After School Meltdowns
Ok, so here's the scenario: you're picking up your kiddo from school, they come out happy to see you, you hug and ask how their day was and start chatting. Maybe you make it to the car, maybe you make it all the way home, but at some point the sweet child you know and love dissolves into a hot mess of tears, yelling, and hitting.
It is like they are a tornado of pent up emotion and energy and they are unleashing it ALL on you.
Does this sound familiar?
Me too! You definitely aren’t alone in this. I know it can be so overwhelming and confusing in the moment which is why I wanted to help you understand why this is happening and how you can approach these moments with compassion (for your child AND yourself) and respect.
WHY AFTER SCHOOL MELTDOWNS HAPPEN
There are two primary reasons after school meltdowns happen. The first is purely developmental. Traditional schooling requires children to use A LOT of self-regulation and executive functioning and is incredibly taxing on their growing brains and bodies. This is so common and developmentally normal that it even has a name: restraint fatigue or restraint collapse. At the end of the day after 8 hours of holding it together, sitting still, controlling impulses and emotions, and navigating complex social relationships with very little time to blow off steam or down-regulate (come back to balance), most kids are just DONE. This is even more true for a kid who is intense, sensitive, or strong-willed. School environments can also be overstimulating to some kids, which can be very hard on their nervous systems. Kids do well when they can, but by the end of the day they simply are out of resources to be able to do well.
The second reason is primarily relational. Quite simply, you are their safe place, the one person that they know without a shadow of a doubt will love them no matter what. All day long they have been holding it together and then they see you and you’re there loving them and hugging them and the flood gates just open. Everything they’ve been holding back, it all just comes pouring out. Now, if it came pouring out in tears and sadness none of this would likely be a problem; but often it doesn’t come out in soft negative emotions (which parents are usually more comfortable with). It comes out in anger, rage, and physical dysregulation (hitting, kicking, falling to the ground, running away). There are a couple reasons why it may happen this way. One possibility is that, because the rely on us as their safe place and they’ve been forced to cope without us most of the day that there is some pent up anger toward us for not having been there for them. Often you can sense this in the undertone or “feel” of their meltdown. These feelings are natural and are rooted in the attachment you have. It’s best to simply accept them, let them flow through you and release them on out, trusting that connection is on the other side. Another possible explanation is that kids who need our love the most often ask for it in ways that make them hard to love. It’s so important to keep in mind that when kids behave in unloving ways they are asking us the question of “Do you love me unconditionally, even when I’m like this?” And know our response in those moments answers that question louder and deeper than any “I love you” ever could.
So, now that we know WHY these meltdowns happen, how can we start supporting our kids to move through them with empathy, compassion, and respect?
First, understand that these meltdowns are NOT personal. They are developmental and physiological and say nothing about how your child feels about you or about your skills as a parent. If anything the fact that your child feels safe enough to let down in this way with you can reassure you that you’ve done something right. They trust you to love them unconditionally and to support them through this hard time.
Second, figure out what they need to “restock” their self-regulation stores, decompress, and to feel more grounded and balanced after a long day at school. Kids need to feel safe to let go and unwind and they feel safest and most secure with YOU! Usually a warm smile and hug (if your kiddo is a hugger and wants one) and a simple, “I missed you.” Is enough. Some kids like a cuddle and some shared reading or story telling. You know your kid best, so you likely already know just what they need to feel connected and grounded. Try not to pepper them with questions, give them some space and let them come to you. I know you’re excited to hear about their day, but they may need some time to process. Some kids need a snack immediately; something with a balance of carbs, protein, and healthy fats is usually best. Some kids need to release pent up energy, so walking home or playing on the playground may really help. Try to get them moving and laughing. Both are great ways to blow off steam and release pent up feelings and energy. They also may need some time just to PLAY. Independent play is incredibly healing for children of all ages, it’s their natural way to relax. Have one of their favorite things, like Lego, dollhouse, magnatiles, blocks, art supplies, sand tray, etc. out and ready to go for when they get home. 30 minutes of play won’t eat into homework time and it will do them so much good!
Third, hold space for their big feelings. The previous stuff was primarily about prevention, but what about when, despite your best efforts to help them soothe and heal from the day, they still have a meltdown? Well, I would love to see you shift your mindset about these meltdowns. Rather than see them as something bad that you want to avoid, if you can start to see them as a much needed and very healing release for your child, things will go much more smoothly. We all have times when we need to let it all out or get things off our chests, and we feel SO MUCH BETTER when we are finally able to. Your child is just the same and sometimes a big, healing cry is exactly what they need. People (and kids are people too!) often don’t need much from their loved ones in these moments other than their loving, connected, and compassionate presence. You don’t have to say much beyond “this was a hard day” or “I’m here, I hear you.” or simply a soothing “mmmmmm uhuh”. Some kids will want to snuggle as they release, some will want to blow off steam in private. Some will need to move through anger before softening and others may just collapse into tears. There is no “right” way to have an after school meltdown and our job as respectful parents is to simply respond to the child in front of us in this moment.
The best way to figure out what they need to feel better after a long day is to ask them!
They are, after all, the experts on their experience. It’s best to ask about this during a calm, connected time when they are well-rested and fed. Weekends can be a great time to make a plan for the following week. You can start the conversation by simply stating, “I’ve noticed you’ve been having a hard time after school lately. What’s up?” and going from there (no need to list all of the problem behaviors, they likely already know them).
So, what is your experience with after school meltdowns? What helps your kiddo unwind and decompress after a long day? Let me know in the comments below or join the discussion over in my Balanced Parenting Facebook Group!