Back-to-school is traditionally a stressful and trying time for kids. They just spent an entire holiday playing Minecraft, running through sprinklers and staying up late. Now they’re either expected to sit still in a classroom with a mask on all day, or they’re logging in from home and sulking through Zoom lessons. You’d be a little tired and cranky, too, if you were in their position. (Chances are, you’re tired and cranky anyway.)
They are going to do their best to keep it together at school and then the second they get home and discover you are out of their favourite snack, the proverbial shit is gonna hit the proverbial fan. That is to say, I am predicting our kids’ meltdowns are going to be extra quality this year.
Luckily, we have written about tantrums a lot, so we may have some fresh tactics for you to try when you’re like, “Holy hell, what is happening, what are they even upset about?”
Try a “brain game”
This is one of my favourites because it both ignores the tantrum and appeals to a little kid’s unending desire to play a game:
Amanda, a former children’s mental health counselor and writer at Messy Motherhood, discovered a way to interrupt the emotion-flood: Have them play a quick “brain game.”
She used the technique with her own son when he became upset because he thought she wanted him to put away all his Duplo blocks, including the “inventions” he’d been working so hard on. (She only wanted him to put away the spare pieces that littered the floor but that direction was lost in toddler translation.) After unsuccessfully “reasoning” with him and empathizing and putting words to his emotions, she switched gears.
Head it off by feeding them dinner earlier
Part of what drives their post-school madness is the fact that they’re legitimately hungry. So skip the snack time charade and feed them dinner early. Can every family feasibly get dinner on the table immediately after school? Of course not; I certainly can’t. But if this happens to work with your schedule or they have another after-school childcare provider who can make it happen, give it a shot:
If your kids are really, really hungry at 3 p.m., I say feed ‘em dinner at 3 p.m. Find other ways to sit down together as a family (perhaps with popsicles at 7 p.m.?). Their body rhythms will change over time, and you won’t always be stuck having dinner before the seniors start ordering their Early Bird Specials. But for now, and always, you’ve gotta do what works.
Have them write a letter about it
It may seem counterintuitive to have kids write anything in the midst of an after-school meltdown, but as irrational as kids can be, they often just want to be heard. So writing a letter (or dictating that letter for you to write on their behalf) about all the ways you’ve ruined their life in the past five minutes can feel satisfying for them.
In her book It’s OK Not to Share, early childhood expert Heather Shumaker writes that temper tantrums are a perfect time to have your child write a letter to whomever or whatever they’re having big feelings about. If they don’t yet know how to write, no problem — you can pen their words as they dictate them. What’s important is that they get their emotions out of their heads and onto a page that they can see and touch and hold. Why it works: “Writing makes a child feel valued and listened to, and often that’s more important to her than getting her way,” Shumaker explains.
Try a glitter jar
I tend to think glitter usually makes a situation worse, but there are exceptions to every rule. And if some floating glitter water can help calm our kids, I’m all for it.
It’s an idea psychologist Lisa Damour writes about in her new book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. When she sees a young person in meltdown mode, she’ll simply take a glass jar filled with water and glitter (basically, a DIY snow globe), shake it up and place it on the table. “Let’s settle your glitter,” she’ll say, and together, they’ll watch the tiny specks fall.
Treat your big kids like little kids
After-school meltdowns are not just for our littlest kids; teenagers can (and should and do) have tantrums of their own. They are still kids who are going through a lot and could use our reassurance:
Start by not showing outward discomfort with their words or emotions. If they’re throwing a teenage-size tantrum over a lost cell phone, complete with stomping and yelling, you might say, “Oh yeah, I lost mine last week. That was really frustrating. I’ll help you look.”
Or if they’re melting down over a particularly difficult school project, crumpling up paper after paper and tossing them across the room, you could try, “That sounds like a tough deadline to meet. How much do you have done so far?”
By responding calmly and matter-of-factly, you can validate that their feelings are totally normal, even if they seem larger than life.
When in doubt, tag yourself out
Your kid’s meltdown mirrors how we all feel all of the time right now. And even though you know it’s probably coming and you understand why it’s happening, sometimes your body is still going to physically reject the situation. Your brain starts buzzing, your skin starts crawling (no, just me?) and you need an out. That’s when it’s time to tag out — if you can:
If you are fortunate enough to have a co-parent, establish a “tagging out” system, as discussed in Reddit’s parenting community. It’s exactly what it sounds like. When one parent is about to lose it (or already has), that parent can “tag out” and the other parent will take over, no questions asked. (Of if a parent sees that their partner needs a breather, they can say “You need to tag out right now” and tag themselves in.)