As each school year starts, I notice many parents struggling with how to handle morning drop offs. Children are often in tears; and parents, unsure of what to do, shift rapidly between both frustration and guilt.
Parents are ready to start their own day and after the first few days of challenging drop offs, are beginning to lose patience. At the same time, they often feeling guilty about leaving their children when they are upset. Add in an audience of seemingly stoic kids and anxiety free parents and we can add shame to the list of emotions running wild. Not exactly a stress free start to the day for anyone involved!
Like most parents, I have had my own fair share of challenging drop offs over the years. The worst one I can remember was early in my second pregnancy, and my two year old had just started preschool two mornings a week. She cried, I cried; yet finally the teacher, bless her, made me leave. I looked back only to see my daughter pounding on the window saying, “don’t leave me.” I was sure that I was dooming her to years of therapy due to severe abandonment issues. I spent the next three hours contemplating my failures as a mom along with doubt about my ability to handle two when I couldn’t handle one.
And then I went to pick her up. Her teacher, skilled with first time parents such as myself, let me know my daughter had stopped crying approximately 20 seconds after I drove away. From then on, she was a happy camper. My daughter greeted me with smiles and hugs, excited to tell me about her morning at school. It was as if the drop off from hell hadn’t even happened for her. Well, I was sure glad I worried about that one all morning!
Yes, transitions are hard. Drop offs can be filled with intense emotions. Never the less, there are ways we can make it easier for all. If the school year has been filled with disaster drop offs, take a look at these tips to ease the stress for you and your child.
Believe In Your Child, Check In With Yourself.
The biggest thing parents can do is to manage their own anxiety around the transition. Kids often do fine in new environments, with new routines and schedules. It’s us, as parents, that stress about it. Our children often pick up on that stress and this can make the adjustment harder for them. It’s not only ok, but perfectly normal to feel nervous about a new school or sad about how fast your child is growing. The problem is when we project our emotions on to our children, or assume they are feeling the same thing we are. Find support for yourself so you can be present for your child’s emotions.
Visit And Talk About School Ahead Of Time.
Most schools will be happy to have you visit with your child before they start. Even driving or walking by a few times and pointing it out can be helpful. Reading books about school and talking with your child about what they can expect will help them be ready for that first day.
Let Your People Go!
It’s tempting to stick around hoping your child will stop crying. It’s also tempting to sneak out thinking that will be easier for your child. However, neither of these strategies work well. The long drawn out goodbyes increase the anxiety in our children, and the quick sneak out plays in to their greatest fears about being left. Instead, create a goodbye ritual with your child, give those last hugs and kisses and tell them you can’t wait to see them after school. Then, follow through on your word and head out that door.
As was the case with my own child, I have watched many children stop crying within seconds of their caregiver leaving. It’s the actual separating that can be hard for children. Once they know they are staying, they usually jump right in to the fun. Keep in mind that teachers are amazingly skilled at handling these transitions and can often do their job better once you are on your way.
What If You Have Tried All These Things And Your Child Is Still Struggling?
Kids are unique beings with their own thoughts and feelings, and no one method will work for all. It may be helpful to take a closer look at your child’s world to see what might be getting in the way of a smooth drop off.
Do you jump headfirst in to new situations while your partner sits back to evaluate before getting involved? Does one of your children hide shyly behind you when meeting new people while your other child is ready to perform their latest feats to any passerby? Temperament refers to the way someone approaches and interacts with their world. Differences in temperament can make drop offs harder or easier depending on your child’s unique style.
Antidote: Think about your child and how they approach and adapt to new situations. If your child is slow to warm up to new environments, spend some extra time getting comfortable with school. Play on the playground, read in the library, and attend school functions to help your child have more opportunities to become acclimated. Plan to arrive at school a little bit early and create a ritual for easing in, such as reading a book together before you leave. Let your child’s teacher know as well, so that they are able to work with and support you and your child as they adjustment.
While the start of school is a big transition itself, life is always changing and there may be other transitions and changes happening in your child’s world that are contributing to their separation anxiety at drop offs. Are any of these common life changes happening in your home? Here's why it’s causing problems and what to do about it.
Got a new baby in the home? You made it through baby brother coming home, and big sister has been nothing but delighted to have him around; until it’s time for them to start school. They accepted that baby gets to sleep in your room and that baby’s dining and diapering needs come first. Now that baby gets to stay home with you while your other one has to spend the day away, things have just gone too far for your little one and it can be a recipe for morning mayhem.
Antidote: Create a ritual of special time to connect at a different time of day. Spending just 15 minutes alone with your older child each day can make all the difference. This should be child directed time when parents are not distracted with the phone or computer. Aim for a time when two caregivers are home or little one is napping.
Moved to a new home or new school? Big changes like these can be stressful for all. If your child is adjusting to a new environment, they can be extra clingy with caregivers. We are the constant, stable force in their lives, so of course they want to hold on for dear life.
Antidote: If you have recently moved to a new home, keep what you can the same by sticking to routines. This helps increase your child’s feeling that your family is still the same even though the setting may change. If the move is to a new school, help them connect with the location by spending a little extra time on the playground after school or read books in the library. This will increase their comfort with the location.
You can also help them adjust by finding a new buddy before school starts. Many schools have grade meet-ups during the summer, or you can contact the school to see if they can put you in touch with a classmate’s family. If the school year has already started, getting a play date on the calendar soon can help your child build a connection to their classmates.
Has a recent loss occurred such as the death of a loved one or pet? Did your child had a bad experience at a previous school? Whether it's a recent loss or an early experience, trauma can rear it’s head at the most inconvenient times. If your child is processing something painful, the last place they want to be is away from you, particularly in what might be a new environment.
Antidote: Whether its grief from a recent loss or fear of another negative experience, take a deep breath and remember that their feelings are normal. If a loss has occurred, you likely are dealing with your own emotions which makes it that much harder to see your child in pain. Make sure you are getting support for yourself as well. It’s important to let your child’s teacher and the school know what your child is going through so they can be attentive to your child’s emotional needs during the school day. As your child continues to process their feelings, with patience and kindness, drop offs will get easier with time. If you are not seeing a change after some time has passed, check in with your school counselor or a therapist to see what additional supports might help your child move through their grief or fear.
Whether your child adjusts with ease or struggles early on, transitioning into the new school year is a significant event in your child’s life. While it’s hard to see our children struggle, giving your child and yourself time to easing in is essential. It may be bumpy, but your ability to stay calm and model persistence will go a long way to helping your child do the same.