I thought it was a brilliant idea at the time: I signed my 2.5-year-old up for two weeks of summer camp at the preschool where he'd be attending in the fall. He'd get to explore the grounds, meet a few teachers, establish some friendships, and get a preliminary glimpse of what school life was like before heading into the classroom in September. He bought into the idea, too: He was thrilled to pick out a backpack and elated to stick nametags on his water bottle and shoes just like his big brother, who was also heading off to a day camp for a few weeks.
The first drop-off was a breeze. He waltzed right in and barely waved goodbye to me, running over to hop on a silver tricycle. I skipped off, almost in disbelief of how smoothly the transition went.
At pickup, a blissful three hours later, his teachers told me that an hour and a half in, he turned around to look for me, and discovered I was nowhere to be found. That meant instant tears that lasted for the remaining hour and a half until I came to collect him.
That night, when we talked about his day, he seemed excited—if a bit nervous—to go back. The following morning, his second day of camp, we had a happy ride in, but he was inconsolable once we walked up to the drop-off line. As he screamed, cried and clung to me with all the strength in his (surprisingly strong) toddler body, I tried to stay optimistic and upbeat as I unfurled his fingers from my arms and handed him into the care of his also optimistic and upbeat teachers. But my heart was breaking. I actually drove the 10 minutes back to our house in the wrong gear—I was that distraught. His teachers shared with me at pickup that he cried the entire time. (I wish they had called me to come early!) This memory still haunts me.
With time, and some crucial new tactics (more below), camp drop-off got a little smoother every day. But he'll be starting preschool soon, and I'm already anxiously anticipating how drop-off will play out. At least now we'll (hopefully) both be more prepared.
When separation anxiety strikes
You've probably guessed that the culprit behind those difficult drop-offs is separation anxiety—it's perfectly normal and *highly* common. But those big emotions bubbling up can result in everything from clinginess to tears to full-on tantrums, which can be distressing, no matter how "normal" it is.
The kicker is validating your child's feelings, dispelling any fears—and managing your own anxieties, as well.
My youngest son and I have had the rest of the summer to talk about the start of preschool and run through routines, but I know the big day is a whole new ballgame. I spoke with maternal wellness expert and licensed therapist Marcella Kelson, LMSW, MSc about how to make drop-off easier for everyone involved. Here's what she shared about how to handle school drop-off.
8 tips to handle separation anxiety in preschoolers at school drop-off
1. Talk about what's going to happen—and act it out
Sometimes, anxiety can stem from just not knowing what to expect. "My number one recommendation is to expose your child to elements of their new routine ahead of time," shares Kelson. "If your child is going to a new school, try doing a run-through of a typical school morning as close to the actual timing as possible. Simply driving or walking by the entrance and showing them the door they'll be going through, and generally communicating about their day can help your child feel less overwhelmed by new information." You can even act out the drop-off routine with your kiddo's toys or dolls, acting out how they'll feel and what you'll say—this can help them ensure their concerns are heard, and you can work through any fears together.
2. Make sure everyone is well-rested
There's no doubt that good sleep hygiene is incredibly important for kids undergoing big changes—but the same goes for parents, too. "Take care of your energy and your own anxiety as much as possible," says Kelson. "It's easier said than done, but the better rested, more emotionally prepared you feel, the easier it will be for you to be present, confident and sturdy through your child's transition." Carve out plenty of time in the mornings to get yourself ready, have a cup of coffee and center yourself for the day ahead so you're in your best mindset for any difficult departures.
3. Set a goodbye ritual
Get buy-in from your kid by having them help you create a goodbye ritual—the steps you'll take when it's time to part ways at drop-off. I helped my son hang up his backpack and set out his water bottle, then I gave him a big hug and we did the secret handshake that we had practiced at home. He looked forward to it each morning—it was a special ritual that only the two of us shared.
4. Offer a comfort object
My son isn't super attached to any specific lovies or stuffed animals, but he did select one to carry with him to camp each day and hold onto when he wanted to be reminded of home. He loved making a tiny collar for his stuffed puffin with his (and Pongo's) name on it.
5. Get there early
Making a point to arrive early to the drop-off line relieves some of the external stress and pressure parents might feel if they're already frazzled from morning traffic and running late for their next obligation. "Limit as much stress as possible from other sources. Your energy will lead a lot of the experience—[your child] is looking to you to confirm that they're safe," says Kelson.
6. Get there early for pickup, too
Being one of the first faces your kiddo sees once it's time to go home can really help solidify their sense of safety, too. Make a point of getting to your child's daycare or school at least 10 minutes before they're released so you know you'll get a spot right up front and can be there waiting with open arms. Parents can use this time too as a chance to read a few pages or listen to a favorite podcast or song—why not treat it as self-care?
7. Make it quick
I made this rookie mistake on my son's second day of camp—I stayed way too long trying to console him. "Having worked in a nursery school, I can tell you that the lingering [at drop-off] usually escalates the upset for the child. Very generally speaking, the longer the parent lingers when the child is upset, the harder it is for the child to transition out of the upset," Kelson tells me. Here's where your goodbye ritual can really come in handy—for both of you. You'll have a pre-agreed outline of what to do, and your child will (ideally) understand when it's over, it's time for you to leave.
8. Stay upbeat
Sometimes our kids can pick up on our underlying anxieties about leaving them at school or worrying how they'll fare without us around to help. The kernel here to keep in mind is that if you project confidence and positivity into their school experience, they'll carry that through. You're giving your child 'confidence by proxy', says Kelson.
"I think big picture thinking is helpful in moments like this. Life is full of difficult moments, and learning how to separate is hard, but these are challenges we have to face as children in order to develop resilience. I'm not saying to deny your child's emotional experience or even to minimize it, but I am suggesting to expect it to be challenging and not assume that challenging equals problem or trauma," she adds.
Yes, this experience may be hard—but the simple fact that it's hard isn't a negative. Hard is OK. "If we are internally debating whether the separation process is detrimental to our child and wondering if our child can navigate that—we're not giving them the authentic opportunity to try."
Marcella Kelson, MSc, LMSW, is a maternal wellness expert with a background in mental health and developmental psychology.