them bring you into their fantasies. Then, when you are away from your child, they can hold onto those stories that they shared with you when you were together and feel more connected to you and secure.

My child is too attached to a pacifier, a blanket, an object, or even me.

Your child seeks out attachments because they feel insecure. It may drive you bananas when they can’t sleep without their one favorite pacifier, or won’t take the plush teddy bear out of their mouth, or need to be by your side at all times. Many parents equate or liken these behaviors to addictions that one might find in adult behavior, but this is not how addiction works. Whereas addictions eliminate difficult feelings, seeking comfort and soothing helps to process difficult feelings. In other words, when your child won’t let go of their favorite object or clings to you, they are showing you that they know how to find comfort: This is a healthy thing! The world is a hard place to live in, especially in these times, and because children are not able to fully express their feelings with words alone (a lifelong exercise adults must work on, too), they physically express struggles with insecurity by clinging to you, the parent, and seeking other attachments. Let your child hold onto additional comforts. When they are feeling comforted, talk to them about their feelings. Help them describe their fears, and help them explain to you what it is about the blanket, or teddy bear, or what it is about needing to be in your arms that helps them feel better–this exercise builds both independent and interdependent confidence, or what we call “secure attachment.” Feeling secure with you, the parent, will help your child to later find safe relationships in the world, which will reinforce their sense of security inside themselves. As children start feeling more secure, the object they were formerly clinging to becomes internalized, and less necessary.

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