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 hated thinking about him 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 he began to resist stepping out the door, 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 any time soon after.
Drop offs officially became the hardest part of the day.
When your child cries at school drop off
So, how do you deal with your child crying 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 has worked so far.
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 several techniques and saw amazing results, many almost immediately.
In fact, fellow parent Jessica wrote after I shared these ideas:
“Thank you, Nina, for this list of ideas. It was validating to realize I was already doing some, but enlightening to read some that I hadn’t yet considered. Anyway, all that to say- thank you for the tips and the validation!”
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). As one parent said about the video:
1. Discuss your child’s emotions at home
Sometimes the most effective way to stop the tears starts later in the day: when you get home.
After pick up and when all is calm, 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, and bring them up often so she can better identify feelings like scared, angry, hurt and worried. Remind her that it’s okay to miss you, letting her know you miss her too and look forward to picking her up from school each day.
At the same time, discuss positive emotions she might have had during the school day as well. Yes, drop off was rough, 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. This helps her not only understand that they’re normal, but to start using words to share how she feels. And most important, you’re able to show empathy and understanding about the depth of her frustration.
Free resource: As frustrating as her behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented simply by seeing things from her perspective. In my PDF, The Power of Empathy, you’ll learn how empathy is truly the secret key that makes a huge difference in how we interact with our kids.
Imagine transforming these hectic drop offs, using just the lessons you’ll learn right here. Download your PDF below—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
2. Talk about school in a positive way
With your 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 your shoes on, we can get ice cream tonight when I pick you up.”
In short, 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 about the playground she gets to use several times a day, the many books they read, and the songs and games they play.
And get her to open about school by asking questions. Don’t just ask, “How was school?” Instead, ask specific questions, both where she relays what happens and her opinions about them.
Bonus tip: Make her experience at school even more positive with the lunches you pack! Include her 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.
3. Give your child a special item
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase.
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 fiddle with her fingers when she feels scared or nervous. Or maybe it’s her lovey, tucked safely in her backpack (this is the lovey my son used), 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 familiarity into what feels like a new and foreign place.
Bonus tip: Give her 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 getting it back 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 the other kids
Imagine arriving at a party and everyone is 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 tips: 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 time 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 to 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 her to an activity she can do, especially one she enjoys, like puzzles or blocks. My son seemed curious about water-pouring activities and getting his hands wet.
By guiding her to a favorite task, you can help her 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 worrying about being apart from you, she can get a head start on a fun activity right away.
Bonus tip: Ask the teachers what activity she liked best from the last few days. That way, not only can you guide her to that activity, you can already get her excited about it when leaving the house: “I bet you’ll have a lot of fun with the blocks this morning!”
6. Don’t leave without saying goodbye
Once you’ve settled your child into her first activity, making a quick getaway and leaving without saying goodbye feels tempting. 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 cry, don’t. Rather than focusing on the activity or settling in, she’ll look around and wonder where you went. She might spend the rest of the day anxious about where you had gone and why you didn’t say goodbye.
The next morning, she’ll worry whether you’re going to leave without telling her again, and struggle even more during future drop offs. Just because she doesn’t cry, that 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 her. Maybe it’s saying the same phrase every day, waving goodbye at the window, or kissing hands. Check out The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, a fantastic children’s book about easing your child’s separation anxiety:
7. Keep goodbyes pleasant and brief
What’s your first reaction when your child cries at school drop off? If I had to guess, you might have run to comfort her until she quieted down and stopped crying. Except how we say goodbye—and how long—can send the wrong message.
Comforting her works when you’re spending the day together, but drop offs are different—you can’t be together the whole day.
Lingering until she stops crying sends her mixed signals: On one hand, you tell her 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 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 her better than you, but in this case, allow the teachers and child care providers to assume that role.
And keep drop offs short as well. Attend to the basics, then explain it’s time for you to go. When she begins to cry, remind her she’ll be okay.
Then, here’s the important part: don’t freak out. Don’t come back for second snuggles or linger by the door, waving goodbye for ten minutes. Don’t cry alongside her as if there’s no way she’ll enjoy herself without you.
Seeing you uncomfortable makes her worry even more. She needs to know that you feel confident about her staying at school.
Bonus tip: Be conscious of your facial expressions and body language. You might tell her, “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 and body language 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 that last scene can be misleading. Truth is, she probably didn’t cry the entire day. In fact, she likely stopped crying a few minutes after you left (and the briefer and more pleasant your goodbye, the quicker she stops!).
At pick up time, ask the teacher 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 to see how long it took before she finally calmed down, and how the rest of her day went.
You might find that she 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 our kids crying as we leave for a date night, only to to learn they stopped within minutes and had a blast the rest of the evening.
Bonus tip: Ask the teacher what finally helped your child calm down, and see if they can repeat it the next few days.
9. Remember that this will pass
As guilty as I felt when my kids were sad or cried during school drop offs, 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 cried while others didn’t. 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.
Time makes these difficult days pass. You and I have grown accustomed to every old routine—from our jobs to our homes—that at one point had felt like a difficult, new experience.
Feeling overwhelmed when your child cries at school drop off is normal, but still frustrating. Thankfully, you now have several actionable steps to take to make those mornings more stress-free.
Start by talking to her about her feelings and showing empathy for her struggles. Talk about school in a positive way, resisting the urge to making it sound dreadful. Give her a special item—whether hers or yours—for a sense of familiarity and a piece of home.
Arrive earlier than the other kids to avoid the bustle of the crowds, and guide her to her first favorite activity. Don’t leave without saying goodbye, while keeping those goodbyes confident and brief. Ask the teacher how the rest of the day went, and always remind yourself that this is normal and will soon pass.
In time, you’ll both adjust to your new normal—and certainly no more trying to wrestle out of her teacher’s arms every morning.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Your Child Interested in School
- Helping Your Sad Child Handle Their Feelings
- How to Deal with a Child Who Cries Over Everything
- Preschool Pros and Cons: Should You Send Your Child to Preschool?
- What to Do when Your Child Doesn’t Want to Go to School