What to Do When Your Child Cries at School Drop Off

It can be heartbreaking when your child cries at school drop off. Learn how to ease their separation anxiety and make the transition smoother for both of you.

Child Cries at School Drop Off

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.

As I stepped into my car, the guilt came in full force. I hated thinking about him crying at school and questioned whether preschool was the right decision. The guilt turned into impatience and frustration, especially when the crying didn’t let up any time soon.

Thankfully, after learning about how I could help him get interested in school, I was able to apply several 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 became a seamless, smooth transition to our day.

I hope you’ll find these tips useful, as these parents did:

“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!” -Jessica

“Great tips! I didn’t realize I may have done one of these ‘bad’ things when saying goodbye.” -Kristy S.

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 to your child about her feelings that day. You might say, “You seemed sad when I dropped you off at preschool this morning.”

Allow her to express feelings like scared, angry, hurt, and worried. Remind her that it’s okay to miss you, and let her know that you miss her too and look forward to picking her up from school each day.

And simply listen. Don’t follow up every sentence with a reason why she shouldn’t feel that way. Give her the space to express herself without offering a different point of view.

At the same time, discuss positive emotions she might also have had during the school day. Yes, drop off was rough, but maybe she found new activities she liked or played a fun game in the classroom.

Discussions like these place labels on feelings she’s starting to grasp. This helps her understand that they’re normal and start using words to share how she feels. And most importantly, you’re able to show empathy and understanding about the depth of her frustration.

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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.

But this only confirms his fears and assumptions that school is a place he 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.”

Highlight the fun activities he gets to do there that he doesn’t do anywhere else. For instance, remind him about the playground he gets to use several times a day, the many books he reads, and the songs and games he plays.

Expert tip

Make his experience at school even more positive with the lunches you pack! Include his favorite meals, snacks, or even special treats for lunch. You can also print a family photo and slip it into his lunch bag as a special surprise.

Give your child a special item

Making that leap into the unfamiliar is difficult for anyone, and more so with kids. One way to help your child adjust to preschool is to give her 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 or small stuffed animal, 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.

You can also 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 later.

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.

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, drop her off a few minutes earlier. Avoid the rush of the crowds, and instead give her a chance to settle in, chat with her teacher, and adjust before everyone else arrives.

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 of the house. Give yourself plenty of time to accommodate an earlier drop off.

Guide your child to the 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 schedule, 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. 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.

Ask the teachers what activity she liked best from the last few days. Not only can you guide her to that activity, you can get her excited about it when leaving the house. “I bet you’ll have a lot of fun with the blocks this morning!”

Don’t leave without saying goodbye

Once you’ve settled your child into her first activity, 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 you don’t see her cry, that doesn’t mean she isn’t harboring hurt, fear, and anger throughout the day.

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 giving her hands a kiss. Check out The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, a fantastic children’s book about easing her separation anxiety.

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. Thankfully, your teachers will take good care of you and make sure you have lots of fun.”

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 overreact. Don’t come back for a second hug 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.

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 reassured. Soften your face, give a genuine smile, and relax—she’ll understand your face and body language more than any words you say.

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. The 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!).

Ask the teacher how the rest of the day went and how she coped. If you’re truly concerned, give the school a call once you arrive at work to see how long it took before she finally calmed down. You might find that she ended up enjoying the rest of her day.

Ask the teacher what finally helped your child calm down, and see if they can repeat it in the next few days.

The bottom line

Feeling overwhelmed when your child cries at school drop off is normal, but still understandably frustrating. Thankfully, you now have several actionable steps to take to make your morning routine for school stress-free.

In time, you’ll both adjust to your new normal—no more trying to wrestle out of her teacher’s arms every morning.

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  1. I am having such a hard time with this right now. My 4.5 year old has been in daycare/preschool since he was 6 months old and never had separation anxiety issues before. Now he has just started a new school and we have only had 2 tear free days out of 2 weeks. I don’t know what to do, I have tried most of the tips here and I end up crying just as much as him when I walk out the door. It’s the absolute worst feeling.

    1. Can his teachers give you an update on how he did the rest of the day? Was he miserable the whole day or did he eventually have fun? He must be adjusting to the newness of the school.

      My toddler boys are now in a new school this week too, having had a nanny. At home, I’ve been trying to keep things really simple and regular and spending tons of time with the. I think the adjustment and realizing that this is permanent is something they’re still getting used to. I hope in your son’s case that next week will be better!

  2. As my daughter starts at nursery I am going through a tricky drop off stage. It is so emotional – for both of us! The stress of being late for work doesn’t help… Thank you for the excellent post and the words of encouragement!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I feel you, Sophie! I’m so glad the post was helpful and resonated with you. Rushing to get to work never makes it easy—wishing you both a smooth drop off very soon! ~Nina

  3. hi im fadiel ,
    i have a 9 year old that changes schools and is finding the transition a little hard as in the mornings he is emotional but when i ask him he always has positive things to say about the school and friends and what they did and so on.
    any advice as sometimes he cries little but after he is ok

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Fadiel,

      It sounds like he’s adjusting, and I’d say it’s pretty common for him to feel apprehensive in the morning but fine at the end of the day. I’m sure in a few days’ or weeks’ time, he’ll welcome school in the mornings as well. Keep communication open, let him feel sad (don’t force him not to be sad), and stay positive and confident about school.

  4. Hello, we have had a problem with our 2 year old for 6 months now. He will start balling when we start walking in to daycare. We do all of the tips above but it continues to happen. He goes to daycare 3 days a week and grandmas 2 days a week. Could it be as simple as him preferring grandma over daycare? I appreciate the advice and great article.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Dan! It truly can be all about preferring grandma, or even staying at home, than daycare. He could be overwhelmed with all the activities at daycare, or having to “share” adult attention with other children. How is his temperament in general? Do you find that he’s introverted or enjoys quiet time as opposed to group activities or boisterous events? If so, perhaps at daycare, you could ask the staff to dedicate quiet time with him, letting him sit by the teacher’s side at the table, pairing him with just one or two children, to see if that can help him feel less overwhelmed.

  5. Hi

    That’s really very healpful, as I’m reading about myself with my little one dropping off at school and I loved the one about bribing thought this is a rewarding which is totally different. I will change that immediately. interested more articles on kids and parenting at this age.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Maghani!

  6. Thank you for this post! I found the comments helpful too. I wandered to this page while searching “I feel guilty after leaving my child crying at school.”
    The first day of Grade 1 was extremely hard. My son was dreading it from the minute we were leaving the house. While we were standing at the school waiting for the teachers to call out the names of the students in their classes, his tension was building. By the time it was time for him to go in, he was sobbing. I was feeling so guilty for leaving him and I felt like the worst mom in the world. His day did get better and his teacher posted a photo of him smiling, but I was still feeling like I had done something wrong by not staying to comfort him more.
    Thank you everyone for letting me see I’m not the only one who has left a crying child behind at school.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Aw big hugs, Amanda! It’s hard, for sure—my first grader also cried. You are definitely not the worst mom for leaving. In fact, staying and comforting him beyond a reasonable time would’ve only confirmed his suspicions that he’s not in a safe or good place. Like you said, his day got better, and that’s so awesome his teacher posted a picture of him! You did the right thing by leaving in a calm and confident manner.

  7. This is great advice.

    I will try it from tomorrow morning – especially the early drop off.

    That way all the crying babies in the nearby class will not be there and she will have a few minutes with the teacher alone to build a bond.

    I had a few rough mornings with the drop offs.
    I feel super overwelmed today.

    It’s just a blessing that my son handles his drop off so well.

    My daughter is turning 4 and my son 6.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Carlien! I’m glad you found the article useful. Yes, going early will help her connect with her teacher, AND the sound of the crying babies won’t feel so startling. Hopefully that will help ease your mornings—I know how rough and overwhelming those can sometimes get. Let me know how it goes!

  8. Thank you so much for this article!
    Going through this for the first time with my son and feeling SO guilty (mommy don’t leave me!)I really want to acknowledge his feelings without letting him manipulate the situation & need him to know that school is something that has to happen.
    I try talking to him in the afternoon/evening about going again the next day & he just starts to meltdown crying that he doesn’t want to go. But is fine at pick-up! Think he has seen he can get a reaction out of me by crying about it so I probably need to manage myself more than him! 🙂
    I will definitely try taking him to school earlier and giving him something familiar to keep with him there.
    Thanks again for taking the time to write – HUGE help!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Awesome, glad to hear the article was helpful, Roxi! Yes, a lot of their anxiety and behavior has more to do with how we behave (if we’re overly dramatic, make a big fuss, get angry, etc.) than their own fears about school itself. Especially since at school pick up he’s totally fine, which is a great sign. Hopefully talking him earlier and giving him a familiar item will help—definitely keep me posted on how it goes!

  9. My son has been in school programs since he was 2 years old. He was always a bit nervous but held back the tears and toughed it out. The 3 year old program was 3 days a week for 4 hours, September-December he was okay, after winter break it all changed. He cried his eyes out every single school day at drop off. I did everything I could (most of the things you listed here) but he still cried every time. The teachers said that the tears stopped about 15 minutes after I left him but it was still tough… now we are less than 3 weeks away from the 4 year old program which is 5 full days of school! Im beyond nervous but have been talking about school in a very positive way, let him pick out some clothes, a backpack. We chat about it every so often and he says he doesn’t like school and never wants to go back. Im terrified, I pray that he enjoys himself and that some of these wonderful extra tips will help.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Jess! It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the right things, and sometimes things can be beyond our control. The only thing we can control is how we continue to act about it. Focus on your demeanor, making sure that you think school is a positive place for him to be with, and try to avoid making assumptions about how he’ll take to it. Things can change so much, and he just might love it. Even if he has a difficult time adjusting that first day, he could easily love it a few days or weeks after, so it’s never a lost cause.

      And go deeper than the usual culprits: maybe make sure he has plenty of time in the morning to play so the transition isn’t so jarring, that he has enough sleep and a good meal, etc.

  10. Thanks, that was really helpful

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      You’re welcome, Heidi!

  11. My 6 year old has often dealt with separation anxiety. We moved to a new community and he just started a new school. The first day was great and since then drop off has been rough! His teacher assures me he’s totally fine once he’s in class. I can’t help but feel really guilty every morning – but I also realize I haven’t helped the issue by allowing him all the extra “one more hug”s and comforting him more than I should. This article has great advice and gives me a lot of comfort knowing I’m not the only one dealing with this! Thank you!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      You’re definitely not the only one, Cathy! That’s great his teacher says he’s fine the rest of the day—it’s hard when the last thing you see is your child in tears. And yes, the “one more hug”s can make them feel even more anxious than confident about staying, ironically!

  12. 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.
    I am very close to my son, who is 4.5 years old. While he has been attending school all day now for 10 months, he is still weepy and sensitive at drop off. It was nice to read your article that stated his emotional sensitivities were an expression of our relationship. I love that, but at the same time I want it to be a little easier for him in the mornings. Maybe I shouldn’t wish that connection away before it’s time. 🙂
    I can remember being very sad when my mother would drop me at school- every time. I remember crying when I was a preschooler, too. So, this sensitivity could be also a genetic/temperamental proclivity.
    Anyway, all that to say- thank you for the tips and the validation!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I’m glad the article reassured and validated how you feel, Jessica! Thanks for letting me know. It’s definitely a reassuring feeling that he has a strong attachment to you. And yes, hopefully the extra tips you learned will help make those drop offs easier for the both of you.

  13. We’re having trouble with our daughter going into Primary school. It’s her 3rd week and she is becoming more emotional about going to school. She’s come from the associated nursery so grown-ups and children are familiar to her albeit there are some new children. She takes rejection from children to heart. The break downs at school entry are leaving us as parents spending all day worrying if she’s ok.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      So sorry to hear that, Dean! One thing you might want to ask the teachers to do is to maybe pair her up with just one other child for a task, especially another child whom they feel could be a good friend. This can help her socialize without the worries of being rejected by her peers. As far as you worrying all day, if it helps you feel better, give them a call midday to see how she is doing. More than likely, she has adjusted and stopped crying after you left. I hope that helps!

  14. Thank you, let me apply this. Today was second day and it was bad to see him crying.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I hope the tips help, Pradip!

  15. I have a 3.5 year old daughter. She has always been anxious and slow to warm. She started preschool last September and she took two full months to transition and stopped crying at drop offs. Recently she started crying at drop offs again and I have tried everything the article mentioned and I think I got 4 good days out of 3 weeks. Before this all started there has been an increase in number of students in the class and her favorite teacher took a sick leave. We talk about feelings a lot and she said to me she’s sad because she misses mommy. I have given her a necklace of mind and family pics. I even let her bring her lovey. We also read a book call “the kissing hand” to teach her what she can do when she misses mommy. But shes still crying at drop offs. The teachers says she usually stops after 5 to 10 min but she does cry at times and she tells her teachers she misses mommy. She’s always fine when I pick her up. I’m at my wits end. Will this really pass ?? It breaks my heart to see her cry every morning but at the same time my patience is running out and it’s hard to keep up the positivity in the morning. I find my tone getting less and less empathetic. Anything else I can do?

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Kay! I know how frustrating it feels to have tried everything and still not see the results you hope for, not just with drop off but with nearly everything related to kids. When that happens, one thing that has really helped is to actually back off and not make it so much a “thing” to focus on anymore. This doesn’t mean to be apathetic or never talk about it, but to make it not so much a big deal. One of my kids would actually get worse the more I focused on a topic, but whenever I backed off and stopped talking about it so much, that’s when he came around to it. It’s almost like they see all this extra effort we put into it and sense that this must be a big deal. But when we back off, they realize that maybe it’s not such a big deal to begin with.

    2. This is the same with my son too. He has been going to school for the past 3 weeks. Initial 3 days he was really happy to go there but later he started to cry at drop offs. We’ve tried to empathise with him and have tied most of the methods mentioned above but for the past week even after talking to him extensively through the evenings, morning when he enters the steps to his classroom he starts to cry and says he is not able to control his tears that time. His mom is frustrated and overwhelmed and feels guilty for his emotional struggles. Is there any other way this could improve in a few days or weeks??

  16. Hello,
    My 3 years old toddler has started daycare since she is 1 year 8 months old. She cried only the first few days at that time and everything went well after that. She used to be excited when she goes to the daycare. At that time I wasn’t working. Now, I started work and I sometime gets late at work. My toddler started crying and refusing to go to the daycare. She also is requesting more affection such as hugs and holding her up. I am really frustrated and I don’t know how I should handle the situation well.
    Thank you

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hello Fatima! It’s likely she’s upset because of the late pick up. It can feel really unsettling when everyone else is getting picked up but you’re still at school waiting with the teacher. If there’s a way to ensure that you’re on time or even early, I would guess that that would help alleviate her anxieties by a lot.

  17. Hi,
    My 2 year old daughter has been attending preschool for 7 months now, and her crying has worsen after the leaving of her favourite teacher.
    The moment she wakes up, she cries “I don’t want to go school”.
    We’re really frustrated now and wondering if the school is not fit for her or if she’s not ready for school.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Serena, I can definitely see why your child is upset, and how your patience can run out after a while, too. I wonder if the school can help by letting you two write a letter to her former teacher, or somehow reconnecting with her to let your child know that she’s still very much around. If you have pictures of her old teacher, perhaps you can go through them to help her remember. Keep trying to be compassionate toward her feelings, showing empathy for her sadness. You can say, “I know you miss your old teacher, and it’s normal to feel that way.” And finally, if there’s anything exciting happening at school, try to focus on that. Maybe it’s new activities they get to do (like a visit from the fire department) or a costume party, etc. Something positive about the school that she can still appreciate even though her favorite teacher is no longer there.

  18. awesome post, I have a 4 year old who just started elementary school. New city, new teacher and new friends.
    my son has always had a little separation anxiety but lately it has been a battle. Drop offs are at the front gate of the school, and my little guy has now started to literally drop himself to the ground.
    He absolutely loves school and shares his excitement to and from school everyday. but once we get to the gate in the morning it is a whole new story.
    I will defiantly try to give him an item at tomorrows drop off.(crossing fingers)

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hopefully it works, Sandra! These transitions into new experiences can definitely be rough. But maybe with enough time and familiarity, drop offs can be smooth once more.

  19. This is great information and advise. My 4.5 year old granddaughter started TK 2.5 weeks ago. She is really having a hard time adjusting. At age 3.5 she started preschool and had zero issues. Loved school and made friends right away. She is also super social. So her difficulty with the transition to TK took us all by surprise. Her mom starts work early so I do the drop off and she picks up. Boy is this hard on grandma. We started doing exactly what you suggest we shouldn’t do….bribe. Treats , special play dates, etc. We will practice what you suggest. In time we know she’ll adjust. Thank you for all you shared.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Debbie, My son also attended TK and it can be quite different from the preschool environment. But yes, bribing may not work, especially since it seems to convey that TK is something you even have to bribe her about. When instead, you can portray it as a treat, a special place she “gets” to go to, not “has” to go to. Hopefully she’ll adjust soon!

  20. Hi Nina—I’m 57 yo, #4 of 5 kids to a pediatric nurse. I cried daily from K-3 grade, highly sensitive to this day. Your recommendations are excellent. Early drop off was vitally important-a quiet room helped me calm and orient faster. Having a designated seat with fun stickers and keeping a routine provided familiarity and consistency. Saying goodbye EVERY time kept me from panicking. Teaching me where the 9 and 12 on the clock dial let me know when I would be picked up (learned in Kindergarten). Wearing my Mom’s barrette and bracelet provided comfort. My Mom’s smile & calm reassurance always helped, even as I screamed and cried. Quiet time with a familiar task from the teacher helped me focus and made me feel important.
    I’m sure this transition time is hard on parents, but with calm consistency, positive reinforcement, many cuddles and statements of love, their child will eventually adapt and take to the routine.
    Thank you for having this website. I was blessed with a Mom trained in Pediatrics and knew what I needed, even back in 1970! It’s great parents have you to turn to, God bless you.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Kate! I really appreciate it, and you’re blessed to have such a great mom <3

  21. My daughter has just switched to school from play school at ukg. She goes to school by bus and when she reached at school premises, gets start to cry and after some time settles at class room. I can not understand how should I stop this and make her comfortable. I just wants to add something she already uses to go school without us by van. Though it is happening. She is saying constantly that after get down from bus she unable to stop herself from crying. Please help

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi there! I wonder if she’s overwhelmed by the new school and how different it is from her old one. Perhaps there’s a teacher who can meet her at the bus’ arrival to help her adjust and transition to the school premises.

  22. Hello! I have a 7 yr old that is extremely attached to me and we are down to the last few months of school and he still cries at drop off. He tries to make up that he’s sick. I have spoken with him and his teachers and he’s not being bullied or anything, he just wants to be by my side 24/7. It’s overwhelming for me. I’m starting a new job and I don’t know how I’m going to make this work. He doesn’t like his daddy or anyone else picking him up in the afternoons. It’s bad. Help!!!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Tara! One thing to look out for is to see how your behavior and energy are and whether they’re rubbing off on him. For instance, constant reassurances might backfire because then it’s like we’re trying to comfort them as if they’re about to experience the worst possible thing. But if we keep it matter of fact, brief, and compassionate, they might start to realize that this is no big deal after all. In other words, see what happens if you take a step back and keep your reactions minimal. Not to say that you’re curt or mean about it, but that you’re not feeding into his fears or apprehensions. Hopefully he’ll break the habit and expectations he’s had and realize that this is totally normal and not even worth any more of his or your attention.