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Inside: What exactly is an after-school meltdown? What does an after-school meltdown look like? And nine awesome strategies to stop after-school meltdowns from happening so frequently.
It’s hard to send our kids to school, release them without control into unknown territory, full of potential land mines (bullies, embarrassment, confusing friendships, not-so-understanding adults).
Perhaps your kiddo is even starting kindergarten, and this is a VERY BIG deal…
…you are filled with trepidation, anxiety, and helplessness.
You get through the day, perhaps you go to work, or maybe you have younger kids to take care of, but you distract yourself and carry on whatever it is you are doing.
And then, you merrily show up at the school doors eager to hug your sweet child and watch their bright eyes light up.
When you set eyes on your sweet bundle of joy, you notice a wildness in their eyes. They seem unfocused, confused even.
But you remain optimistic that you will learn all about what cool planet craft they did today on the way home and how much they loved playing soccer in gym class.
That doesn’t happen.
You don’t hear about that cool planet Jupiter craft. And you definitely don’t hear about how much they loved playing soccer in gym class.
What happens instead is a full category five hurricane meltdown.
Screaming, yelling, and insults ALL blowing in your direction.
This storm might surge for days on end, and you start wondering when you will hit the peaceful eye.
Perhaps five days might even turn into ten, then twenty, then months go by, and soon you are bracing yourself for the surge every day when you pick up your child.
Here’s the good and bad news:
This is an actual thing. It’s a bit of a phenomenon.
And it’s called the after-school meltdown, or by some, the after-school restraint collapse.
This is common for kids in kindergarten, but it also affects grade school kids.
If your kiddo struggles with this, you know how horrible it is to see them so distraught.
And here’s the good news:
I promise that we can do (right now) to help our kiddos find the sun again.
And rest assured, many parents have walked this journey before us, and although their hair might still be a little wet, they lived to tell the tale.
We will quickly look at what exactly the after-school meltdown is, why it happens, and 9 things we can do to help our child through the dreaded storm.
Why does the after school meltdown occur?
School can be extremely difficult for kids. This is especially true for kids with ADHD, ASD, Sensory Disorders, or kids with anxiety, rigidity, or control issues.
Let’s look at the school day from our kids perspective:
You have to be brave and walk ALONE into a big yard filled with tons of other kids—some who aren’t so nice to you.
Your teachers are busy and can’t give you that same attention that your mom, dad, or grandparents do.
You miss your parents; you want them with you to help you navigate through this confusing day. Why have they left you? They have a way of making everything better, and they’ve abandoned you, all alone.
They aren’t there to help you when Johnny hit you at recess, when the teacher blamed you for ripping Susie’s craft, or when you couldn’t get your granola bar wrapper opened at lunch.
Your special people weren’t there when the teacher said sternly to sit still, pay attention, or when you felt like crying that you forgot how to write the letter F.
No one wants to sit with you at lunch, or you are unsure how to act, and so you act silly, but then you wind up in trouble, and you are singled out in front of everyone.
You feel alone, you are trying so hard to be good, but you aren’t quite sure what that even means, or sometimes it just feels impossible NOT to hit Johnny when he steals your toy.
And then you FINALLY see mom or dad walk through the door to pick you up. You feel a moment of relief, but then you feel a tidal wave of anger that they left you all day alone.
And the top blows off, you are completely spent and have no restraint left.
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We all know that young children struggle with emotional regulation. They must stop from hitting, wait in line, share, sit still, listen, eat lunch when they are told to, and they have to hold it ALL together, despite many urges to lash out.
Phew, doesn’t this just sound SO tiring for a young person who cannot control these emotions?
When kids are at home, they can act, well. However, they want (to a degree).
Think of it like this: you often hold yourself together all day at work. You don’t fly off the handle at your boss, scream at your co-workers, or throw the stapler across the room — even though you might want to.
School is full of expectations, disappointment, sensory distractions, and kids have to navigate this ON THEIR OWN. And especially for young kids, this is extremely hard.
Some kids will also meltdown simply because they are tired, or overstimulated.
Make sure your kiddo is getting the proper amount of sleep. A tired child will likely meltdown despite all your awesome efforts. See this handy chart to learn how much sleep your kiddo needs based on age.
But, more often than not, an after-school meltdown is related to an emotional breakdown.
They needed you, and you weren’t there. Now you are there, and your child feels an initial flood of relief, but a wave of defensive detaching follows it; they are angry.
They are running on empty and have nothing left in their tanks to help them calm down.
Kids try so hard to be good all day and keep it together, and then, and sometimes daily, when they get home, get to their safe place, the eruption ensues.
Think of it as a pop bottle, it gets shaken a little here and there all day, the fizz starts to bubble, and then a small, insignificant shake once home sets the top off the entire day.
And the stronger the outburst, the more frustrating you can assume their day was.
Dr. Heather Wittenberg psychologist with a specialty in the development of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, says:
“After holding it together without us for all that time – a release is necessary. Expect it, don’t make a big deal about it, and don’t take it personally.”
Until kids develop the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, well, we will need to weather this.
But, here’s the good news:
There are things we can do to weather the storm a little better. Think of this plan like a rain jacket or umbrella we can keep handy in the car.
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Empower your kids with these 12 Mini Mindfulness Exercises for Kids. Get ’em right to your inbox.
How does the after school meltdown look?
Young kids will likely throw temper tantrums, have meltdowns, cry, scream, or even throw things. Older kids might act rude or disrespectful, be aggressive, and insult you.
From parents today: “More sensitive and intense kids, and kids struggling with learning and social skills, will be more likely to be affected.”
Vanessa Lapointe, a parenting educator in BC, says that even chill kids can have their days to feel tired or sick. This phenomenon can last for months or even through the entire school year.
The school meltdown might look like:
- Rude behavior
- Picking Fights
The good news is that it’s more common in the first few months of the school year as kids adjust to their new environment.
How to Handle the After School Meltdown
1. Create an Awesome Morning Routine
We have an entire article on how to create a stress-free morning. And it’s truly a must-read for parents. (We also have an epic article on how to create an incredible bedtime routine that is also a must-read)
But what I want to highlight here is that you need to spend some time connecting with your child before school.
Perhaps that means setting the alarm 20-minutes earlier and doing a mindfulness game, holding hands walking up the stairs, reading a story, or going for a quick walk.
Mighty Mindful Kids (our best-selling mindfulness book for kids) comes complete with engaging morning connection exercises to start the day off right.
Whatever it is choose to do, the main point here is to give some of your child undivided you before school.
Don’t focus on goodbyes. Phrase your send-off in a way that will get your child thinking about seeing you real soon again, not how long they must go without seeing you. Try saying, “I love you, have a great day, and when I pick you up after school, we will go to the park and have a snack.”
2. Send Yourself With Them to School
My favorite way to do this is with lunch box notes.
My favorite way to do this is with lunch box notes.
Lunch box notes are my favorite way to let my child know I love them and am thinking about them.
It can be just enough to connect you to your child and turn their day around.
And boy, are you in luck.
We’ve got an epic post here on 12 sets of the coolest free lunch box notes your kids will go banana’s over.
FREE LUNCH BOX NOTES
Little notes of love for your child’s lunchbox! Make your loved ones smile by sharing one of these inspirational lunch box notes each day. This printable set includes over 100 notes! Where should we send your free lunch box notes? You’ll get the link to download instantly.
Some other cool ways to send yourself with your kids to school are:
- Slip a picture of you and your kiddo together in their backpack
- Give your kiddo a special rock to put in their pocket, tell them anytime they need to think of you, they can touch the rock.
- Put a special note in their backpack.
3. Don’t talk. Don’t ask your kiddo questions.
Give your child some space when they first get home. DO NOT try to talk at them or ask them a zillion questions.
If your child takes the bus, give them a simple hello, a smile, a hug, and then let them decompress when they walk through the door. They can watch a show, ride their bike, play quietly…
If you are driving, turn on the radio and happily hum along.
4. Feed your child
The very next thing I do, attempt to shove water and food into my child.
Some kids don’t eat or drink all day. They are starving, and we all know what “hangry” means, right?
Don’t even ask them. Assume your child needs some food. Try to keep your snacks healthy, like veggies, fruit, cheese, water.
You can also try to ensure they are eating better during the day and have no issues operating their lunch bags. For some constructive ways to spice up kids lunches, check out the best of the best lunch boxes and supplies here.
Does your child ever get angry?
If your kiddo suffers from BIG emotions, you’ve just gotta check out this life-saving tool, the Anger Rescue Kit for Kids. With over 60 pages this will quickly become your new go-to for helping your child develop appropriate coping strategies.
Make sure your kiddo knows you are there if they need you.
Be super calm, smile, and give your child a reassuring (but quiet) nod.
Since you are your child’s safe place, they might explode and express what they’ve been holding onto all day.
This means your child trusts you implicitly.
Just be there for them.
A gentle pat, a kind word, a reassuring hug.
See if your child will play a game with you.
Perhaps do a puzzle together, color, or go for a walk. When your child is ready to connect, be there!
6. Calm Play
Have you considered creating a calm down corner?
A calm down corner is a safe place for upset kids to go to decompress.
Mindfulmazing has two sets of beautiful calm down posters you can print for your space.
It can be helpful to have your kiddo go there after school and unwind for ten minutes before joining the family.
My son will go to his calm-down corner when he has a tough after-school transition. He spends only about 10 minutes there, but it’s enough to reset him.
7. Get Outside
Weather permitting, get your kiddo outside.
Ride a bike, go for a walk, give kids a chance to blow off steam.
Fresh air and exercise can help to get the frustration of the day out.
Consider starting an after school routine.
It might look something like this:
- Say hello, a quick hug, then quiet time in the car
- Get home — snack and water
- Quiet playtime in their special place, or calm down corner
- Quick walk before dinner
- Homework/Discussion time
- Brush Teeth
Your routine can go however you like, but the point is, routines are good for kids.
Taking a child into their safe and familiar routine is like taking them out of the emotional storm and back to secure land.
You can get our routine charts here, which are perfect for young kids.
Little chart, BIG possibilities. Still searching for a fun and helpful
9. Stay Calm
When your child struggles emotionally, this is not the time to punish or yell at your child. They are acting this way because they’ve exhausted every other coping strategy they have.
Sit by them, whisper words of encouragement such as, “we will get through this. I understand it’s been a tough day. I’m here for you when you need me.”
When the outburst happens, trying using these techniques to get through the storm:
- Calm Down Cards
- Anxiety Kit for Kids – 75 pages of worksheets, quotes, activities, and posters your child can use to work through big emotions
- Learn 55 calming strategies for kids – anger management for kids
- Learn 11 AWESOME calming strategies for angry kids
- Tame school anxiety with these seven sure-fire tips
- Don’t forget about you mom. Grab our mindfulness beginner’s guide (completely free), which will have you feeling less stressed in no time.
Know that the storm will pass, and as you work with your child to keep them filled up, the intensity of these storms will lessen.
One last tip: kids love to help out around the house. Get them started on an after-school chore routine with these FREE charts!
Do you have any after school meltdown strategies to add below? Please leave a comment — I’d love to incorporate new ideas into my own routine.