Care and Feeding

My Kid Is Throwing Insane Drop-Off Tantrums at Day Care

We thought this was a phase, but … still happening!

A toddler bawling
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our bright and charming son is 2.5 years old and has been at his current day care center since he was 14 months. He has thrived there—adores his educators, made friends, language acquisition through the roof, etc. But (of course) for the past several months, he has been crying and freaking out on drop-off most days. At its worst, we’re talking silent screaming, hanging onto our legs, lying on the ground—the works. Some days and weeks are better than others, but we keep thinking this will pass, and it hasn’t. What could be going on here?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

He’s otherwise not a shy or clingy kid. We both work full time, but spend basically every other hour with him, so he gets a lot of one-on-one time with us. He’s articulate enough that he can tell us about his day, and I’ve never heard anything that threw up a red flag about the center itself. The educators are stumped, too, and say that he’s fine shortly after we leave and during the day. One said she thinks he’s quite sensitive to change, and we’ve had a bit going on, including toilet training, moving from cot to bed, and my recent stay in hospital for surgery. We live in a country where life has returned essentially to normal, so I don’t think it’s pandemic-related. Any tips, thoughts, reassurance? My husband does drop-off most days and this is completely stressing him out.

Advertisement

—Stage 5 Drop-Off Clinger

Dear Stage 5,

Your son has settled into a habit, and to break it, you’ll need to make some changes to your drop-off routine. Since there’s no real explanation for his clinginess that you can find, see whether you can eliminate it by treating the symptoms, rather than trying to eliminate their cause. This could mean switching up whatever you usually do before drop-off to include something distracting and fun, making a ritual of saying hi to a certain neighborhood landmark, getting a small treat from a café, or even just singing a song or reading a book right before you leave the house or get out of the car. It seems tiny, but even a minor change can be enough to distract a 2.5-year-old and shift his behavior. I don’t think I’d make any of this contingent on his not throwing a tantrum at drop-off, though—he is most likely too young to make that kind of connection, so dangling a reward probably won’t work.

Advertisement

Another tactic to explore, if you haven’t already: make drop-off as quick and seamless as possible. If his educators know that you need some help getting over this hump, they might even be willing to, for example, greet him at the door and take him from your arms as he thrashes and cries and you say one firm, final, loving goodbye. This “ripping off the Band-Aid” approach hurts in the moment, but in the long run, it’s easier for everyone, and they will likely appreciate it as much, or even more, than you do.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Hello! I need your perspective on something that maybe shouldn’t feel as fraught and awful as it does. We have two boys, ages 4 and almost 2, and we moved across the country in August to escape our tiny apartment during the pandemic. Now we have a backyard and access to my in-laws (only occasionally, with masks on), and overall our whole family’s quality of life is way higher than it was in the first seven months of lockdown. My question is about where to draw the line between my child’s needs and my own.

Advertisement
Advertisement

We left our city on the West Coast because everything was closed: day care, playgrounds, even the friends we thought would be in our bubble immediately left town to live with their parents. I personally felt so abandoned, and did a lot of grieving for our lost community and specifically for my preschooler’s friendships and sense of normalcy (and I know we have it so great compared to millions of people since we didn’t lose a family member, so grain of salt). When we got to the East Coast, I tried to find any day care that could take both kids (which was hard, since so many had limited capacity due to school closures and safety measures). We found a church preschool that had room for the kids and ended up being totally fine, although inconvenient and not diverse at all (it’s important to me that my white children have lots of positive relationships with people of color). Their COVID protocols were not very strict, so the school kept closing a lot, and for that and some other cultural/social reasons my husband and I were just not into it.

Advertisement

When two spots opened up at the local day care (secular, diverse, great curriculum, celebrates Black History Month and has LGBTQ+ affirming books on the shelves, serves lunch so we don’t have to pack lunchboxes every night!), we jumped at it and enrolled both kids. It’s only been a week, but I can tell my oldest is really sad and keeps asking to go back to his previous school, where he had finally made new friends. My 4-year-old is now at the age that I was when my mother died, so obviously everything regarding him has this extra weight that I’m adding to it because that was the age when my world got blown up and a ton of things happened that I had no control over. My question is how to keep us separate? And how to let him experience sadness when I could just step in and fix it? I could probably ask to reenroll him at his previous school, deal with the inconvenience of the longer commute and packing lunches, but the thought of going back there is depressing to me. Where do I find the line? How much should I sacrifice myself for my kids? I love them so much and can’t handle the thought that I’m prioritizing my comfort over theirs.

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Projecting on My Preschooler?

Dear Projecting,

Boy, do I sympathize with you. Finding a balance between making your kids’ lives as painless as possible and leaving them some space to learn from tougher experiences is always going to be difficult, and sometimes it seems like every choice you make is wrong. Here are some ideas that will make this tough moment feel lighter.

Generally speaking, you are not wrong to prioritize your own well-being. You can’t parent well if you’re constantly sacrificing your own needs for the sake of smoothing your children’s paths. That kind of “love,” taken to an extreme, leaves kids unable to handle life’s minor difficulties and parents with no independent selves apart from their identity as parents. You will not always be there to solve their problems, nor should you be.

Advertisement

But as far as I can see, this isn’t even a fair description of what’s happening here. Though it may feel to you like you’re putting your own needs first by switching their school, you’re not just doing it for yourself, at all. You believe a more accepting, diverse school is right for your kids because you want them to grow up with nonwhite friends and teachers—that’s not selfish. There have been a lot of disruptions in your 4-year-old’s life this year, and it’s hard not to feel like you’re torturing him by choosing to make another big change. But unlike the other changes, this one is for the better, and he will find new friends eventually. Until then, be there for him and help him through the transition, but resist the temptation to “fix it.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m currently 29 weeks pregnant with my first child. Biologically, our child is a girl. My husband and I are both very progressive and have already discussed that our child may share that they are transgender, nonbinary, or have a gender identity different than what we put on a birth certificate, and we’re committed to supporting, loving, and accepting them no matter what. We’re also aware that not only will society likely codify the baby as a girl, but that the baby will also very possibly also identify as a girl. So, while we’re not actively planning to push traditional female stereotypes on our child, we’ve been using she/her pronouns when discussing the baby, choosing girls’ names, and shared that “Baby Girl [Last Name]” was joining us in June.

Advertisement

I’ve made a few posts mentioning that I’m working on how to raise a “strong girl” in the world. I’ve admittedly been struggling with the fact we’re having a girl. I was raped when I was 19, and when the doctor told us the sex, I burst into tears. All I can think about is all the hard things I’ve dealt with as a woman in the world. Part of my (limited) commentary on raising a “strong girl” is me publicly grappling with what it means to raise a girl in this world—whether she is a girl or reveals something else with us later. I had a nonbinary friend reach out and very lovingly share that they are struggling with my decision to gender the baby before she is born. I definitely understand their point of view and don’t want to force a gender identity onto my child, but I also know gender can be important and want to at least prepare to raise a strong woman, if that’s the case, including talking about these things with people beforehand. Is there a way to find balance? Or am I hurting non-cis people by gendering my child?

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Struggling With Girl Power

Dear Struggling,

You’re dealing with two separate issues here, and while they overlap, your first step is to tease them apart as much as you can so that you can deal with them as gradually and deliberately as possible. The first, most pressing challenge for you is to grapple with the feelings of sadness and the troubling thoughts that are coming up for you around learning that you are pregnant with an assigned female at birth, likely female-identified child. It’s completely understandable that the daunting idea of being responsible for the care and safety of a new life has an added dimension of fear and anxiety for you. When you have dealt with a traumatic experience like rape, pregnancy has the potential to be triggering for all kinds of reasons. In addition to seeing a therapist, it would also be extremely helpful to make sure that your OB and whoever else will be caring for you through birth and postpartum are aware of this part of your history and are able to give you trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed reproductive health care has the potential to completely change your experience for the better, and even if it means switching providers, it is worth seeking out. A therapist who specializes in perinatal mental health will be able to refer you to practitioners in your area.

As you work to shore up your own mental health and prepare for the arrival of your kid, it might also be worth tabling conversations about your as-yet-unborn child’s gender identity, online and IRL, except with extremely close friends who are able to provide you with a feeling of true safety and unconditional support. Even those of us who are “extremely progressive” weren’t born knowing how to handle every situation, and often social media posts and comments can lack the nuance and sensitivity that most of us bring to our IRL interactions with friends whom we care about. I guess this is my longwinded way of saying that I think your nonbinary friend, while well-meaning, doesn’t seem to be taking the complexity of what you’re currently experiencing into account. You are this kid’s parent, and you have a right to muddle through with your own gender baggage as best you can, while of course remaining attentive to their evolving gender identity as they grow. I don’t want to tell you that you can’t post about it, but it seems like making yourself more vulnerable right now is working against you as you struggle to get the support you need and deserve.

Advertisement

For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

After a too long and too tumultuous relationship with my ex, who was verbally and emotionally abusive, I am finally embarking on single parenthood. I finally feel confident in separating, but I am worried about the future of my kids. I have two toddlers and am actually currently pregnant with my third (all by this same ex). My ex has always been a loving father—doting, fun-loving, generous, responsible, and present for his children. Unfortunately I have seen glimpses of his verbally abusive nature at times with the kids, but just very brief glimpses, like when my toddler son has been, well, a toddler, and everyone’s patience has failed. To provide clarity, one time after my son threw a tantrum, my ex replied with “shut up you stupid little s***, you are the worst f****** kid ever” in such a snarly, menacing tone my son was absolutely stunned in a deeply hurt way (he doesn’t understand all language yet but could understand the emotion behind the words).

Advertisement

I am super worried this will happen more often and worsen when the kids get older and start to have their own independent personalities, wants, desires, thoughts, and motivations. However, I feel I’m in a bind. I have to work full time to support myself, and my ex is successful enough he is essentially retired and can stay home with the kids. He has told me numerous times he will be seeking custody during the school week and to be the children’s main provider. Due to my work schedule, I just don’t see why the court wouldn’t grant him what he wants (or maybe he has brainwashed me enough that’s why I believe that).

Advertisement
Advertisement

I guess my question is, how do I monitor this and protect my children? He has never been abusive towards the children in any real way besides a couple small outbursts and has always been a good father, and I don’t think it would be right to fight to completely take away any of his custody rights yet. But based on what I experienced in my relationship with him, I do worry about the future. I don’t have a lot of concrete proof of his verbal and emotional abuse, and I feel like if I got into it with a court regarding a parenting plan, it would become a he said/she said battle and no one would know who to believe. I am just at a loss and don’t know how to think about these things going into the future.

Advertisement

—Survivor Needing Help

Dear Survivor,

Congratulations on getting out of this abusive relationship! I know it took a lot of strength to get here, which you will need every bit of as you fight to get yourself and your kids into a better situation.

I’m not going to sugarcoat any of this because I think you need to hear it as straight as possible. If this man is so financially stable that he is basically retired, he should be providing you with as much child support as you need in order to either stay home with them or pay for child care so that you can continue to work. You are right in suspecting that he has “brainwashed” you! He seems to have convinced you that he should have primary custody because you need to work full time. That’s absurd.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible and start figuring out what your options are. I understand that you’re wary of getting into a legal battle with someone who is in a better position than you financially, but your other option is to let him get away with what he’s done to you and to continue his patterns with your kids. No one who snarls at a toddler that he is the worst f*cking kid ever is a “good father.” A “good father” also does not emotionally and verbally abuse the mother of his children. Your ex has demonstrated a classic pattern: He can be loving, doting, etc., sometimes—and then he can call his child a “piece of sh*t.” Which one is the real him? You already know the answer.

Advertisement

I’m so sorry that your ordeal is not yet over. But you have taken a very important first step, and I am rooting for you to continue on this difficult but extremely worthwhile path away from this man.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

I am sad my 25-year-old son couldn’t care less about his family. He dropped out of school and lives at home but works the late shift, so we never see him. He will not visit his grandparents, whom he used to adore (they live nearby). He never bought anyone (except his girlfriend) a Christmas present, and he avoids all family functions and has no guilt or remorse saying this is just how he is. He gets tested at work, so we know he is not on drugs. He is the type that if he never saw any of us again he would be OK with that. He has a brother who is not like that at all. My heart breaks that they will never have a relationship or that his father and I cannot count on his help since he is so emotionally detached (and content).

Advertisement