If you've ever experienced an ultra long day packed with all the things and felt completely overwhelmed by the end of it (no you're crying in the bathroom), then you it might come as no surprise that kids can feel that kind of pressure, too. And if your child is of school age, then there's a chance you are also navigating off-the-bus after-school meltdowns. Curious about what triggers these big feelings? There's a reason why kids lose it at the end of the school day, according to experts.
"In general, children are simply exhausted at the end of the day," Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Joy From Fear, tells Romper. "Whether they’ve been in school all day or engaged in other activities, children have a limited ability to deal with the wide variety of stimuli they encounter every day."
Manly explains that as the day wears on, a child's attention span decreases (ahem — just like yours) and, yet, they are often required to sit still or otherwise remain attentive. "When their bodies are craving either rest or outdoor play, many children are stressed by the need to stay alert and maintain 'good behavior,'" Manly says. "[And] children are often emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, and their growing ability to regulate their own emotions simply starts to deteriorate."
Relationship expert Kerri Wall adds in an email interview with Romper, "What's really going on at the end of the day is that kids, who have likely faced all kinds of challenging, stimulating, and daunting situations throughout the day, need to emotionally unload and process. They aren't consciously choosing to do this when they 'meltdown' or 'lose it'; their limbic system is in charge at this point."
Becky Blake, a behavior expert and author of Unlock Your Child's True Potential, tells Romper that an after-school meltdown might also mean that your child is storing their feelings until they feel like it's safe to express them. "Many kids hold it together because there's not a true 'unconditional love' relationship with their caregivers that they have with their parents and siblings," she says, adding that adults are prone to this sort of wait-until-comfortable behavior as well. "So many children will wait until they get home."
Don't discount that your child could also just simply be a little hangry which, as Manly points out, could lead to temperamental behavior. "Parents often unwittingly give children snacks that cause a spike in blood sugar, thus making the problematic behavior worse," she says.
Manly says parents can better navigate these episodes by keeping a few tips in mind, starting with refraining from "pressuring your child to talk or 'do' right after school." She says you should also give your child a healthy timeout to recoup, rest, and relax. "When possible, allow your child 'no pressure' daily time outside to play, whether in a park, a walk on city streets, or in the backyard," she says, adding that a meltdown can be met with giving your child a quiet space to relax.
And Manly says it's also important to consider healthy snacks after school — think nuts, fresh fruit, and/or low fat cheese — to avoid the highs and lows that come with sugary snacks.
"We can better listen to and support our kids when their emotions get the best of them if we understand why they are losing it," Wall says. "We need to remember that emotions are not some kind of inconvenience or problem, but rather a sophisticated and well-evolved system of messages that promote survival. Feelings help us interpret the world and make decisions!" And at the end of the day those decisions can feel rather large — for big and little kids alike.