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When drop offs are hard: helping kids feel safe

by Hannah Beach | Sep 21, 2023

Yesterday I visited my mom in the hospital. She has advanced dementia and holding onto time is challenging for her. Each time we leave the hospital, she is teary as it is frightening for her to be in an unknown place without her people and not clearly understanding when she will see us again.

As I bent down to kiss her goodbye, I instinctively gave her many, many kisses to tide her over until the next day, when I would come again. I spoke these words aloud to her as I kissed her forehead so that she could know that she had ‘extra’ kisses for later in case she needed them. As I did this, I was flooded with memories of my mother putting kisses in my hand before I left for school, in case I needed them when she was gone. I could feel my tears coming and I held them back until I was in the hallway, where she would not see them. I knew that the dance of care was now reversed and that it was vital that I exuded a sense of assurance that she would be OK – so that she could feel and believe this too.

Gosh, it’s hard to be an adult sometimes. Our demeanor can create a sense of safety (or not) where those who are dependent on us can find emotional rest. But sometimes this is so hard.

I got in my car and turned on the radio for the drive home. The song Just Us, from the movie ‘Soul’ was playing. It’s one of those pieces that feels both equally sad as well as beautiful and it can make me feel reflective and teary even on a good day. So today this song opened the floodgates. I pulled over, put my seat back and just lay there for a bit. I thought back to my own children and all the various ‘holding on’ rituals that we have shared throughout our lives.

I have one child that found drop offs particularly hard. I had to do little things to help him hold onto me when we were apart, like kisses in his pocket for later and lunch time notes so he could have a little attachment refill during the day … but (just like with my mom) I also had to seem OK at drop off. If I seemed worried about him being able to cope or stressed about his tears, it was harder for him. He needed to lean on my belief in his capacity and discover a sense of safety through me. This is especially important when the person in our care feels nervous, scared, or anxious. I often remind myself in these moments that I have to be like a pilot.

It might help to think of it like this:

Imagine being on a turbulent flight. The plane is shaking and going up and down. The pilot’s voice comes on the intercom and nervously says, “Umm, so, like, I am not exactly sure what is happening, but umm, maybe … can everyone please fasten their seatbelts?”

In this scenario, many of the passengers would become very anxious: “Are we going to be ok? What’s going on? I don’t feel safe.”

Now, imagine instead that the pilot says, “Hello everyone, we are experiencing some temporary turbulence. This is normal and should pass quickly. Passengers, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. Thank you.” Being calm and self-assured is more likely to reassure passengers that everything is okay—the pilot has got this! They just need to follow the pilot’s instructions, and everything will be alright. They are safe.

When children (or any of our dependents really) are stressed, anxious or nervous, this is when we really need to up our leadership, by thinking of ourselves as the calm, self-assured pilot. When things are stressful or uncertain, conveying that we’ve got thishelps them to feel safe, trust us and follow our lead. In fact, these are the times when our leadership matters most. If we can stay centered during this time (even if we are only acting this way on the outside!), it will support those that depend on us to feel grounded. It is incredibly reassuring and soothing to rely on someone else’s guidance and certainty when the situation feels uncertain and even scary.

But as leaders, that doesn’t always mean that we actually feel that way. We are humans too. We get scared. We get anxious. So, in fact, it’s very possible that the pilot may actually have been worried – but they don’t share that with the passengers as it is their job to make the passengers feel safe. Instead, they would share this with their co-pilot. And this is true as well for those of us that lead, love and care for children and youth. In being authentic, we can share our worries with our team, our colleagues, our co-pilots so that we too can have a place to lean, share and have support.

The beginning of the school year can be a particularly challenging transition time for some children.

Many parents and teachers are on the other end of children’s stress and alarm as they are dropped off at school. Some kids are at new schools and navigating a world that feels unknown, some are with new teachers they are not yet attached to, and yet others are simply more sensitive beings that need a little more reassurance in times of separation.

So, what can we do when drop offs are hard or separation is challenging for someone in our care?

Up our caring leadership:

Upping our leadership means that we need to give off the impression to those in our care that we can handle the situation. Thinking back to the airplane pilot example given earlier, when things are turbulent, the pilot needs to give others a sense of safety by coming across as self-assured and in the know. When children are feeling anxious, scared, nervous etc. they need more safety. If we can stay centred during this time, it can support children to feel grounded and safe.

Whether we are the child’s teacher helping them to feel safe coming with us or we are the child’s parent, supporting them at drop off, it can help if we:

  • Exude a sense of warmth and reassurance

  • Think of being the warm, capable pilot that creates a sense of safety for the passengers

  • Don’t share our worries about them, with them

  • Normalize and make room for their feelings

Help them to hold onto us while apart from us:

Every child is an individual and every relationship is unique, so find what works for you. Ideas that might spark your imagination:

  • Give them kisses in their hand/pocket tucked away for later

  • Write a fun note to pop in their lunch or backpack

  • Instead of saying ‘goodbye,’ speak to the next point of contact with them. For example, ‘I’ll see you after school’!

You may also wish to check out the following children’s books that speak to how we can hold onto ‘our people’ when we are apart from them:

And remember that those of us that spend a lot of time caring for others, need care too! Take some outbreaths, do what feels good to you, find your play and look for some co-pilots in your life that you can share with and take turns leaning on as well. This is one of the gifts and joys of community.




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