Soon after my third kid started kindergarten, I ran into a classmate’s parent. I asked her how her son’s year was going and immediately sensed her trepidation. I quickly followed with, “I know mine is happy at school, but his behavior afterward at home is enough to make me cry!”
She sighed with relief. “Thank you! Us too!”
Does this sound familiar? Your kid works and plays hard at school all day. They get glowing reports from their teacher. Maybe you see joyful photo evidence on the class social media account. Then, they come home and morph into a whiny, grouchy, emotional mess. Kids hold on to their big feelings while away from home and then, literally, let them all go. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “after-school restraint collapse.”
With four kids attending school now, I’ve navigated after-school meltdowns for nearly a decade. Parents and caregivers have to stick together, so here’s what I’ve learned. I hope it helps you, too.
Have a snack ready.
I know how much leftover food I will find in my kids’ lunchboxes based on their moods when they get in the car after school. Extra grouchy = extra hungry. Eating at school is often rushed, and the kids are distracted. Our household embraced the “big snack plate” after school to make up for it. This means lots of fruit, veggies and hummus, cheese and crackers, or pretzels and peanut butter for the kids to grab after washing their grubby hands. While we try to stick with low-sugar snacks, some strategic chocolate chips are often involved. (This advance prep works for us because I work from home; I also know families who keep a snack stash in their cars or pack an extra Bento Box for after school. Any method to quickly get food into your kids’ hangry after-school bodies, do it!)
A few years into this game of after-school meltdowns, I noticed a pattern. My kids’ breaking point often happens when they step into the house. So, when our schedule and the weather allow, we stay outside after school and hit a local playground, beach, or trail. After a day full of sitting and listening, unleashing some energy in nature does everyone good. Plus, that snack can become a picnic!
Set up a low-stress play invitation.
This sounds fancy, but it just means leaving out something to entice kids into free play. The key is to keep the demands low. Avoid the LEGO set with the complicated directions, and instead go with fresh paper and sharp colored pencils, a set of watercolor paints, play dough and a few tools, or water and some cups and funnels in the sink. If my kids haven’t played with the magnetic tiles in a while, I might pull out our basket and leave it in the middle of the floor. Even choosing something to do can feel like too much for my kids after school, so having something relaxing and appealing waiting for them can help. This isn’t just for littles, either. Big kids who get pushed to their max at school need the chance to play, too!
Put them in water.
This is some of the oldest parenting advice for fussy toddlers, but it also works for school-age kids. If one of my kids is in a terrible mood after school and I can convince them to get in the shower or the bath, it almost always turns things around. The energy shift is totally worth the water bill. Plus, they’re in their jammies before I even serve dinner!
Snuggling up with a book together has always been my go-to way to connect with my kids. No, an after-school grouch-fest is not the best time to ask your kid to get going on those 20 minutes of reading practice their teacher assigned, but sharing a book together can help set the tone for a calmer end to your day. Often, something in the book gets my kids talking about their day, too, even if they claimed they did “nothing.”
Too busy making dinner to read? Set your kids up at the kitchen counter near you and turn on an audiobook for everyone to enjoy together while you chop veggies.
And remember: It’s because they love you.
It always bums me out that my kids’ teachers get the best of them at school, and then they fall apart the minute they get home to me. But I remind myself that I’d rather they collapse at home than while their teacher is teaching math. So grit your teeth and be their safe place. It’s a weird way to show it, but they love you for it.