When you pick your child up from school, does your child meltdown? Don’t worry. This is totally normal. Find out why self-regulation is so hard for children as well as simple, powerful strategies to promote calmness.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that conversation. It actually kind of caught me off guard.
I was volunteering at my five-year-old daughter’s end of the year school picnic. A classmate of hers barely tripped. Almost instantly, the child fell to the ground crying. My daughter’s two teachers shot each other a subtle look before one attended to the fallen child.
Having seen my children’s own melodrama unfold many times before, I smiled. I looked at the other teacher and nodded, “I bet this happens a lot.”
“Oh, yes!” she lightheartedly chuckled, “Except with your daughter.”
She turned to me, “Except with your daughter. She never cries.”
My daughter’s kindergarten teacher is known for her deadpan nature. Waiting for her to break into a smile, she continued to look at me straight-faced.
Sensing my confusion with what she was saying, her teacher went on to tell me how my daughter helps other kids who are hurt and insists all of their owies are in need of ice from the office. But that’s the extent of it.
This is definitely different from how she is when she isn’t at school.
When I pick her up, I have to tread very lightly. I make sure to give her something to eat right away. I’ve also learned not to ask about her day until she starts talking about it. I need to take her lead.
[Related reading: Parenting a Sensitive Child: Empowering Strategies for Difficult Emotions]
But it’s not just her.
Just over two weeks ago, my oldest son started kindergarten. His teacher has raved about how well he’s done. But last night, after eating me out of house and home… he exploded. He was screaming, unwilling to play or be reasoned with.
Related reading: Calming an Angry Child: Positive Parenting Strategies that Work!
Empathy and listening did nothing. I ended up taking him to my room and held him until he calmed down.
This morning, he was bright eyed and bouncy as if none of it had ever happened. In fact, he was thrilled at the prospect of another day at school.
Don’t get me wrong, I sort of ‘get it.’
I understand that kids are tired after school. Nevertheless, I felt like this dissonance between what my kids’ teachers were experiencing and how my kids were after school deserved greater investigation. Why is it that children can be pillars of composure at school and then cease to function afterward?
After School Meltdowns: Why is my Child so Grouchy After School?
If you too wonder if your child may the real-life version of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, fear not. It turns out five-year-old meltdowns, or after school meltdowns for older children, are perfectly normal.
Dr. Heather Wittenberg explains,
Children save their best — and worst — for us, as parents. They’re their “true selves” with us. It takes energy to “be good” and follow the rules — especially for young children — so when they get home, they let it all hang out.
When they’re at school, children work especially hard at self-regulating.
Self-regulation requires the control of two inner facets. The first is emotional regulation. In the classroom, children must refrain from hitting out of anger. And they try not to cry when they’re hurt. They try hard to keep it together. In contrast, when a child is at home all day, he is more comfortable to express any emotion he feels. He feels less inhibited and is more inclined to throw a puzzle piece when it isn’t fitting just right or scream when his sister is in his personal space.
Self-regulation also requires the control of impulses. At school, a child must wait in line, follow the classroom routine, sit still when she is told, and so more. She can’t simply grab her lunch whenever she so chooses or cut in front of the line to get to gym class faster. In contrast, when she’s at home, she can eat when she feels like eating and lie down when she feels like lying down and jump when she feels like jumping.
As adults, we can relate. At work, we act in accordance with the expectations of our work day. When we’re outside of the home in general, we certainly act differently than at home. The difference between us and our kids is that this now comes naturally to us. We’ve had decades of experience at doing this.
For young children, the self-regulation that is needed when they’re away from the comfort of their parents is arduous.
Throw in the fact that they’re at school learning, navigating new friendships, lessons, and expectations. On top of it, they are away from home all day. Really, it’s no wonder kids unravel after school.
Related reading: Practical Strategies to get Ahead of After School Meltdowns
Self-Regulation Strategies: What can you do to promote calmness after school?
In my experience, there is no cure-all. As a parent, I can do everything possible to make the evening go well and there can be loads of tears. But, overall, there are some very effective strategies to promote self-regulation in young kids and avoid after-school meltdowns.
First, ask yourself, have their basic needs been met? After school, I absolutely need to make sure my kids have a snack on the way home from school. This gets their blood sugar up before they get in the door. Sometimes, the need to lie down and rest either with or without me.
- Avoid asking about their day until they’ve had the chance to relax a bit.
Invite them to partake in quiet activities. Doing puzzles, painting, colouring, and playing with play dough can be a nice way to unwind.
Set up an invitation to play. Or, bring out an old box of forgotten toys and let them play open-endedly.
Go play outside. Fresh air and a chance to blow off steam can be a game changer.
- No matter, be patient and model calmness. I have to remind myself repeatedly that I can only control my reaction.
I hope these strategies help!
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