Don't you just want to do a major eye-roll when you see a Disney Channel show with perfectly put-together kids coming home from school with huge grins on their faces as they stroll into the kitchen and talk about their day? What planet do those kids come from, anyway? Because here on earth, children get into the car or off the bus at 3:00 p.m. and immediately launch into a major after-school meltdown. Tears may or may not be involved; attitude definitely is. They don't want to do their homework. There's nothing good to eat. Their best friend dropped them for someone else. You made them wear that dorky sweater. Whatever the reason, absolutely nothing is right with their world, and you're the lucky recipient of their wrath.
As stressful as it may be to have your child go into meltdown mode, take heart in the fact that you're not the only one going through this. In fact, in a way, it's good that your kids lose it in front of you; it means that they feel safe around you. "The bad news is that kids tend to save their most difficult behavior for their parents," licensed social worker Katie Hurley told PBS. "The silver lining is that they trust us to help them through those trying moments and to love them anyway."
What sets them off? Put yourself in your child's shoes. You have to spend long hours sitting at a desk or table, listening to teachers ramble on. You have to be on your best behavior, or else. You have to eat and use the bathroom on a strict schedule. And when things go wrong, like a tough quiz or a busted backpack, mom isn't there to help until much later. It's a heck of a lot for a child to handle.
Registered psychologist Vanessa Lapointe explained to the Huffington Post that after-school meltdowns are what's known as "defensive detachment." When loved ones aren't immediately available to help soothe or help a child, the child deals with that hurt and disappointment by lashing out in an effort to avoid more pain when the loved one returns. The stress and fatigue of a long school day don't make matters any better.
Happily, there are ways to keep the peace at home after the last bell rings, which will make life better for both your kids and you. Here are some expert-approved strategies to try:
1. Have A Snack Handy
The word "hangry" could have been invented by a grade-schooler, and really, who can blame them? By the time school lets out, it's been several hours since lunch, and many schools don't offer a snack period. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explained that young children need two snacks a day in addition to their three main meals, while older children should have one snack (super-active kids can have one more). Registered dietician Jo Ellen Shield, writing for the organization, recommended snacks that combine protein and fiber, such as salsa with baked tortilla chips, celery sticks filled with almond butter and dried cranberries, or low-fat yogurt with fruit and nuts. She added that for maximum nutritional effect and healthy weight management, snacks should be served one to two hours before a meal.
2. Just Be There For Them
Sometimes, your presence is all your child needs, even if it doesn't seem that way when they're crying and storming about. Dr. Lapointe suggested standing next to your melting-down child and offering quiet, soothing support in the aforementioned Huffington Post article: ("You really had a tough day, didn't you?" or "I'm right here when you need a hug"). Once the worst of the storm passes, your worn-out student will be ready to collect a hug.
3. Take Some Down Time Together
After a day filled with work, note-taking, noise, and general activity, your child may need a few minutes just to chill. Instead of insisting on getting homework done right away, invite your child to sit with you on the sofa to read a story or just be quiet together. It's important for parents to stay calm when their children are having meltdowns, explained Child Mind Institute. Kids need guidance to self-regulate their emotions, and modeling calm behavior will help them learn how to stop or prevent their own explosions.
4. Try Art Therapy
Offering a creative outlet for your child can help them process their feelings or decompress after a long day. An experienced mom-blogger on New York's Hudson Valley Parent Blog recommended setting out art supplies to use after school: markers, colored pencils, play dough, blank journals. Knowing that they'll have a little art time after school will give your child something to look forward to, too.
5. Let Them Run It Off
Just as a good workout can boost your own mood, a post-school outdoor play session could be just what your overwhelmed child needs to ward off the tears. Let your child play with a ball in the yard or ride a bike around the block. On the blog Parenting From the Heart, mom-pro Alanna Pace said that she takes her kids to the park after school for an hour, and even packs a picnic. The result? Fewer meltdowns.
6. Offer A Distraction
Telling a hysterical child "don't cry" sends the message that crying is a bad way to cope with feelings. (Besides, it almost never works.) Instead, once you've let your child get the initial tears out, try diverting their attention in a gentle way. Give them a sensory ball to squeeze, a doll to hold, or play familiar music. When a child in my school's after-school program recently went into a weeping and wailing fit, I got a bottle of bubble soap and blew bubbles in his direction. At first, he seemed not to pay attention, but after a few minutes, he started swatting at them. It's hard to stay upset for long when you have a bubble dancing in front of your nose.