Research suggests that ignoring your child’s meltdowns and reinforcing positive behavior is instrumental in stopping tantrums. But what if your child’s meltdowns are part of a bigger issue that starts at school and hits its tipping point when they get home?
It all starts innocently enough. You may have started the school year elated that your crew was out the door and someone else’s responsibility. School hours were precious gifts of diminished daycare costs, hot showers that lasted more than 45 uninterrupted seconds, getting actual work done in daylight hours, and trips to the grocery store with a cart that didn’t resemble a pink race car with one funky wheel.
From the outside, life looks pretty glamorous with school-aged kids. That is, until your little ones come in the door with the weight of the world on their tiny shoulders, and nothing is right: not the snack you fixed, not the game you offer, and certainly not the offensive way you walked across the room. Apparently, you’re a heavy-footed monster with squeaky-floorboard foot syndrome.
That’s when you realize the exhausting days of having your kids home all the time were actually pure bliss. Sure, you were tired. But the kids were mostly happy, and tantrums were largely avoided by re-direction and some quiet time. Now that’s all been replaced by tense silence as you count down the minutes until your child comes home in full meltdown mode.
How can you stop school-fueled tantrums before they start?
Become a Super Sleuth
It’s tempting to think that your child is simply tired and that’s the reason for their new Oscar-worthy tantrums. Maybe you even ignore it and receive mixed results. Some days your child loses interest in the meltdowns, while other days ignoring them seems to make them worse. In reality, something else could be triggering their tantrums that has nothing to do with collapsing after a long day at school.
Start by getting into investigative mode and asking questions about their day. Maybe their transition from the classroom to school bus and back home is jam-packed with stressors and chaos that they don’t know how to manage. Or maybe they never have time to finish their lunch because they’re too busy catching up with friends or their teacher asks them to finish an assignment. Consequently, they come home starving and ready to lash out at anyone in their way.
The more information you have about what exactly is going on in their day, the better the chance you have to address it. Don’t be shy about enlisting your children’s teachers as allies in your investigative research. They may have their hands full with dozens of kids, but they’ll probably also be happy to do what it takes to help relieve the stress in the classroom and change up the dynamic.
Remember when your preschooler would burst into tears upon seeing you after just a few short hours apart? Their teacher would tell you they were fine all day and happily playing, yet the moment you showed your face they would go into hysterics.
A similar type of separation anxiety may be happening to your kids after school. Your child just spent upwards of 8 hours away from their home and parents. Suddenly, their very favorite toys and snacks have lost their luster.
Your child’s mood turns the atmosphere toxic and creates a trickle-down effect to their siblings. But there’s not a whole lot they can do about it without some coaching. Kids can’t always identify and compartmentalize their feelings. Instead, they lash out and let the stress from the day bubble over.
Combat their separation anxiety by staying present throughout their entire day. Write a little note for their lunch, or draw a picture that they could color in during free time. Suggest a fun game on the playground to play with their friends and ask for a rundown of it when they get home. You can also slip them a special bracelet or backpack accessory and tell them to think of you whenever they look at it. Reminding your kids that you are there, always, can help ease the hours spent apart.
Institute Chill Time
Remember those coveted days when your kids actually napped and awoke refreshed? Those days were perhaps the last time you took a nap yourself, or managed to answer a text with two free hands.
By the time your kids hit kindergarten, you’re lucky if they sit down long enough to rest and eat dinner with the family in between races around the house. Closing their eyes is only reserved for hide-and-seek, and games involving “Guess the Gross Object” pressed into their hands. Despite their inability to sit still, your child still needs some kind of relaxation time, and so do you.
Quiet time for the sake of being quiet isn’t for every kid. Some kids can’t sit still without feeling stressed out by it. Others can’t stop talking long enough to benefit from the quiet. Instead, find an activity that keeps them relaxed and focused on something other than their post-school blues. Offer an activity book, get out the paints, or turn on one special show to get them to slow down and let their minds unwind.
Offer an Incentive
Bribing your kids to behave is sometimes effective, but can wildly backfire without the right strategy in place. Soon your kid is acting out just to get the coveted reward in exchange for calming down. Meanwhile, dropping the threats about bad behavior and incentivizing positive behavior can work.
For example, suggest taking a leisurely walk to the local market to get a new coloring book if they play nicely and quietly for the next hour. Tell them it’s their choice, and if it doesn’t work out today, then maybe you can do it another day. Don’t make the reward contingent on threats and micromanaging behavior to get your kid to comply.
Reinforcing positive behavior doesn’t have to revolve around a grand prize that can only be bought. You can also incentivize behavior around an event your child loves. A daily trip to the library, playing at the park, or a Facetime call with relatives or friends can be the incentive they need to behave properly and get their minds off their mood.
Give Them Space
Some kids come bursting through the door ready to dish on their day or pick up a game they played that morning. It may take them an hour to wind down after school before crashing out. Meanwhile, other kids want a clear breadth of space from their siblings, pets, parents, and anything else going on in the house.
Allow your kids to have some space and downtime as they see fit, even if it’s not your idea of productive time well spent. Maybe they want to crash out and look irritated and annoyed from the safety of their room for 30 minutes. Maybe they want to complain about the injustice of the rain and how it ruined recess. Maybe they want to close the door and play a game on their own, despite their baby brother crying from the other side.
Whatever it is your child needs after school, remember to choose your battles wisely. Telling their little brother to get out of their room isn’t the end of the world. But not giving them enough space could be the end of a relatively peaceful day. Let them know taking space and time is okay, but they need to treat the rest of the family with respect.
Create a Rock-Solid Bedtime Routine
There may not be a single answer to why your kid melts down after school, but odds are incredibly high that being overtired is one of them. According to the National Sleep Foundation, kids aged six to 13 need 9-11 hours of sleep.
For many families, that recommendation is laughable when taking into consideration homework and after-school activities. Most children would need to get to bed by 7 p.m. if wake time is 6 a.m., in order to have enough time to get dressed and ready for school.
Even if you can make the recommended sleep timetable work for your family, being overtired presents its own set of issues. Your child may be wound up, cranky, and even more reluctant to go to bed than usual. That’s why you need an ironclad bedtime routine in place that never wavers.
Give kids the routine they need by establishing a timeline they can count on. Try play time, dinner, bath, an activity like art or a family board game, and a snack before bed. Make it consistent and predictable so that transitioning into bed is easier. Bonus if you can bump up their bedtime by ten or 15 minutes to give them a few extra minutes of restorative sleep time.
Do your kids melt down after school? What are your best tips for combatting the after school blues?