After School Meltdown Strategies + Parenting Plan
A quick search in Modern Parenting’s Facebook Group, you will see the phenomenon of a daily or weekly after-school meltdown is something many kids and their parents struggle with.
The phenomenon a Psychotherapist, Andrea Nair, named “The Afterschool restraint collapse” is a thing. Nair describes this phenomenon where children meltdown once they are home from school. Children may have bad attitudes, seem defiant or have loads of tears and tantrums after school. Difficult afternoons turn into tough bedtimes, sibling squabbles, meltdowns, homework refusal and exhausted parents, can all happen as a result of after school overwhelm.
If you too wonder if your child may the real-life version of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, fear not. It turns out five-year-old meltdowns, or after school meltdowns for older children, are perfectly normal. Essentially, meltdowns occur when kids get to their safe place and can express what they may have been holding in all day. Even if the emotions of the day were positive, there may just be a build-up of them and without the coping strategies to know how to deal with them, kids will meltdown or explode.
Developmentally speaking, this is a good thing, a milestone even! Your child’s after-school meltdown is actually a sign that they trust you, feel safe, comfortable and that’s when all of the emotions of their day get bottled up and then released when they feel safe and comfortable. Your job now, as a parent is to encourage your children to learn coping strategies for strong feelings and emotions, and provide a safe space for your child to be themselves. Children’s developing brains are feeling new emotions naturally and making connections in the brain. Learning positive strategies to cope with intense emotions, and learning to regulate their feelings is a learned behaviour, taught at home.
This is why challenging behaviours can sometimes show up as soon as your child walks in the door. Since children are emotionally immature and still growing, instead of saying “I had a really tough day!” they might just use any small reason for complaining, give attitude or throw a big tantrum.
Did you know! That taking the time and putting in the effort to really listen to your child’s tears, frustrations or anger is extremely helpful to your child’s well-being and emotional development? How well you listen and respond to their tears can prevent meltdowns and create a strong bond by creating moments to reconnect with time away.
What an after-school meltdown may look like in your house:
- Overly emotional
- Easily upset
- Picking fights with parents
- Refusing to do homework
- Picking fights with siblings
- Refusing to do chores
- Excessive whining
Dr. Heather Wittenberg explains, ‘Children save their best — and worst — for us, as parents. They’re their “true selves” with us. It takes energy to “be good” and follow the rules — especially for young children — so when they get home, they let it all hang out.’
When they’re at school, children work especially hard at self-regulating. Self-regulation requires the control of two inner facets. The first is emotional regulation. In the classroom, children must refrain from hitting out of anger. And they try not to cry when they’re hurt. They try hard to keep it together. In contrast, when a child is at home all day, he is more comfortable to express any emotion he feels.
Self-regulation also requires the control of impulses.
At school, a child must wait in line, follow the classroom routine, sit still when she is told, and so more. She can’t simply grab her lunch whenever she so chooses or cut in front of the line to get to gym class faster. In contrast, when she’s at home, she can eat when she feels like eating and lie down when she feels like lying down and jump when she feels like jumping. As adults, we can relate. At work, we act in accordance with the expectations of our workday. When we’re outside of the home in general, we certainly act differently than at home. The difference between us and our kids is that this now comes naturally to us. We’ve had decades of experience in doing this.
At school they are constantly learning, navigating new friendships, lessons, and expectations. On top of it, they are away from home all day. Really, it’s no wonder kids unravel after school.
Self-Regulation Strategies: What can you do to promote calmness after school?
In my experience, there is no cure-all. As a parent, I can do everything possible to make the evening go well and there can be loads of tears. But, overall, there are some very effective strategies to promote self-regulation in young kids and avoid after-school meltdowns.
Here are some of the best strategies: Pick what you need to implement and how that looks for your family in the Parenting Plan: Here
Step one, and two before the actually Step 1:
1. Disconnect. Ideally, it’s best to give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to disconnect (forget emails, cell phones, social media, taking pictures and last minute errands.. etc.) BEFORE diving into your ‘second shift.’ This could mean a sip of tea, a breath, or even a quick meditation to ground yourself and check in with how you are feeling after a stressful day at work. Some parents find hitting the gym works best, or a calming walk in nature.
2. “Disconnect to Connect.” you need to “disconnect to connect.” This means you need to forget emails, cell phones and errands for the first fifteen to twenty minutes when everyone returns home from school. this is a great time to be together. Make a deliberate effort to genuinely listen (because they know when you’re faking!) to them talk about school and any news, stories, jokes and those “you’ll never guess what!” moments. Children love to know they have your full attention and it’s very reassuring that although you were separated, now you are reconnecting.
Step 1: Connection.
Greet your child with eye contact, a smile, and a hug or a kiss on the cheek (whatever affection your child is most comfortable with) the second they get into the car or walk through the door. Say something affirming as you do this “It’s good to see you.”, “I’m happy you’re home”, or on the days where she is already mid-meltdown by the time she gets to the door, “It’s going to be alright”. (List of affirmations below.) Leave the questions for later. It’s no big secret that busy is the new normal, and sometimes this leads to immediate questions about what kids learned during the school day, how much homework needs to get done and what happened during recess. We engage in instant-catch-up during the ride from here to there because we want to connect with our kids, but most kids need time to decompress and zone out before discussing the daily play-by-play.
Step 2: Be Present.
The best way to reconnect with our kids is to be present when they are in our presence. Make eye contact. Listen with intent. Let your child speak without attempting to fix any identified problems. Often, children need someone to listen while they work through their feelings and problem-solve out loud.
Step 3: Meeting their basic needs
Immediately after a moment of connection, it’s time for a glass of water and a snack. It is so important for kids, especially kids who’ve had early childhood trauma, a rough day, or even a processing disability to have those basic survival needs to be met. (Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests, children need to have their physiological needs met before they can feel safe.)
Step 4: After your child has had a moment of connection, water and a quick snack: It's time to reset.
Relax or alone time: Everyone needs a little bit of downtime, taking a moment to slow down and just be together, even if it’s just 5 minutes, it can make a huge difference to how the rest of the evening will unfold.
If you can invest a few minutes into chilling on the couch together, reading a book or simply giving each other a long hug before hurrying on to an activity you can prevent most meltdowns.
Alone Time: Some children (especially older children and teens) may just need some alone time. This alone time will allow their brain to decompress and transition into being back at home. It is normal for some people, after all the excitement and changes at school, to feel a lot of different emotions afterward and it’s okay. It is not a consequence or punishment, we all just need some time to ourselves sometimes.
Step 4: Play
At home, or at the playground, taking a bike ride or building some Lego, finding time to play together is a great way to reconnect and help your child feel loved. Play and laughter is also an opportunity for children to release pent-up feelings, which will surely prevent later meltdowns. Children also enjoy and appreciate downtime to just play alone, so make sure not to over-schedule the afternoon with structured activities.
Step 5: Eat Together
Whether your child does a half day or a full day program, planning to have something to eat together even if just a small snack after time away is a great way to slow down and reconnect. This is an opportune time when sitting at a table eating with your children, to share about your days and ask questions.
When Meltdowns Happen:
If your child does end up melting down after school, try to validate their feelings and listen with empathy. Especially for younger children, it may be hard to verbalize all that is upsetting them but having your caring, loving presence to unload those feelings is often very helpful and reassuring.
Step 6: Rest
Protect bedtime and bedtime routines to make sure your child is getting plenty of attention and care from you as they prepare to go to sleep. While it is tempting to rush through the bedtime routine, a frazzled bedtime routine is like an invitation for a meltdown. Instead, slow down, work together and see this as a time to reconnect from the time you were away.
As a parent, I was able to come up with two plans that I thought would work for our family, different ones for my two school-aged children. Thankfully, it WORKED. Almost every day since, we have used this strategy and it has eliminated the daily after school meltdown. There are days when I got caught up in being busy with the other kids, get distracted with work and haven’t implemented it and almost every time, my children have had a breakdown.
This shows me how important it is for us to do it every single day.