I had always heard about after-school meltdowns but now I can personally attest: Yes, they are a thing. Here's how I dealt with it.
My daughter recently started kindergarten, and for the first couple of weeks of school, I was an eager mum, waiting to pick her up at the end of the day and hear all about her new adventures. I’d step through the classroom door, stretch my arms open and say, “Hi, lady!” and then wait for her to run and embrace me like she often did when she was in preschool.
Instead, she’d glance up, slump over and drag her feet over to her backpack. On the drive home, things would only go downhill. “So ...” I’d say, smiling at her in the rearview mirror. “How was your day?” She’d grunt. Then she would whine about something (usually how much she wants to watch a show on the iPad, and why, why, why won’t I let her?) and we’d start arguing. By the time we’d get to the house, she’d be a pouty mess and I’d be counting down the minutes until bedtime.
After school tantrums are such a common thing that psychotherapist Andrea Nair has coined the phenomenon “after-school restraint collapse.” When kids are forced to keep it together for such a long stretch of time, sitting criss-cross-applesauce and waiting their turns and following the social norms of the day, the moment they get a chance to break, they do. (For better or worse, you are their safe place to collapse.) They might cry or protest or just seem generally fragile.
It may have something to do with school, but often, it doesn’t. My daughter loves kindergarten and usually talks about it nonstop—about how her teacher says funny things, and how she got to be the flag helper, and how she guessed the correct number of Jolly Ranchers in the estimation jar. It was just that period from about 5 to 6 p.m. that sucked. And fighting it only made it worse.
What has helped, I’ve found, is planning for it. Expecting the meltdown—welcoming it, even. For us, this has been the only way to make it through to the other side. Here are some ways to support your kids through the dreaded daily transition.
First, Calm Yourself
If you’ve just finished a long work day, chances are you’re ready for your own restraint collapse. Give yourself five minutes to breathe and refocus before picking up your kids from school. You might take a walk around the block or do a guided meditation or write down a few things you’re grateful for—whatever will help you be more present for the next few hours. Once you’re with your children, keep your phone tucked away, say “I’m happy to see you!” (not “How was your day?”) and then listen for what they might need. It’s usually some silence and space to just be.
Whether or not they finished their lunch that day, kids are famished after school. I’ve learned to come armed with a granola bar or a banana or, on overachieving days, a smoothie. This helps alleviate the hanger. If it works for your schedule, you might even try feeding your kid dinner at 3 p.m. It sounds extreme, but there are all sorts of reasons why it makes sense.
My daughter used to take a weekday swim class at 6 p.m., and it worked out fine. Then when she started kindergarten, it became a disaster. The after-school meltdown still happened, but it happened while she was standing there dripping wet in front of a crowd on the bleachers. We promptly canceled the activity—it was just too much. Now we lay low after school, and it’s been better. When we get home, I might put my daughter in the bathtub (water relaxes kids) or read a book to her in the backyard. If your kids have homework, let them run around for a while before they sit down to do it. Letting them play vigorously for just 30 minutes can pump extra blood to their brain, delivering the oxygen and nutrients it needs to perform better.
Look Out for Other Factors
With an understanding attitude and some schedule changes, the meltdowns should subside. But if they don’t, check for other factors. Is your child getting enough sleep at night? Has something been happening at school? Talk to your kid’s teacher about what you’re seeing. If the problems persist after a couple of months, consult your pediatrician or a child therapist.