We’ve all witnessed the sobbing kid clinging to their parent’s leg at school drop-off. It might even be your own child! Research reveals that up to age 2, kids show signs of separation anxiety when faced with unfamiliar scenarios. And though such behavior is common, it’s still distressing. “It can be challenging to walk away from your child while they’re crying,” says Dr. Caroline Kerns, a child psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. “Starting school often requires a period of adjustment for parents and children alike.” Here, Kerns’ strategies to minimize drop-off drama.
1. Keep it short and sweet
It can be tempting to drag out your goodbyes, but sticking around prolongs distress for everyone. Devise a brief farewell routine, like a simple hug or a silly handshake, then make a swift exit. “If you’re consistent,” Kerns says, “you’ll both have an easier time [adjusting].”
2. Talk about it
Tell your child all the exciting things they’ll do in school (color! play! eat snacks!). Even if they can’t talk yet, they’ll pick up on your enthusiasm. Reading about the transition to school is another way to introduce the topic. Kerns recommends Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2009).
3. Do a trial separation
Before school starts, practice spending brief periods away from your kid. Take them to grandma’s house or hire a babysitter. “This allows you both to get accustomed to separating from each other without feeling overwhelmed.”
4. Take a test run
If possible, bring your child to visit their future classroom and meet their teachers before the first day. You’ll both feel more comfortable when school starts.
5. Get a grip
If you’re nervous or sad about your kid going to school, chances are, they will be, too. “If you show your child there’s nothing to fear, they’ll take cues from you.” Still, don’t feel bad if you need to bolt to your car for a post-drop-off sob session. “Parents spend a tremendous amount of time and energy on keeping their children safe and healthy. It can be difficult to give up that sense of control.”
6. Seek help
If you or your child is still struggling with separation anxiety after the first month of school, consider enlisting a mental-health professional for help.
Brightwheel offers the inside scoop on your child’s day
Ever wonder what your kid does all day at school (besides, you know, learn)? Thanks to mobile app Brightwheel, you can get the scoop on everything from what they ate for lunch to what times they’ve used the bathroom. Launched in 2015, the app—which appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank and counts Mark Cuban and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, as investors—allows teachers and caregivers to post real-time updates and share photos of your child throughout the day. “I think about my baby all day long, so getting up-to-the-minute updates is comforting,” says Jenni Schwartz of Boca Raton, Florida, who also uses Brightwheel’s messaging function to chat with her 18-month-old’s teachers. “They let me know if she’s happy, or having a hard day, or if she took a good nap. It’s game-changing to have that communication.”