Helping Your Child Who Wrestles with Drop-Off Anxiety; Special Needs or Not!

Sitting in the school drop off line, watching the kids and parents as they come and go. One particular day a particular dad caught my eye. His son would not let go of him. Tears ensued. Dad was patient. He tried many things. Only to have his son follow him right back to the parking lot. This kid wasn’t giving up. Distracted, saying goodbye to my own, I’m not sure how he pulled it off that day.

It’s been a few years since I was in those shoes but the weight of it lands in a hurry when I see the scene unfold in front of me. I feel the anxiety. The concern for my kid. The judging eyes of all the other parents. The wondering. Am I screwing this up? Am I setting him up for failure? Do I cut and run? Am I scaring my child? Do I stay? It’s a heavy weight to carry. Every. Single. Day. Anticipating, trying different things. Nothing working.

The next day I watched as this same dad and son arrived. They met a woman, a mom, and her son, I think. Clearly, there was a plan. He gave the hugs. And then some more hugs. And then he walked away, while his son went off with the woman and her son. It worked. No tears. And dad was on his way to work on time. Relief washed over me, as if it were my own.

I remember those days so vividly, like they were this very morning. Tears. Refusal to move. Kicking. Screaming. And so much fear. It just plain sucks to watch your kid go through that. Sucks. For a long time I didn’t know why I just knew it wasn’t ok. I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he was wrestling with sensory processing. The loud sounds he said were bothering him, they really were. Booming in his brain like thunder. The bright lights, blinding. The not knowing what to expect. Adults becoming angry and frustrated with him because he couldn’t focus on their voice, their instructions, over the booming, the blinding, the commotion. “Just cut and run,” they said. But how can you run when you can’t even pull them out of the car? And adding trauma to the traumatized. My gut told me no. I fumbled and flailed and put on my game face until he was out of site. And then I cried. I didn’t know what to do.

But I do now. Here is what I learned:

1. Know your child. Long ago when I used to drop one of my babies off at the nursery he used to give the caregivers a serious scare. I’d warn them, “He’s going to hold his breath, and turn blue. But after a second he’ll catch it, scream real loud, and then be just fine.” They’d look at me, eyes bulging with fear. I’d walk away and in a matter of just seconds the whole thing was done and he was happy as can be. I knew him. I knew he’d be ok. I knew my best bet was to walk away fast. Cut and run. That was not the case for my other child. The one wrestling with anxiety. His brain needed to process his environment slowly, taking in all the senses. And he needed a safe point from which to do that. For a time it meant I spent the first ten minutes of his day in the classroom with him. Later, it meant reading alone in the hall until the chaos cleared. It was ten minutes that set his whole day up for success. Different kids. Different needs.

2. Make a plan. The dad in the parking lot made a plan and it was his best move. When kids have anxiety they need to know what to expect. For us, it was a routine of reading in a quite place for a few minutes while the class settled. It worked like a charm. And when he didn’t need it anymore he just stopped. Fear of the unknown is usually the worst part. When that is removed and a child can think rationally they are able to see it really isn’t as scary as they thought. Sometimes it may take a little detective work to get down to the bottom of what is causing the anxiety in order to alleviate it. For us, it was just the anxiety of chaotic transitions. And the first plan you make may not work. You may need to try a few. There may still be some tears. But keep trying. Keep making plans. Every kid is different. What worked for mine might not work for yours.

3. Ask for help. Whether it’s church or school or therapy or any other place your child is dropped off. Ask for suggestions. Ask what is available for your child. Sometimes others can think outside the box since they aren’t in it with us. They also may have a helpful resource you aren’t aware of. Children don’t have to have an IEP or 504 to get a little support. Take advantage of whatever help you can.

4. Go with your gut. We don’t know what we don’t know. I don’t know the story behind the father and son I spotted the other day. Maybe he has a hidden disability he’s wrestling with. Maybe his mom just died. Maybe he just has some separation anxiety. I don’t know what I don’t know and I don’t know what his father does. I can’t make a call for him nor do I need to. While it’s good to take in all the advice you can, don’t be swayed to handle it in a way your gut is screaming at you not to. No one can make the call but you. There may be some tears and pleading but you don’t have to leave your child in a situation you don’t feel right about. Keep working on it until the plan works. It may take a little time. When you find your self in those parenting shoes you just need a pat on the back. So good job Dad. Good job Mom. I know it isn’t easy. I see you. Keep up the good work. It matters.

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