Q: My 16-month old daughter suffers from extreme separation anxiety. My husband and I almost never get an evening out by ourselves anymore because she becomes hysterical if we try to leave her with anyone, even family members. How can we help her to not be so attached to us?

A: It's not uncommon for young children to display considerable distress when being separated from their parents. In fact, this is an adaptive behavioral patterntoddlers feel vulnerable when not under the protection of their parents, so they begin to learn that crying and protest at separation tend to keep their parents close by. This type of behavior normally peaks at around 18 months of age.

You can help your daughter understand that your departure will always be followed by your return. Beginning with family members, or familiar adults such as babysitters, arrange for you and your husband to leave for brief periods of time. Be sure to leave with a firm but loving statement such as, "Bye sweetie, we'll be back soon." Return about an hour later, perhaps bringing back a small treat. If your daughter has a favorite blanket or special stuffed animal, make sure she has it with her so that she can focus her attention on it while you're gone. In order for this exercise to be effective, it's extremely important that you follow through with itdo not linger, return immediately, or fail to leave at all.

Over time, you and your husband can begin to increase the length and frequency of your absence. Your daughter will eventually gain the understanding that when you leave, you will always return. She will also develop confidence and a sense of control over separationand you'll actually be able to go out to dinner.

Kathy Longeway Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. She has been practicing clinical psychology since 1983 and specializes in treating children with anxiety disorders.