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The Ultimate Guide to Handling After School Meltdowns

Do your kids have after school meltdowns? It’s normal, right?

Meltdowns, difficult attitudes for the rest of the afternoon, homework refusal and defiance at home are quite normal in the weeks following the start of school. These meltdowns and bad moods are often a result of after school overwhelm.

Kids have to sit in school for looooong periods of time. They are expected to behave, do what they’re told, remember their pleases and thankyou’s and navigate the playground politics with old and new friends who may-or may not- be playing by the rules.

Not to mention having to handle disappointments and expectations of just what their day might look like. Maybe they don’t want to sing right now. But they are expected to. And on top of that they are expected to handle it alone. You’re not there. They don’t necessarily know or trust their teacher yet. So they are expected to deal with it all.

Then you — their chosen comforter, the one they take all of their hurts and needs to — arrive to pick them up. But instead of melting into your arms and proclaiming how amazing their day was, how they loved their packed lunch you so lovingly prepared, they angrily exclaim that you packed them the worst lunch ever. And that they hate their teacher. And music is stupid. And you’re being annoying.  And why did you bring that lame snack?

And basically YOU’RE THE WORST Mum or Dad EVER!!! The comfort of having that person who they know and trust to let out all of that frustration can be the trigger for letting it all go. 

It’s like a pressure cooker. It’s bound to explode.

They have nothing left in the tank to regulate their emotions. No easy way to just say, “I’m tired Mum. And hungry”. Instead it all comes out in, well, a meltdown.

Tantrums are normal when kids start back at school. My oldest daughter cries. When she starts, my husband and I brace ourselves that she may cry for another half hour if we let her.

I have to be honest. My patience for it wears thin. I’ve read everything under the sun and do consider myself a good parent when it comes to being understanding and acknowledging feelings.

But sometimes it’s hard. It’s bloody hard because it doesn’t work like the ‘guru nannies’ describe it.

Advice such as: “If your child is sulking or having a hard time with something, acknowledge why she might be upset and validate her feelings on the subject- that, yes, it might be unfair. Then, offer her an alternative.”

Sounds easy, right? Well, here’s how mine went down.

Daughter finishes gymnastics. Comes outside, plays awhile in the playground, never mentioning anything is amiss. I say it’s time to go. Five minutes into walk home, whining starts: “I’m thirsty”, she says. I say, “wait ten minutes, we’ll be home soon”.

Whining gets louder and more insistent. Now turns to cries. We’re literally seven minutes from home. “I’m thirsty!,” she cries.

I say, “I know, I’m sorry, I should have brought water. You must be thirsty after gym. Can you wait?” “NOOOOOOOO!”

Sobbing starts. Real tears. I try to reason. I acknowledge her frustration, her thirst, I encourage her to hurry and it will take less time. I tell her her crying is probably making her more thirsty. It goes on… and eventually, I get angry and threaten her with all sorts of punishments/consequences if she  just doesn’t stop.

Not my greatest mum moment. I get it. It’s tough when you feel “h-angry”- as we like to call it- a combination of hunger and anger. But this was long. So hunger is a trigger. Now so is thirst. What about when she got home and had some water?

My daughter later confesses she couldn’t stop crying. She just didn’t know how. Heart brakes. I know she’s a good kid. Though I tried to get her to calm down, she just didn’t have the tools to manage her emotions.

It got me thinking, what can we as parents do to encourage our children to manage their emotions and calm down in those moments? Just like adults, kids get overwhelmed and don’t have the tools or understanding to know that the moment will pass or to put it into perspective.

How can we allow kids to release their frustration and emotions without it getting out of control?

  1. First step is realising that getting kids to calm down with words or distraction is not always possible.I was on my way home for example and I was doing everything I could to just speed through and try to talk her down. But I’ve found it goes a long way if I can just stop what I’m doing and hold herCreating a space where she can feel safe and calm almost immediately helps her to calm down, stop crying and move on.  At least until we can sort out the matter that’s upsetting her. The sobbing stops and she lets her body fall (literally) into me.
  2. Listening and responding. If I could, I would have gotten her that water. But I couldn’t at that moment and I didn’t have access to any. If she had said she wanted it ten minutes earlier, I would have needed to run back inside the gymnasium to get some. Because at that point, I would be able to see it coming. So the earliest signs should have been there to alert me to sort it out before it erupts. We talk about that later, knowing her body and when she might need to drink before it gets that bad.Handling After School Meltdowns
  3. That’s where the third tip comes in. Recognise and anticipate trigger points.By tracking her meltdowns, we’ve understood that my daughter gets ‘unreasonable’ (i.e. not herself) when her blood sugar is low. Carrying around extra snacks or recognising hunger or thirst before it happens is one more way to limit these episodes. Tiredness, attachment to certain things or people can also be triggers that you may wish to avoid if you know your child is triggered. I now make it a point to always have water and a snack.  She in turn, is more aware of her hunger or thirst when the crying begins.
  4. Safe words. When my daughter told me that she couldn’t calm down because she didn’t know how, it made me realise she needed to tell me something but couldn’t. We’ve since developed ‘safe words’. A word she can say to me to let me know she just needs me to hold her, no questions, no debate, even if she’s in trouble. It’s been mind blowing how much effect it’s had in calming us both down when we’re worked up.
  5. Talking about it and discussing it after it happens when the child is calm.We’ve joked about how, when we’re about 50 metres from home, she begins to whine and sometimes cry about being tired or hungry. It’s always in the same spot so we joked that it’s like the switch has been pushed. It makes her more aware of how she’s reacting, what her body is saying to her in that moment and how she can control it knowing it’s coming.
  6. I try to remind my daughter to become aware of her breathing, to take in deep breaths. It’s a distraction but it’s also effective in calming her down. She focuses on breathing in through her nose, out through her mouth and eventually, it works. Mindfulness. It doesn’t always work but if she concentrates, it does distract her a bit to focus on something else.
  7. Let go of expectations. It’s not going to sort out every tantrum but it goes a long way in her understanding her emotions. I don’t force it, if she needs to cry, I let her cry but she does tend to calm down sooner than she might have before because she is more aware.
  8. Give her space. Let the storm happen and give them time and space to just cry. If hugging her through it helps, do. If not, just let them roll around if they need to- as long as they’re not in any danger.

That’s great for handling it while it’s happening but how can we actually prevent the meltdown in the first place?

Handling After School Meltdowns

Talking about it afterwards with your child can help. She/He may also have a few prevention ideas for how she can come out of school calmer. And if that’s not possible, try some of these ideas out:

  1. FEED THEM! Such an easy win. See tip #3 above. Kids get h-angry after school, it doesn’t matter if they ate all of their lunch, had a big breakfast, the fact is they are hungry and need to refuel. Have something at the ready to give them that immediate energy boost before you launch into a million and one questions.
  2. Spend some time alone with your child before school. Wake up 15 minutes early to snuggle, read a book or just have a hot drink together before you start the morning getting ready routine. One of my most favourite routines waking up in Canada when there was snow on the ground and I had to get out of my warm bed was crawling into my Mum’s arms and basking in her warmth before I was expected to get dressed. It is still, to this day, one of my most lasting memories.
  3. Send yourself to school. Not literally. You can’t physically be with your child at school but you can insert yourself through little notes in their lunchbox, a picture of the two of you in their backpack or a small photo tucked into their coat pocket that they can look at at lunchtime.
  4. Set routines. Kids love routines. Morning routines, after school routines, daily routines. It means they know what to expect and what to look forward to. Our friday routine means they get a treat afterschool. They know they won’t get anything sugary after school Monday to Thursday but on Friday, they can look forward to an ice cream or going to the shops and picking out a treat on the way back from school.
  5. Lots and lots of hugs. Stay connected- all the time. No matter what age your child is. Let them know they’re loved and wanted. Kids can get difficult around that tween age and tantrums can look like outright disrespect, talking back or constant whining and complaining. It can be challenging sometimes to maintain that connection when, admittedly, there are times you really don’t like your child. But keeping that connection is so important. If they’re on the couch, gently pat their shoulder as you walk by, give them a cuddle when they wake up and make sure you give them a hug when you see them after school. They’ll be craving that connection. Keep up the hugs, it is so so important.
  6. LISTEN! At some point, your child will want to unload and it may not be the most convenient time. It might be at bedtime when you’re ready to shut down yourself after a long, trying day. It might be just before they need to go into gymnastics. But if that is the moment they need to unload, you need to go along with it. Take the time to turn off your phone, your iPad, your headphones and just listen.
  7. Let them just be. You might have a ‘no tele’ rule during the week and that’s respectable. But sometimes, kids just need a break. Give them some time to just relax and shut off. I know I use tele to unwind sometimes. And even if it’s just for half an hour, it might just be what they need to calm down. And you might even want to sit right next to them on the couch to give them that connection. When the tele is turned off, it’ll be easier to maintain that connection.
  8. Let them play. Go to the park after school. Let them run and laugh and play and just let go. Play and laughter is an opportunity for children to release all that frustration and pent up emotions from their day. Children will appreciate the time to release and that should help to prevent tantrums later on. Try not to over schedule their after school activities so they can have afternoons free after school. Trust me, they need it. 
  9. Don’t insist that homework be done as soon as they walk in the door. Just no. 
  10. Keep your bedtime routine and stick to timing. Children don’t deal well with tiredness and sometimes just a half an hour difference can affect them. Don’t rush through your bedtime routine but make sure it happens at the same time every night so your child can feel more able to handle the next day’s emotions.
  11. Don’t overload your weekends. It can be tempting to want to do a lot of activities and fun things on the weekend to make up for family time. But scheduling in a ‘duvet day’ every weekend when your child can just play at home and relax may be just what they need to re-energise for the week ahead. Think in terms of what we as adults need to prepare for a working week. It’s never wise to overload your weekend and then go into Monday with a hangover. Children need rest and relaxation as well.
  12. Finally, talk to your child’s teacher if you need to. If tantrums are happening fairly regularly, have a chat with your child’s teacher and make sure they’re keeping an eye out for things that might be frustrating but which she is not able to express.

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