Like many families with small children, we have a “witching hour”. Around 6 PM, the toddler pulls out all her naughty tricks, the 5-year-old switches into turbo gear, my husband gets frustrated, and I am totally out of gas.
We’ve had no choice but to come up with tricks to handle meltdowns and make evenings calmer for the whole family. Below, you’ll find a buffet of tips from experts, my own household, and other frustrated parents.
Take a break first
You probably know exactly what time your kids are going to lose it. (In my house, we call it “naked o’clock” because my toddler sheds both her clothes and her composure.) Before that time, take a few minutes to calm yourself.
What can you do for five minutes to prep for the the crankiest part of the day? Offspring editor Michelle Woo suggests these mini-breaks:
Sit in the car for a few minutes before you join the family.
Try deep breathing or meditation. (I like the Stop, Breathe & Think app.)
Make a gratitude list.
Take a quick walk.
Have a plan for the evening, including something to look forward to.
Have a ‘tagging out’ system with your co-parent
If you parent with a partner, divide your energy efficiently. That can mean splitting duties or knowing when you need to tag out. Agree on a look or a code phrase, that says, “I need to excuse myself for a few minutes.”
If you see your partner cracking, say, “Hey, go take a break.” You will be grateful when the favour is reciprocated.
A major reason toddlers have tantrums is because we subvert their expectations. Emily Popek, mum of a 7-year-old in Oneonta, New York, shared her technique: “Our meltdowns always came around transitions, especially that last transition from evening activity to bed, so we would do a lot of narrating like, ‘We’re going to read one story. When the story is done we’re going to quietly get up from the couch and go downstairs,’ because otherwise it would be a flopping flailing shitshow.”
Adjust the schedule
A shift in your routine might just help make the evening stretch more manageable. Some ideas:
Consider feeding the kids earlier. And sometimes you can tell tears will be shed over what’s on the plate. If you know your little one will balk at the pesto pasta, you can still put it on her plate and remind her to take a “no thank you” bite, but also give her chicken nuggets so something gets in her belly. Don’t die on this hill.
“Schedule” more downtime. Kids benefit both from scheduled activities and free play. Trust your instinct, and don’t feel guilty if you need to ditch gymnastics for everyone’s sanity.
Add water. Even if it’s only 4 PM, a bath is the Great Tantrum Interruptor. (And if it’s summer, “bath” can mean sprinkler, water hose, or Super Soaker — whatever works!)
Get some fresh air. Blow your kid’s mind and take them for a moonlight walk. Or park the kids in the backyard and let nature absorb the angst.
Talk about your big emotions and theirs
When mum of 3 Andrea Danzi, Morton, PA, can’t quickly get a handle on a meltdown, she tells her children, “I want to help but I can’t talk or help when you act like this, and I need a time out. Come get me when you’re ready.” For Danzi, her own meltdown led to a revelation about communicating emotions to her children. She said:
After a breakdown and a look in the mirror I realised it had to stop. I wasn’t practicing what I was teaching. I apologised to all 3 individually and explained that I was going to try really hard to only yell for emergencies because even if we’re really upset and stressed it’s not OK to yell at people and make others feel sad. I also always say something to the effect of, “I know you’re really tired and that’s making you extra angry/frustrated, that happens to me too sometimes” because I think it’s important that they know that their big feelings are normal.
Teach your kids to meditate
When my oldest was 4, the meditation app was a desperate attempt to interrupt her bedtime meltdowns, but now she insists we do it every night. Stop, Breathe & Think also has a kid’s meditation app. Your child chooses emojis to represent how she feels and the app recommends a corresponding short animated meditation video.
Listening to a song is part of our nightly routine. Sometimes my daughter has a particular request (The Muppets are a favourite), but sometimes we choose a song with the tempo they need, for dancing it out or calming down.
Recognise the different bedtime needs of each kid
At 5 and 2, my kid have different bedtime needs, but we want to preserve our family rituals. We all go up for bath, stories, and hugs at 7, and it’s our fun secret that the oldest gets to sneak back downstairs if she “helps” us get her sister ready for bed.
Call it extra time, grown up time, or special time, it can diffuse the frustration of older siblings who don’t feel like they are getting enough attention.
Know when to throw in the towel
When everyone is on the verge of tears, maybe this isn’t the day for hard lines. Remember the days when they accepted your dictations without argument, and everything was in its place at bedtime? Pat yourself on the back for those successes and admit, THIS IS NOT THAT DAY.