Reluctant at drop-off yet later does not want to leave?

Imagine James is taking his wife Mary to spend the day at a women’s group. When he goes to drop her off, Mary starts crying, asking him not to leave her there, holding firmly onto his arm. “Don’t leave me here, James. I don’t want to go!” “You’ll be fine, you usually have a great time. I’ll come pick you up later today.” One of the organizers of the group brings Mary into the building as James drives away.

It would be unusual to see a husband ignoring a clear request like this from his upset wife. We likely expect that her wishes matter as much as his. Though it might seem like an inconvenience to him, especially if he planned to go to work immediately after dropping her off, we probably imagine him trying to collaborate with her to find a new idea that both are happy with.

The interaction is possibly easier to imagine with James as a parent and Mary as his child, and it is not uncommon for children to resist going to preschool, playgroups, and similar activities where they are without their parents. They may cling to their parents at drop-off time, begging to not be left alone there. Or, they may be less animated but still tell us verbally and/or nonverbally they don’t want to go. This can be challenging for parents as we don’t want our children to suffer, and we may have work or other commitments after drop off.

Furthermore, it may be unclear to parents and teachers if children actually do enjoy going, as children will likely make the best of it while there and the resistance at drop-off may fade over time. This does not necessarily mean children are happy to go, at least not at that moment or that day. The eventual calm at drop-off may instead be a suppression of their wishes as they have less hope that we will try to take these wishes seriously. They are making the best of a non-preferred outcome, and when they suppress what they want, we can lose sight of their true wishes. When we leave them against their will, our children have less trust that we will be there for them when they need us. They feel unsafe and learn to close off this part of themselves to us. We are, in effect, teaching our children that compromise and being hurt is the only way forward, that problems are not soluble. This is not to say we as parents want this outcome. It’s painful for us to see our kids suffer, but we may seem stuck in this pattern, not knowing what else we can do. So let us explore different possible ways to approach these situations.

It is not always straightforward to determine what our younger children want in these moments. Sometimes, it can seem to us as though they have conflicting wants. What can we do in such a situation?

Suppose our child, Kara, seems to enjoy the playgroup she has been attending – she displays lots of smiles and enthusiasm during her time there, and doesn’t want to leave at the end of the session – yet when we take her to the playgroup, she begs us not to leave her, and says she does not want to go.

We can examine two different (though related) components of this: 1. how to connect with Kara in the moment she is upset, and 2. get a better understanding of why she might be upset and how we might find solutions that avoid this.

Suppose that Kara has two main parts in these situations, one part that is afraid and has needs of safety, comfort, a person she knows and trusts, and one part that really enjoys the playgroup and has needs of fun, playfulness, and excitement. If the afraid part takes over when we are dropping her off at playgroup, and the part that has fun is in the background then, should we remind the afraid part that there is another part of her that has previously had a great time at playgroup, e.g. “You had a great time once you were inside yesterday. You’ll be fine, I know you’ll love it!”?

Instead, I suggest fully connecting with and giving space for the part that is being expressed in that moment. For example, if at the time of drop-off “I don’t want you to leave, Mommy” dominates the thinking, first meet that part of her with unconditional acceptance and love, and let it know that it is completely welcome to be expressed and that you take it completely seriously. That part wants the safety and comfort we provide and likely won’t care much about the part of her that has fun at playgroup, at least not in that moment. Though it may be difficult for us to see, there is a beauty to this part of her, that it wants to be close to us and values our presence, that it so wants a sense of autonomy and choice in the matter, and that it feels safe enough to tell us that something is not ok.

If instead we were to start with or quickly move to reminding this afraid part about the “I have fun at playgroup” part, it might send the message that the afraid part is not as welcomed and loved by us, possibly leading to Kara being even more upset. We think that if we reassure her (“You’ll have a great time!”) or minimize/deflect her concerns (“There’s no need to be upset, I’ll be back later today.”), she will calm down and we have solved her problem. But what she is expressing in that moment is that her need for safety and/or choice is not being seen or acknowledged, and eventually this kind of response from us might lead to Kara suppressing this part of her, pretending to be ok if she doesn’t think it’s safe to say she’s not ok.

Even just the act of meeting this afraid part of her with love and acceptance, not trying to hurry it up or push it away, might lead to some relaxation in her, as she feels more confident that her wishes will be seen and understood. That’s not to say this is all that part of her needs (discussed in more detail later), but this is how we might respond to her at that moment.

There are some practical things that might help with this process of connecting with her and her emotions. If possible, maybe it’s helpful to arrive at the playgroup 30+ minutes early. Then there is less pressure to hurry through these emotions. Maybe she’s struggling with the transition between these parts and she wants us there as she moves between them. If there isn’t enough time or space for that, it might make it more difficult. Maybe she struggles with the transition to a new environment. Can we show up 30+ minutes early, give the afraid part lots of love and space to be expressed, walk around the playgroup with her, and possibly stay for however long she needs until she’s comfortable? Is there an official start time of the playgroup that she needs to be ready to go by? Maybe she doesn’t like not having a choice about when she starts, a lack of autonomy, there’s a pressure and build up of tension as that time approaches, the moment that she “has to” leave us. Is it possible for her to join the playgroup session when she’s ready? Also notice if the resistance starts earlier, maybe while still at home. This might be the time that she really needs love and attention, before even getting in the car to leave.

Additionally, and very importantly, do we have capacity to give her lots of love and acceptance? We might be explicitly telling our child we love and accept them, but if we are overwhelmed, frustrated, and full on the inside, internally pushing back at her resistance to being dropped off, she will likely sense that energy from us. Removing or minimizing time pressure can help with this (e.g. showing up early), but it might also be helpful to spend time self-connecting with the emotions that these situations tend to bring up in ourselves before leaving to drop her off. If we have already created time and space for self-care and love for ourselves, we will have more capacity to do so for our children when they need it.

Now, taking a step back, what can we do outside of how we connect with the upset part in the moment of drop-off?

First, when she begs us not to leave her, and says she doesn’t want to go, we want to do our best to respect this clear desire, e.g. we have fun with her at home or elsewhere instead.

Then the next day, or another day sometime later, our child might announce that she wants to go to playgroup today.

Following the child’s lead, and taking her preferences seriously, helps her feel safe to try again. She knows that if she has doubts again, and wants not to go, we will not try to get her to go. So she is safe to explore, to take a risk and try again, in a way that she is not if we have been trying to get her to adhere to our agenda that she go.

Sometimes we have not quite managed to take our child’s wishes seriously – perhaps because we feel a need for her to go, so that we can get on with our work – we have already made the decision that she go. Or we don’t initially realize her resistance to going, maybe she is just a little bit more quiet at drop-off, or makes what seems to be an offhand comment about not liking something about the playgroup. And she is now feeling unsafe to go to playgroup, even though, when we arrive to take her home, she is so busy enjoying herself that she continues playing for some time before she is ready to go home. Sometimes, it can seem as though our child is conflicted about going to playgroup. Sometimes what seems like a conflict about going to playgroup is two different things, one being enjoying the playgroup, the other being that something has gone wrong and she is not feeling safe about us taking her wishes seriously. In effect, she fears that we have an agenda that we are propelling her into, whether she consents or not, and that agenda is causing a problem. She doesn’t feel she has a choice or say in the matter, a sense of autonomy in how she spends her time. By taking her request seriously and not forcing her to go, she gains back that autonomy, that sense of equality in the relationship, and gets acknowledgement from us that it wasn’t unreasonable for her to be upset.

Another possibility is that our child may love playgroup as long as we are there, or nearby. Sometimes, just showing our child where we will be waiting for her, whether in the car outside, or in the foyer of the building, and being reachable to her by phone is all that she needs to prefer to go to playgroup.

Now, we might have ideas for how to support our child, but it still may only seem possible if we sacrifice our own preferences. We seem stuck in a compromise, where either our child gets what they want or we get what we want. We ideally want to find a solution that everyone wants and prefers. One thing that might help is to go inside ourselves and see what our own conflicting parts may be saying, to try to find and connect with the underlying need behind each part’s message. It can be helpful to notice that a need, e.g. connection, is different from the specific way of meeting the need, e.g. meeting a friend for coffee after drop off. There will be many ways to meet our needs, but the conflict arises when we fixate on and will only accept one outcome. If we can connect with the underlying need, it helps create space for a creative process in finding a specific idea that we might all be happy with. Or, phrased another way, knowing and connecting with the WHY behind what each part is saying helps with finding a (new) specific HOW to satisfy the WHY.

And similar to how we might respond to our child being upset, these parts of us are worthy of love and acceptance as well. Part of us wants to get to work as it helps support our family; to have a quick drop off so we have time for ourselves; to have ease and lightness as we don’t have capacity for our child being upset. There is a positive intent behind our actions, a beautiful want that we are trying to fulfill.

These parts might come out as annoyance, frustration, or anxiety. Being annoyed, frustrated, or anxious doesn’t mean we have failed as parents. It’s ok to have and feel these feelings. We ideally don’t take out our feelings on our kids; that is, we want to feel these feelings in a way that isn’t hurting or trying to change our kids or ourselves. And at the same time we can keep in mind that we are going to make mistakes as we learn and grow together.

When we meet these parts of ourselves with true acceptance and love, there will likely be a relaxation, and they may be more open to new ways of getting what they need. And though it might not always seem easy, especially when we feel stuck in a certain pattern, there can be a way to meet these and our child’s needs, to connect with and give space for each individual’s parts, and find a real solution that everyone wants. It might take some practice, with mistakes along the way, and some time to (re)build the trust between us and our children, and to build up the trust between different parts of ourselves. But what may seem like an inconvenience, i.e. not leaving our child against their will when we have some place to be, will be worth the deepening of trust and connection of the relationship in both the short and long run.

See also:

Grant Goedde, 2022, ‘Reluctant at drop-off yet later does not want to leave?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/reluctant-at-drop-off-yet-later-does-not-want-to-leave/