Parents of kids with separation anxiety know just how difficult school drop off can be in the mornings. Kids may cry, plead, scream, or cling to their parents during this time, even though most of them are fine as soon as their parents leave their sight. The fear and anxiety some kids feel about this can be overwhelming to parents, who might feel doubt and uncertainty. Are we doing the right thing? Is she ready? How can I help him be more confident and less afraid?
As childcare providers, we understand these difficulties! We have watched parents try all kinds of strategies to ease the difficulty of saying goodbye to their kids. The success or failure of these methods often has a lot to do with the personality and needs of the individual child who is struggling with drop off.
However, we’ve learned that there are several morning routines that can certainly help the majority of kids who experience normal levels of separation anxiety.
Tip #1: Have a routine that ends with a special tradition.
Children thrive on routine, and mornings are no different than bedtimes and mealtimes. A routine can help a child know what’s coming next, rather than fixating on the unknown. On drop off mornings, you should establish a routine that your child knows is preparation for a school day.
Routine can start as early as how you wake them up in the morning. A fun little “going to school today” song can make the idea fun and playful, rather than scary. Eating a healthy breakfast and saying, “This is going to give you so much energy for school!” can be another way to casually prepare the child for school throughout the morning.
Ending the routine with a special, one-of-a-kind tradition at drop off can be a great way to ease a child’s fears. A special handshake, recitation, or silly hug can do the trick. This kind of consistency, while possibly stifling at first, can eventually create a sense of control for children who otherwise feel like things are outside of their power.
Tip #2: Model self-soothing methods during low-stakes situations.
Drop off is a stressful time, and it’s hard to learn a lesson while under stress. Think about it from your own perspective— when is the last time you learned to cope with something effectively while feeling pressure from all sides? We all do better when we have practiced mindfulness and coping mechanisms in advance of a stressful encounter.
The same is true for kids. As a parent, you can help them practice self-soothing and healthy coping mechanisms during low stakes situations instead of waiting for them to figure it out when they’re already overwhelmed. We recommend talking through difficult scenarios during the week as a way of modeling what you want your child to do.
Here’s some language to practice:
“It’s hard to say goodbye to Dad/Mom sometimes, but I know I will see him again this evening, so it’s okay.”
“Sometimes when I get worried, I like to imagine how fun it is when we spend Saturday mornings together.”
“This doesn’t feel good, but I know it won’t last very long.”
“Wow, look how well you did that new thing! You were scared, but it all worked out, and you had so much fun!”
Tip #3: Be positive.
Kids have great intuition. They can tell when you are nervous, excited, frightened, or angry. Because social anxiety in children is also difficult on parents, it is important to remember that your child is watching you. If you get anxious or regularly express your worries about how things are going to go, then your child will pick up on that and feed into it.
Positivity will really help in drop off. It can be hard not to cry when your child is crying, but the message that sends your child can be confusing. Maintain a positive attitude throughout the morning so that your child knows that you are okay with this. After all, if you’re not afraid, then perhaps they can be unafraid, too.
Talk about things your child enjoys at school, including friends, teachers, meals, snacks, activities, and lessons throughout the week as a reminder of the good parts of school, not just the nervous time of drop off.
Tip #4: Show your child that you understand what they are going through.
Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring your child’s concerns. We’ve seen lots of parents dismiss their children’s feelings with comments like, “It’s no big deal, you’ll be fine.” Or, “Stop freaking out. You’re just making a scene.” These are not helpful. We think that often, parents who try these lines are trying to diminish their children’s fears by telling them there isn’t really a need to be upset, but this can make kids feel even more alone.
It’s better to listen to your child and let them know that you do understand that they are afraid, uncertain, and worried about feeling lonely.
Key responses can be:
“I hear how scared you are…”
“It’s okay to be afraid. Sometimes I’m scared, too.”
Tip #5: Don’t expect an overnight solution.
It’s so important not to expect separation anxiety to go away overnight. It takes time to establish effective, familiar morning routine for kids. Additionally, there can be advances and regressions that come and go. Many kids aren’t really cured of separation anxiety, but they do learn to manage it. That means that it can come back after a break from school, when other parts of life are disrupted, or when going through a growth spurt or new developmental stage.
At ABC’s and 123’s Learning Centers, we understand separation anxiety and how tough it can be. We know the importance of finding the solution that works for each individual child, and for supporting parents as they navigate this aspect of their children’s social and emotional development. A good preschool or daycare will prioritize every child’s emotional well-being alongside the educational, and figuring out how to manage social anxiety is part of that process.