How to Beat The Pickup Toddler Meltdown

Because the tears don’t come down just at school drop-off.

If you’re a parent of a toddler who goes to preschool, you’ve probably listened to the agonized wails of said child as you left them for the first time (or 20, or 40) in the classroom. Perhaps you’ve built up quite the strategies for making your exit with the least amount of tears (for both of you). But for all those cries and acting like you were going off to war, you would think that school pickup would grant you something of a hero’s welcome from your toddler. Well, not so, apparently. Because there’s a whole other thing you didn’t account for: The Toddler Witching Hour.

Pickup is also the time when toddlers are overtired, hungry, and just about ready to lose their little minds. And guess what? That’s the precise moment when they’re offloaded to you, their parent, and most likely when you need them to move along and get them home. So how do you prepare for your toddler’s worst and try to squelch a meltdown before it begins? It helps if you’ve done some advanced planning.

Here are 8 tips for taming a toddler tantrum during school pickup.

1. Come Armed With Provisions.

Kids love snacks. They just do. And they’ll do almost anything for snacks. And no, we’re not talking about those chickpea crisps you’ve been trying to pass off as “chips.” Do yourself a favor and come with a snack your kid actually likes. Only allow them to have the snack if they listen to you and get in the stroller or car to go home.

2. Engage Comrades.

If you know that you absolutely must get home and you can’t get your toddler to go down the preschool stairs at anything more than a glacial pace, quickly look your kid’s favorite friend to have a play date with. It’s not ideal because you won’t get a nap in immediately, but you will get yourself and your toddler down those school steps, and to your next destination. So what if the thought of hanging out with their playmate’s mom makes you want to start drinking at noon? Isn’t that what mimosas are for?

3. Establish A Routine.

One of the best ways to avoid having your toddler go boneless and refuse to move an inch from that spot on the sidewalk where you told them that you would not be going to a store to buy a toy today, is to have a routine. A routine that your child can depend on each day, letting them know exactly what to expect after pickup. 

4. Look for Landmarks.

It helps to have little landmarks that you both look for every day and that might be fun to look forward to passing on the way home. You can work the landmarks into your routine. For example: you arrive at school, you get the lunch box and the sippy cup, you wave at the security guard, get into the stroller, and then stop for a moment at the little fountain where all the kids throw pennies, before strolling on towards home. Giving your toddler something that’s special between the two of you, on the walk home, is a great way to fight the terrible tantrums.

5. Ease On Out (Don’t Rush).

Transitions aren’t easy for kids in general, but they are especially hard for the toddler set. It can help a great deal to not rush out of preschool, and instead leave time to make a slow exit. Many preschools have a waiting area for parents and caregivers where you can read a book, color, or play with a favorite toy. 

6. Employ Bribery.

It’s not the cleanest of strategies, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Think of it as a negotiating tactic: “I’ll get you a special cookie from the bakery, and then we’ll head on over to [insert wherever you need to take your toddler.]”

7. Be Prepared To Deal. 

Sometimes a tantrum is unavoidable, and all you can do is put on your game face and pretend that this is all a bad dream. Toddlers are especially skilled at being noncompliant creatures, no matter what appealing options you’ve thrown their way. The Walk of Shame home with a screaming toddler is just about the most awful thing you can endure as a parent, but know that it happens to everyone. One day, that college girl with her earbuds on who stopped to give you a look of horror on the street when she saw you go by will understand exactly what it was like to be you. 

8. Bring Backup. 

If you’re going through a particularly sticky time with your little one, you might want to consider bringing a friend (of yours), relative or babysitter with you to help you handle your toddler. Someone new and refreshing that they don’t see at pickup often – like Grandma — could help flip the switch. Sometimes it helps to just have another person next to you as you’re pushing your stroller down the street with a screaming toddler in it, because then it signals to the rest of the world that you are a fine human being who others like to be around, and not a monster.

Alexis Barad-Cutler

Alexis Barad-Cutler

ALEXIS BARAD-CUTLER is an Associate Editor and a frequent contributor to Well Rounded. Alexis Barad-Cutler is an Associate Editor for Well Rounded, and the founder of Not Safe For Mom Group (NSFMG), a space for women to express raw feelings without judgement. She also creates content for sites like Mindr, Fatherly, Hey Mama, and Beyond Mom -- among other places that cater to the parenting set. Find out more at alexisbaradcutler.com and follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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