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Coping With Separation Anxiety

If your child screams and cries whenever you're out of sight, or constantly clings to your side whenever you are around, he or she is probably suffering from separation anxiety.

The Early Show caught up with parents Wendy Mellk and Neal Mcgraw, who know first-hand how hard it is for kids to let go, to listen to their story. And family therapist Meri Wallace offers some advice as parents prepare to send kids to school.

At sounds of 16-month-old Piper crying for "Mama," Wendy Mellk, notes, "If she knows I'm around and I leave her sight, she's hysterical."

Piper and her 3-year-old brother Logan are going through one of the toughest challenges of childhood: learning to separate from mom.

Mellk says, "Literally anytime I have to go upstairs or go out in the back or leave their sight, both of them flip out. And they are clinging to me the whole time.

Leaving the kids is never easy, but Mellk, a working mother, finds comfort in knowing husband Neal is home with their kids during the day.

Playing ball in the backyard, Neal McGraw says, "The difficult part for me, if there is one, is realizing that I'm the number two person in this ballgame. That's kind of hard to be, given a baby who's crying in the morning because she prefers to be with her mother. But, once Mom is gone for the day, things are fine."

Mellk agrees, "As soon as I'm gone I have to turn it off, and sort of forget about it, otherwise, I wouldn't be able to get through my day."

And while baby piper still doesn't understand why mommy leaves and that she'll be back, Logan does. He's even found a special way, each day, to say goodbye.

"He has to go open the door for me," Mellk says. "He has to usher me out the door. He has to give me hugs and kisses. He has to shut the door, and then he comes inside and he has to wave to me from the window. And, you know, blow me kisses and actually see me leave. He has to know that I'm gone before he can go about his day."

According to Wallace, separation anxiety is a natural part of development for young children. Separation anxiety is a powerful feeling of anxiety and sense of loss that children and adults experience when they separate from people, places or things they are attached to.

Young children feel most secure when they are close to their parents because they know their parents will take care of and protect them.

To ease Logan's separation anxiety as he starts preschool in the fall, Wallace has the following advice:

Visit the school with your child in advance. Once he sees the brightly-colored room filled with toys and a fish tank and meets his friendly new teacher, he will have a mental picture of school to think about and will feel more comfortable when school actually begins.

Go over the routine so he will know what to expect. You can tell him, "When we get to school, you will choose a toy to play with, then you'll have a snack and when you finish you will go out to the yard to play."

Reading children's books about pre-school or using doll play or puppets to enact the routine, will help prepare him for the experience.

Explain why your child is going, otherwise he might assume you're leaving him at school because you want to spend time with a new baby or you like your job better. You might say, "I'm bringing you to pre-school so you can have a good time with the other children and learn new things."

The best time to start talking to kids about school is a few weeks in advance. When you're passing by in your car you can say, "There's the new school you'll be going to after we come back from visiting Grandma." This will give your child time to prepare himself and give you the chance to help him work through his feelings.

She also encourages parents to meet their classmates beforehand. If your child walks into his classroom on the first day and sees one smiling familiar face, he will feel more comfortable. So try to obtain a class list and set up a playdate with a classmate before school begins.

And when when it's actually time to take them to school, reassure him that you will come back. Use a concrete time frame such as "after snack" or "when you wake up from your nap."

If your child is crying, acknowledge his or her feelings and reassure him/her. You might say, "You're feeling sad. It's hard to say goodbye to Mommy. But you'll have fun with your friends and Mommy will pick you up after you play in the yard."

Just keep in mind that when you leave your child, it's best not to drag out your good-byes, especially if he's having a hard time with the separation. You can have him initiate a "goodbye hug" or wave to you from the window. These goodbye routines will give your child a greater sense of control over the separation.

Once the school day is over, in the evening you can prepare your child for the next day by talking about the experience. Remind him that even though it was hard for him to say goodbye and he cried, he had a good time building with blocks and Daddy came to pick him up. Reassure him that all kids miss their parents, you miss him too, and in a short time he will feel more comfortable at school. Always convey a positive consistent message about school. It is a safe, fun place to be.

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