Do you feel guilty or frustrated when your child cries at school drop off? Learn how to cope with school drop off anxiety and make your mornings smoother.
I couldn’t get the image out of my head: my son crying on his first day of preschool, trying to wrestle himself out of his teacher’s arms as I said goodbye.
I reminded myself that this was to be expected, that adjusting to anything takes time.
But as I stepped into my car, the mom guilt came into full force. I felt so bad thinking about my son upset, and even questioned whether preschool was the right decision.
It didn’t help that I saw only a slight improvement over the next several days. Even getting out of the house became a challenge, as my son began to resist leaving, knowing he’d be at school that day. I found myself feeling stressed and harried, trying to juggle his emotional needs with getting to school and work on time.
The guilt turned into impatience and frustration, especially when the crying didn’t let up the next day or the several days after.
Drop offs officially became the hardest part of the day.
When your child cries at school drop off
Maybe you can relate. Maybe you also feel guilty when your child cries at school drop off, the sound of her screaming and yelling gnawing at your head. Perhaps drop offs are so challenging that concentrating at work is all but impossible. Nothing you’ve tried so far has worked.
You’re likely feeling a whole range of emotions, from guilt to anger to complete overwhelm about how to make drop offs much smoother.
Not exactly how you want to start your mornings.
Trust me, I hear you. And after digging in further on how I could help my son, I was able to apply a few techniques and saw amazing results, many almost immediately.
No more rushing out the door because my son was so adamant about not leaving. No more clamoring out of the teacher’s arms, or tears welling up the minute he knew I was leaving. Drop offs instead became a seamless, smooth transition to our day.
Take a look at the top tips that made it happen (plus watch the video below where I explain these tips even more):
1. Talk about school in a positive way
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With a child resisting school even before you leave the house, you might find yourself inadvertently talking about school in a bad way.
This only confirms her fears and assumptions that school is a place she shouldn’t be. What are a few common ways you might be painting school in a negative light? Avoid saying:
- Dreadful talk about school: “Yay, there’s no school tomorrow!” or “We have to get to school, no matter what!”
- Empty threats: “Don’t cry so much or I’ll take all your toys away.”
- Bribes: “If you put on your shoes, we can get ice cream tonight when I pick you up.”
A good rule of thumb is to avoid making school an issue to argue about. Instead, keep it positive or at least matter-of-fact.
Explain that school is something we’ve all experienced, or highlight the fun activities she gets to do there that she doesn’t anywhere else. For instance, remind her of the playground she gets to visit several times a day, the many books they read, and the songs and games they play.
Bonus tip: Help make your child’s experience at school even more positive with the lunches you pack! Include your child’s favorite meals, snacks, or even special treats for lunch. You can also print a family photo and slip it into her lunch bag as a special surprise.
2. Discuss your child’s emotions at home
Later at home, talk with your child about her feelings that day. Use words to describe her emotions, like, “You seemed sad when I dropped you off at school this morning.”
Allow her to express feelings she might have. Bring them up often so she can better identify feelings like scared, angry, hurt and worried.
And remind your child that it’s okay to miss you. Let her know you miss her as well and look forward to picking her up from school each day.
At the same time, discuss positive emotions she may have had during the school day as well. Yes, your child cried, but maybe she found new activities she liked or played with a new friend.
Discussing emotions—whether happy or difficult—places labels on feelings she’s starting to grasp.
Want to learn more about discussing emotions with your child (plus other parenting tips you can apply right away)? Download the bonus chapter of Parenting with Purpose at no cost to you. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“Hey Nina, thank you so much for this. It’s something we all struggle with. Once again, you are always spot on and such an encouragement.” -Candice Alben
3. Give your child a special item
Making that leap into the unfamiliar is difficult for anyone, more so with kids. One way to ease the transition is to give your child a special item she can keep during school.
Perhaps it’s her favorite bracelet, one she can hold onto when she feels scared or nervous. Or maybe it’s her lovey, tucked safely in her backpack, waiting for her at the end of the day. It can even be a special note from you that she can keep in her pocket.
Having a special item, either nearby in her cubby or in her pocket, will help bring a bit of familiarity into what feels like a new and foreign place.
Bonus tip: Give your child one of your items. From a hair clip to an old watch, let her have one of your items during school, with the promise of returning it at pick up. This not only gives her a piece of you, but reassures her you’ll be reunited soon enough.
4. Arrive earlier than other kids
Imagine arriving at a party and everyone was already there. This might be fine if the party included familiar friends and family. But what if you didn’t know anyone? You’d likely feel overwhelmed, nervous, and ready to go home.
The same is true for your child and drop offs.
Dropping my son off during the school’s busy window meant hearing the bustle of other children settling in. The teacher also had more students and parents to contend with.
But by bringing him to school even a few minutes earlier allowed him to settle in long before the chaos began. He also had his teacher’s attention before most of the children arrived, giving him a chance to feel more comfortable.
If you sense your child is overwhelmed with the morning bustle, try dropping her off a few minutes earlier. Avoid the rush of children, and instead give her a chance to settle in, chat with her teacher, and adjust before everyone else arrives.
Bonus tip: Getting to school earlier will be much easier if you wake up earlier as well. It’s never easy trying to get to school and work on top when you’re rushing out the house. Give yourself plenty of time to accommodate an earlier drop off.
Better yet, have everything already prepared the night before so you avoid last-minute rushing. Pack things like your lunches and work bags, and have clothes ready to go.
5. Guide your child to her first activity
Nothing can feel more awkward than standing in the middle of a room with no idea what to do next. But sometimes, that’s exactly what we do with our kids during drop off. And if your child is unfamiliar with the school’s routine, she might feel extra anxious not knowing what to do.
For the first few days, guide your child to an activity she can do, especially one she enjoys. Maybe she likes to play with puzzles or stack blocks. My son seemed curious about water-pouring activities and getting his hands wet.
By guiding your child to a favorite task, she’s able to focus on positive activities instead of dwelling on your impending departure.
She’s also able to get excited about her day and feel curious about what’s to come. Rather than focusing on being apart from you, she can look forward to the fun she’ll have the rest of the day.
Bonus tip: Ask the teachers what activity your child liked best. That way, you can not only guide her to that activity, you can also get her excited about it when leaving the house.
6. Don’t leave without saying goodbye
Once you’ve settled your child into her first activity, it’s tempting to make a quick getaway and leave without saying goodbye. After all, she seems distracted enough, maybe even enjoying her activity—why tarnish her mood by drawing more tears?
As easy as it is to dash out the door and avoid seeing her tears, don’t. Your child will struggle even more at the next drop off. Rather than focusing on the activity or settling in, she’ll look around and wonder whether you’re going to leave without telling her again.
Plus, she might spend the rest of the day anxious of where you had gone and why you didn’t say goodbye. Just because she doesn’t cry, doesn’t mean she isn’t harboring hurt, fear and anger throughout the day.
Bonus tip: Start a fun goodbye tradition you can do with your child. Maybe it’s saying the same phrase every day, waving goodbye at the window, or kissing hands like the characters do in The Kissing Hand.
7. Keep goodbyes pleasant and brief
What’s your first reaction when your child cries at school drop off? Do you run to comfort her until she quiets down and feels better?
Comforting her works when you’re spending the day together, but drop offs are different—you can’t be together.
Lingering until your child stops crying sends her mixed signals. She’s told she’s in safe hands, but you’re also comforting her as if she’s in an unpleasant situation.
Instead, convey confidence by acknowledging her emotions while reassuring her she’ll be fine. You might say, “I know it can feel scary to be away in a new place, but your teachers will take good care of you and make sure you have lots of fun.”
No one else can comfort your child better than you, but in this case, allow the teachers and child care providers to assume that role.
Keep drop offs minimal as well. Attend to the basics, then explain it’s time for you to go. When your child begins to cry, reassure her she’ll be okay.
Then, here’s the important part: don’t freak out. Seeing you uncomfortable makes her worry even more. She needs to know that you feel confident about her staying at school.
So don’t come back for second snuggles or linger by the door, waving goodbye for five minutes. Don’t cry alongside her as if there’s no way she’ll enjoy herself without you.
Bonus tip: Be conscious of your facial expressions. You might tell your child, “You’ll be fine!” but if your face says otherwise, she won’t feel any more reassured. Soften your face, give a genuine smile, and relax—she’ll understand your face more than any words you say.
8. Ask the teachers how the rest of the day went
It’s easy to feel guilty after drop offs, especially when the last thing you saw was your child in tears.
But don’t let the last scene color the rest of your day. Truth is, she probably didn’t cry the rest of the day. In fact, she likely stopped crying a few minutes after you left (and the briefer and more pleasant your goodbye, the better!).
At pick up time, get a report of how the rest of the day went and how your child coped. If you’re truly concerned, give the staff a call once you arrive at work. Ask how long it took before she finally calmed down, and how the rest of her day went.
You may find that your child ended up enjoying the rest of her day, or that she played well with others at circle time.
This is true not just for drop offs but when leaving kids with babysitters. My husband and I will hear them crying as we leave for a date night only to to learn they stopped after five minutes and had a blast the rest of the evening.
Bonus tip: Ask your child care provider what finally helped your child calm down. See if they can repeat it the next few days.
p.s. Check out The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, a fantastic children’s book about easing your child’s separation anxiety:
As guilty as I felt when my kids were sad or cried when I left, I reminded myself that this is normal.
We’re their parents, their world. A healthy attachment to her parents is usually the reason your child cries at school drop off. Don’t feel like you didn’t do a good job because she cries while others don’t seem to. Instead, revel in the strong parent child connection you’ve built.
It’ll get better. Both of you will find a rhythm to your mornings. She’ll learn to love and trust her caregivers. You’ll feel more confident about letting go, and separating also gets better with age.
And listen to your gut. If nothing seems to work or your caregiver reported she cries the entire day, find solutions. Maybe that’s sitting in a few hours of the day to observe, or finding a facility or a new caregiver that better fits your child’s temperament.
You might also consider alternatives or talk with your child’s pediatrician. It helps to pursue other options until you and your child are comfortable.
More than likely though, time makes these difficult days pass. I remind myself that we’ve grown accustomed to every old routine—from our jobs to our homes—that at one point had felt like a new experience.
Morning drop offs can feel overwhelming, both for parents and kids, but we can take steps to ease the transition.
Keep drop offs positive and brief. Work with your child care provider to see how she adjusted the rest of the day. Discuss emotions with her in the safety of your home, and remind yourself that separation anxiety is normal and healthy.
In time, you’ll both adjust to your new normal, one with less tears and more confidence.
Liked what you read and interested in more? Grab a copy of my ebook, Parenting with Purpose! Discover how to prevent needless outbursts, handle meltdowns as they happen, and most importantly, learn from your child’s challenging behavior.
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