Tips for Handling Tears at Drop-Off Time

Many parents have sent me questions and comments through the Meet Renee page. I am thrilled to hear from everyone and loved reading all of your comments and questions. I will respond to each email I receive, so please don’t be shy about getting in touch. I will also take some of the frequently asked questions and share my thoughts here.  I also hope other parents share their ideas and tips, too. So far, in the short time since we started this blog, I received different versions of the same question from two different parents:

My 3 year old daughter started a preschool program in January. We’re 5 weeks in and she still cries every morning when I drop her off. When I pick her up in the afternoon, she’s all smiles, but she has a total meltdown when I go to leave her classroom in the morning after dropping her off. I’m talking about hysterical tears EVERY SINGLE DAY!  Any tips for helping her break this habit? I hate seeing her so upset and I haven’t found anything that seems to help. Thanks!  - Lynne

When a child starts school for the first time, particularly for a child who was at home with a parent during the first years of her life, it is a big change. Not only is she in an unfamiliar room surrounded by unfamiliar people, but it is likely the first time she doesn’t have a parent nearby for support. For this reason, tears on the first few days of school are not unexpected. When a child remains upset past the first few days, though, the tears can become part of the “going to school routine” and not the result of a genuine fear about going to school.

fear and uncertainty on first day of school

One trick I recommend to parents is to change the “going to school routine” altogether. For example, instead of eating breakfast then getting dressed, get dressed and then eat breakfast. And instead of the usual cereal, try a three-course breakfast of fruit salad, toast and yogurt. Or, instead of dad helping your daughter brush her teeth and comb her hair, let mom do it and have dad be in charge of picking out clean clothes for the day. While minor, making many small variations in the morning routine will help shake up the “normal” routine.

Also, consider arranging a carpool for a few weeks with another family in your child’s class where you can pick the children up after school and the other parent can drop the children off in the morning. While your child may briefly get upset while hugging you goodbye at your doorway, she will likely be distracted by the change in routine and calm down very quickly. Also, she will have the entire ride to school to calm down so that she can enter the classroom peacefully. After a few days, she will likely fall into a new routine of peacefully walking into the classroom.

If using a carpool for a few weeks isn’t possible, I always recommend that parents make the drop-off moment as short as possible. Many parents linger at the doorway of the classroom, thinking that they can help calm their child. Unfortunately, this often has the completely opposite effect. If your child has already become upset, staying longer with her at school only validates her fears. Consider giving her a quick hug and one brief assurance that you know she is going to have a great day, and then walking away. First, teachers are well-equipped to distract an upset child and help her calm down. Second, as she learns that she is not going to get added attention from you by getting upset, she will likely realize her tears are not productive and stop them altogether.

quick hug and brief assurance on first day of kindergarten

Lastly, you mentioned in your question that the situation is becoming stressful for you, too. This is completely understandable. On a personal note, I went through this experience with my youngest daughter, so I know firsthand how heart-wrenching it is to leave your child at school upset. To help reduce your own anxiety, I recommend that you speak directly with your daughter’s teacher. Since you mentioned that your daughter is happy when you pick her up in the afternoon, I imagine your child’s teacher will tell you that she typically calms down quickly once you leave. So while the moment of separation may be difficult, it should help you to know that it doesn’t last long.

I hope you find some of these tips helpful.  Please check back and let me know how things are going.

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Images used under Creative Commons from amishsteve and guruscotty.