If your child struggles with separation anxiety, you know all about the dreaded drop-off. You know about the preamble—the slow dressing and eating, the extra hugs, the little comments from your child about bellies or fevers. And then comes the culmination: the drop-off. Your child’s fear of school or preschool or daycare climaxes in excruciating screams when dropped off.
“Nooooo, Mommy, noooooo! Don’t GO!” screams the little fighting octopus fastened to your legs.
You might wonder, Why is my child the only one who gets hysterical every time I try to drop her off?
It’s heart wrenching and embarrassing to pry your child away from you when they are experiencing separation anxiety. And inconvenient when you’ve got a time constraint. What can you do to help your kids work through this?
Is it normal for a young child to cry at daycare or school?
First off, yes, it’s normal. It’s normal for your young child to cry at daycare or school, particularly when you drop them off.
Children go through predictable phases of separation anxiety. For example babies often experience separation anxiety around 7 months. This usually improves before their first birthday. Many other children have another phase between 18 months and 2 ½ years of age.
That said, it’s important to also realize life changes can bring about new struggles with separation anxiety, regardless of your child’s age. Maybe your child never felt separation anxiety as a baby and did great with daycare, but it’s perfectly normal when they start a new school to suddenly experience separation anxiety and an unprecedented fear of school. Likewise, a new baby sibling or a parent’s divorce could also trigger separation anxiety. All of these things could lead to crying at daycare or school.
It’s also normal if they don’t experience separation anxiety and absolutely love leaving you to go to school. That doesn’t make you a bad mom or dad either. Different kids respond to life events in different ways.
When separation anxiety signals a need for help
However, there are times when the separation anxiety may hint at a need for extra support. Some children (approximately 4%, or 1 in 25 kids) struggle with a condition called separation anxiety disorder.
While all of the recommendations in this article will hold true for children struggling with separation anxiety disorder, they may also need additional professional support. More severe separation anxiety in kids can sometimes lead to other adult anxiety disorders, unless parents seek professional help.
If you notice your child’s separation anxiety is getting in the way of enjoying life (not just at school dropoff, but during the school day as well) or interfering with sleep (due to nightmares about losing a loved one), seek out professional help.
What feeds the fear of school?
I have coached numerous parents of kids with separation anxiety. Aside from personality, certain underlying issues particularly feed separation anxiety:
- Sensory: A child’s unique sensory sensitivities can make busy, or less familiar environments over-stimulating, or just generally increase a child’s anxiety at daycare dropoff or in a new classroom
- Family stress: A chaotic family schedule or outside source of stress creates insecurity and hinders quality, joy-filled attention from a parent.
- Parents’ anxiety or guilt about their child’s distress at school dropoff inadvertently sends a nonverbal message, “You should be upset. I’m doing a terrible thing by leaving you!”
How this mom helped her son face his fear of being dropped off
The following story of a coaching family’s success gives lots of practical strategies for other families struggling with this challenge.
According to Erik’s mom, Sarah, Erik had such strong separation anxiety that her participation in Bible studies and church nurseries was “an absolute and epic fail”. By the time he was three, Sarah and her husband Ryan sought out parent coaching for the intense, prolonged crying and clinging. Erik had all three issues going on:
- Sensory sensitivity: He was born at just 28 weeks, resulting in sensory sensitivities and increased anxiety.
- Family stress: His parents utilized several different kinds of childcare to manage demanding, full-time jobs and unpredictable schedules.
- Parent’s anxiety/guilt: His mom felt very badly about Erik’s premature birth and its impact on him. This guilt and anxiety caused her to be filled with angst during separation times.
16 tips to help your child detach without crying at drop off
Sarah and Ryan learned to tune into the cues that Erik would give when he was becoming overwhelmed. That helped them find creative and empowering ways to support him using many of the tips below.
Develop a thoughtful plan for each of the three underlying issues to help your child face their fear of school and childcare:
Adjust the sensory environment at the drop off time
- Care providers can provide a calm welcome. A loud, high-energy response from a caregiver can be overstimulating.
- In order to build success, start with transitions to settings that are controlled and predictable, initially avoiding church nurseries or high energy friends’ or cousins’ homes.
- If you are dropping your child off somewhere where lots of parents are also dropping their kids off (like school or daycare), consider whether your schedule allows some flexibility. Arriving when lots of kids and parents are coming and going might be too overwhelming. But showing up 30 minutes later might allow your child to enter immediately into a calmer environment.
- If your child needs to ease into transitions and whole group activities, talk to the teacher or caregiver about allowing your child to do something different by themselves right after you leave. This could be flipping through a picture book from home at the back of the room or some other quiet, nondisruptive activity.
Decrease stress: Make life more predictable and connective
- Affirmation goes a long way! See if care providers are able to notice and affirm when your child self-calms.
- Slight adjustments in your schedule can reduce the frequency and number of different environments in which your child has to separate.
- Bedtime talks help your child process and prepare for the next day.
- Make a weekly calendar with pictures of key people your child would see throughout the week to help him anticipate events.You might laminate faces of caregivers and stick velcro on the back to easily move their pictures to various days. (This is especially helpful if a parent is traveling.)
- Have your child make a list (either pictures or you write it down for them) of favorite activities they would like to do with these caregivers. This will help him look forward to those times. Kids might feel more settled if they bring a picture they made or a treat for the teacher or babysitter. Or they could have a regular helpful task to do when they first arrive.
- Include some special 1:1 time in your morning routine. If a caregiver is coming to the house, try to spend a few minutes of 1:1 time prior to the caregiver’s arrival. This can be a special time to talk, pray, listen to a favorite song, or just be together.
- In a school or daycare setting, find out who the more easy-going or emotionally intelligent kids are in the class. Ask the teacher if one of them could be your child’s “buddy” first thing in the morning. This can be fun for both your child and the helper!
- If your child stresses over how long until you’ll be back, consider giving your child a watch. Even a preschooler can be taught to read a digital watch. Little notes in their backpack or lunchbox can then provide both love and reminders of the pick-up time. (“See you at 2:30!”)
- Have a goodbye routine. Maybe it’s a hug, followed by a high five, and you go. Or maybe you have a secret handshake. You might sing a favorite song as you stomp your way into the building (rhythmical marching and stomping can be calming.) Whatever it is, keep it fun, short and sweet, and do the same thing every day. Anxious kids thrive on predictability.
Let go of guilt and anxiety at separations
- Try to be calm and lighthearted at the drop off. Sincerely communicate, “You feel sad now, and that’s ok, but soon you’ll be having fun!”
- A big grin and a high five from you might help both of you believe it.
- Have a plan in place. Knowing your strategy will help you see your child’s growing success, which decreases your anxiety and guilt.
What does it look like when your child overcomes their fear of school and separation?
The result of this effort was that Erik successfully completed two years of preschool and entered kindergarten last fall. Sarah shared some deep insights:
“Ultimately, I have recognized this ‘inconvenience’ with our precious son to be a sign that he is a deep connector and establishes trust and authenticity with key people in his life. Once he feels known and understood, he can more easily succeed in different environments away from us. Any child that struggles to be released from mom or dad has underlying needs that simply need to be attuned to properly; and when that is done – the child will thrive in a way that builds great confidence and joy! He or she will be prepared to utilize their deep, God-given sensitivity, to be highly compassionate to those around them.”
Reflect on how you can help your child’s drop-off go better
Instead of being critical and anxious about your child’s fear of school, how could you:
- Meet their sensory needs for calm environments?
- Make life more predictable and connective?
- Let go of your anxiety when it’s time to separate?
- Help your child channel their God-given sensitivity toward compassion for others? (a nice gift for a teacher or caregiver, encouraging another student, etc.)
We trust that as you implement some of these tips and hints you will see confidence and trust grow in your child!
Want to learn more about your child’s anxiety and how to help them? Check out this podcast, “What to Do About the Things Kids Are Scared of at Home“. It has great, practical help and insights to help equip your child to navigate their anxiety.
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