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Big-Kid Separation Anxiety

Laurie Ward of Barrington, R.I., was surprised to get a phone call from her daughter's kindergarten one afternoon: "Madeline's been crying for you," the teacher reported. Yet Ward says Madeline, 6, had been fine at school for months. Why was she so needy now?

Separation anxiety may be more common in babyhood, but many older children have a relapse, especially during a transition such as returning to school after an absence (even a short one) or having a new sibling in the house, says Christina Bellanti, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, R.I.. Suddenly, even a secure child may have difficulty sleeping, complain of feeling sick, beg to stay home from school, or cling like crazy.

To reassure your anxious child:

  • Get to the root of the problem. If you ask, you may find that your kid's worried that something bad will happen to you while you're apart or that she'll get lost.
  • Recognize her fears. Don't just say, "There's nothing to be afraid of!"Instead, acknowledge her anxiety ("I can see how scared you are, honey") and try to make her life as predictable as possible, says Bellanti. Consistent routines—regular bedtimes, a concrete schedule for who's picking her up from school—will help her feel more secure. (If the anxiety persists, consult a pediatrician.)
  • Don't drag out your goodbyes. A quick hug and a "Bye" is usually the best way to avoid a traumatic exit. Warn your child's other caregivers that she'll need some extra attention once you've left her.

And just think: In a few years, when she's ditching you for her friends, you may even miss these clingy days!