Five Ways to Stop Preschool Drop Off Separation Anxiety (Yes, They Really Work!)

by | Sep 8, 2014

The hardest part of my day used to be prying my preschooler and kindergartners arms off my legs when I had to drop them off at school. My sons’ howls of protest hurt my heart at the same time it made me wonder what I was doing wrong or what was wrong with them. All three of my boys did it at some stage or another. I can reassure you that this does pass…. my oldest son did absolutely no leg-holding or crying when he left for college last week.

After surviving three kids’ separation anxiety, or “drop off dramas” and talking with many parents about what has helped them, here are a few ideas to experiment with. Please let me know how they work!

Drop off drama usually follows hot on the tail of “Getting Ready in the Mornings Drama” which for many families is the worst time of day. Drop off drama is about a young person experiencing a painful transition from their beloved parent to a room full of new kids and adults. This is very stressful for some little people, especially those who prefer to be at home.

1. Fill the Bucket!

If mornings are stressful, drop offs are bound to be stressful as well. I love the idea of taking a few minutes right before drop off… either in the car or while still at home… to “fill the bucket” of your little one. Imagine if you said something like this, “I know that saying goodbye is hard some days, so how about if we take some time to snuggle and get you all filled up with mommy/daddy-time?”

2. Acknowledge the Sadness and Encourage Communication

Acknowledge your child’s sadness. Invite her to “get her sad out” while you are there to hold her. This can be a good time to read one of the children’s books that address the pain of goodbye: The Kissing Hand, The Invisible String, Love You Forever, Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You. It can be fascinating to ask your little one to get out all of his/her sadness while you are together. She might cry, he might protest. You can just be there and say things like, “I know, it’s hard to say goodbye, isn’t it?’ “I love it when you can say how you feel.” You can even invite some fit-throwing. It sounds counter-productive but I promise, it has helped many parents tone down drama and end tantrums in some children. Encouraging your child to feel all his feelings and share them ahead of time lets them feel strongly but do so in the safety of your presence and the privacy of home.

3. Teach Self-Soothing

When it’s NOT the critical drop off moment, have a conversation with your child about what he can say to himself that will help drop offs go better. Hint: He won’t have a clue. That’s when you get to teach positive self-talk by saying something like: “Some kids find it helps to say, ‘I can have fun at school even when I miss my daddy.” Or, “It’s ok to feel sad and mad about saying goodbye. I can handle it.” Or “My mommy/daddy’s love is with me wherever I go.”

4. Give Choices from a “Go To School Menu”

Give them three choices for the three days they go to preschool and each week they can pick which day they use each style. Write them on a simple chart.  No repeats are allowed in a week.

The choices are:
1) Scream and cry and hold onto Mommy’s legs all the way into the classroom.
2) Scream and cry in the car and then walk in holding mommy’s hands, give a big hug and say “goodbye.”
3) Snuggle with a book before getting in the car and play follow the leader into school, blow kisses and smile.

On the days they chose the scream and cry model, really encourage them do it as intensely as they can. If they start to cry on a non-cry day, warmly remind them that they already had their crying day for that week. After all the build-up and permission to do some good fit-throwing, some kids simply no longer feel the need to do “Drop-off-Drama” and the situation can resolve itself fairly quickly.

5. Make a Fun “Going To School” Book Starring Your Little One

Take them to preschool on a day that they don’t actually attend. Take pictures of them every step of the way. Since there is no impending good-bye, there won’t be any drama. Photograph them smiling in their carseats, smiling in front of the school, walking down the hall holding your hand and standing in the classroom waving a pretend goodbye. Then leave the school, go for a treat and talk about how it felt to go to school so happy. Next, print up the pictures and make a super simple little little book with your child’s name in it: For example: “William Goes to School” book.

Each morning after that, ask your child if they want to go to school happy or sad and let them look at the book. This reinforces that they were able to go to school happy and by looking at the pictures, they will remember the experience of going in peacefully. This technique worked so well with one mom that her child never fussed after that.

Important Things to Remember:

Show compassion for your children who fuss at drop off — saying goodbye to their “home-base” is painful for them. It’s a life skill they must learn, but acknowledge that it’s a hard one.
Have no expectation that this should be easy for them or you. If it’s not, it’s not. It can be a great opportunity for you to teach them different ways to master this important skill.

Put some time and effort into switching up the pattern and you could save yourself and your child a lot of drama and heartache in the long run.

Kerry Stutzman, MSW, LMFT
©2018 Kerry Stutzman, Head & Heart Parents

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Head & Heart Parents is owned by Kerry Stutzman, MSW, LMFT, a Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Love and Logic Parenting Instructor. In addition to private therapy and parent consulting services, Kerry offers parenting classes and workshops in Denver and the surrounding areas for toddlers, elementary, and teenage children.

Visit Kerry’s extensive collection of articles on parenting…a treasure trove of tips and insights.

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