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Little Kids, Big Worries

Q. My kindergartner has suddenly started crying when I leave in the mornings, begging me not to go to work. How should I respond?

A. This is a normal form of separation anxiety. It's common for kids to start clinging to Mom and Dad again at age 5 or 6. They've learned that the world can be a dangerous place  -- that accidents happen and people can get hurt. "Anything that takes parents away from home, where the child can see that they're safe, can be worrisome," says Frederic Medway, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina.

A child's anxiety can be heightened during these troubled times  -- even if scary events take place far from home. So you may need to be especially sensitive when dealing with separations. To do that:

Be reassuring Explain that it's not dangerous for you to go to work, out to the movies, or on a trip. It may help to add, "There are lots of police officers who make sure that everywhere I go is safe." Specify what time you'll be home. Knowing your schedule will be a comfort, even for a child who can't tell time well yet.

Listen to his concerns and respond positively Give your child a chance to talk and ask questions. Is he afraid because you usually drive to work? Explain that you take good care of the car, so it's safe to drive, and that you know the route well. So he doesn't feel guilty or embarrassed about being anxious when you leave home, you can say, "It's okay to wish we could always be together, but I'll be back soon, and then we'll have some time to ourselves."

Keep your own fears in check If you're feeling nervous yourself, express that only to other adults. Don't let on to your child that you're worried about Dad flying on a plane, for instance  -- it'll only make him more fearful.

Call home frequently Phone your child often from the office, the airport, the hotel, or wherever you happen to be. Just say hi and ask what he's been up to. Avoid reporting that you're okay (unless, of course, he asks), which could plant the idea that perhaps you're not safe when you're away after all.

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