Shortly after my daughter started junior kindergarten, she had her first ever after school emotional meltdown, and while temper tantrums certainly weren’t anything new to me by that point in our lives (hello, Terrible Twos and Trying Threes!), I remember feeling completely at a loss. She’d seemed so happy when she saw me at school pick-up that afternoon, but when I pulled into the grocery store parking lot instead of driving straight home, all hell broke loose.
Now, I realize the grocery store is the last place a child wants to go to after a long day at school, and while I initially blamed her outburst on my poor meal planning skills, that wasn’t the last after school emotional meltdown she threw.
Not by a long shot!
The good news is that most of my university friends had kids well before me, and when I mentioned the after school meltdowns that started to dominate our afternoons a few weeks later, my mom friends were quick to tell me it was 100% normal.
As it turns out, most kids experience an after school emotional meltdown at some point during their school career, and after talking and researching about it ad nauseam, and then experimenting with different strategies with my daughter, I’m happy to say after school tantrums are (mostly) a thing of the past in our household.
What Is An After School Emotional Meltdown?
While there is no textbook definition as to what an after school emotional meltdown looks like, they’re pretty easy to spot once you’ve experienced a couple. Your child may be more moody than usual, she may seem irritable and cranky, and you may notice her crying over seemingly inconsequential things. Keep in mind that each child has a unique way of displaying her feelings, and while some kids become whiny and clingy and benefit from hugs and snuggles, others may become defiant and explosive and require a bit of alone time before they’re able to calm down.
Why Is My Kid Overwhelmed After School?
Before we start discussing strategies to minimize the possibility of your child having an after school emotional meltdown, let’s take a few moments to discuss why they happen in the first place so you can identify triggers and put together a plan to help your child regulate her emotions when she’s feeling out of sorts.
Exhaustion. The beginning of a new school year can be extremely overwhelming for kids, especially if they’ve been lounging around watching TV all summer and have gotten used to a later bedtime. Not only are they physically exhausted after a long day at school, but they are mentally exhausted too, making it difficult for them to focus on extracurricular activities, homework, and/or household tasks.
School anxiety. If your child struggles with school refusal and separation anxiety, her after school meltdowns may be fueled by the fact that she’s been trying to keep her emotions and worries in check all day. Don’t take her after school outbursts personally and instead see them for what they are: a release of all of the feelings she’s kept bottled up inside all day. Remember that you are her safe place, and instead of focusing on diffusing her after school tantrums, get to the root of the anxiety instead. We’ve got some ideas HERE.
Overstimulation. Whether you have a young child who is just transitioning to school and/or a child with sensory sensitivities, remember that school can be extremely overstimulating. Classrooms are loud and bright, and there are a lot of different activities going on simultaneously, which can quickly lead to sensory overload for some kids.
Lack of movement. It’s no secret that kids like to move around a lot, and if you have a child who is extra busy, sitting at a desk for hours at a time may be absolutely excruciating for her, and her explosive behavior at the end of the day could simply be a result of her need to release her pent up energy.
Transitions. One of my teacher friends once told me her kindergarten classroom can have upwards of 13 different transitions throughout the school day (!!!!), and while some kids can move from one activity to another with ease, others really struggle with this skill, leaving them feeling frustrated and irritable by the end of the day. If this sounds like your child, we have 10 great tips for helping kids of all abilities with transitions HERE.
Rules. There are a lot of different rules to follow throughout the school day, and with 30 or more children to a classroom, teachers are often pretty strict when it comes to enforcing said rules. This can be extremely frustrating for kids, especially when they’re used to getting their way with mom and dad, and they may lash out and push the boundaries a bit more when they get home at the end of the day.
Bullying. If you notice your child suddenly trying to get out of going to school, and/or she seems more withdrawn or distant at the end of the school day than she used to be, don’t discount the idea that she may be having challenges with one or more of the kids in her class. We’ve got 9 tips to help identify and rectify bullying at school HERE.
How to Get to the Root of After School Meltdowns
In order to fully assess which things trigger an after school emotional meltdown in your child, I suggest tracking her behavior over the course of 1-2 weeks using an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence Chart, or ABC Chart, which is really easy to use, and incredibly powerful in determining the root cause of challenging behaviors.
Each time your child has an after school meltdown, take a few minutes to write down the ABCs of that specific behavior:
Antecedent: The events that occurred before the behavior happened.
Behavior: Your child’s response to the antecedent.
Consequence: What happened after the behavior to either encourage/hinder a repeat of the situation.
The idea is to track the same behavior – in this case, the after school emotional meltdown – multiple times to determine if there are any consistencies, and then formulate a plan to change the antecedent and/or consequence to ensure the poor behavior stops happening. You can also use this tool to determine if the antecedent and/or consequence is out of your child’s control (i.e. sensory sensitivities) or if your child is just being a kid and acting out.
Parenting Tips to Ease After School Frustrations
Now that we’ve identified a list of different reasons why your child may be prone to throwing an after school emotional meltdown, let’s discuss different strategies you can use to help prevent them from happening in the first place.
Make sleep a priority. If your child is prone to after school meltdowns, one of the first things I suggest doing is evaluating her sleep habits. If you need to wake your child up in the mornings and/or you find her feeling groggy and irritable when she first gets out of bed, an earlier bedtime may be something to consider. This is especially important at the beginning of a new school year when kids are transitioning from lazy summer days to demanding school schedules. If at all possible, try cleaning up your child’s sleep routine 2+ weeks before the first day of school to ensure she’s well-rested and ready for the transition.
Pack a comfort item. My daughter has struggled with various levels of school anxiety at different stages throughout the past few years, and one thing I have found extremely helpful is ensuring she takes a comfort item with her to school each day. We’ve tested many different ideas, and the one thing that has worked the best is a ‘worry necklace’. My daughter puts her necklace on each morning before school, and when she feels anxious, she simply rubs the pendant of her necklace and sends the worries my way so I can fret over them for her. I came up with this idea on the fly shortly after she started grade 1, and it has had such a huge impact on her ability to cope with her worries when I’m not with her. Give it a try!
Bring a snack to school pick-up. After my daughter’s first after school emotional meltdown, I reached out to my mom friends for some quick fixes, and many of them swore up and down that their child’s after school tantrums have always been fueled by hunger. I wasn’t convinced at the time, but decided to give it a try, and I consistently find that my daughter is much better at regulating her emotions after school when she’s not ‘hangry’. I try to keep non-perishable snacks in my purse at all times, and on the days I don’t have time (or forget) to grab something before heading to school pick-up, I suggest a mom-and-me date at our local coffee shop so my sweet girl can get a treat (and I can get a much-needed coffee)!
Avoid after school errands. As tempting as it is to hit the grocery store, fill the car up with gas, stop at the bank machine, and run other seemingly mundane errands on the way home from school pick-up, I urge you not to. Remember that your child is tired and in need of some downtime after a long day of sitting still, following rules, and trying to keep her emotions in check, and try to organize your day such that you run errands while your little one is at school or in bed for the night. And on the days this is simply not possible, save your errands until after dinner when your child is fed and has had a chance to unwind.
Listen to what your child needs. While some kids need to run off steam at the end of a long day at school, others crave time alone. Figure out what works for your child and make it a part of your daily routine. If your little one needs an outlet for all of the energy she’s kept bottled up all day, hit the park or enroll her in her favorite sports program after school. If she prefers a little downtime, go straight home and set her up with a snack and her favorite book or TV show.
Choose extracurriculars wisely. We live in a world where we’re encouraged to over-schedule ourselves and our children, and while extracurricular activities offer a great way for our kids to focus on the things they’re passionate about while also cultivating friendships outside of school, remember to use your best judgement before making commitments. If you find your child’s after school meltdowns are fueled by her inability to sit still all day, enrolling her in extracurricular activities may help her blow off steam before heading home to tackle homework. On the flip side, if you find your child is tired, cranky, and moody at school pick-up, it may be best to avoid after school activities completely, or organize them for weekends instead.
Be clear and consistent. If your child is used to getting her own way at home and you notice her struggling to keep up with all of the rules that are imposed on her at school each day, it may be time for some tough love. Reach out to your child’s teachers to ask for examples of the rules your little one struggles with the most throughout the day, and start enforcing them at home to ensure greater continuity. Be clear about your expectations, provide regular reminders, and remember that the key to good behavior is consistency.
Make quality time a priority. My last tip for breaking the after school emotional meltdown cycle is to set aside 15+ minutes with your child each evening to spend uninterrupted, quality time together. Shut down your laptop, silence your smartphone, turn off the TV, and give 100% of yourself to your child so she doesn’t need to act out in order to get your attention. Remember that this doesn’t need to be complicated – it just needs to be deliberate. CLICK HERE for 75 fun, inexpensive, and spur-of-the-moment ways you can spend quality time with your child every single day.
Whether your child has the occasional after school emotional meltdown, or struggles to regulate her emotions every single afternoon, remember that it’s normal. Your child is allowed to feel overwhelmed, and simply lacks the ability to express her feelings in a more appropriate way. Instead of blaming yourself and your parenting skills, take the time get to the root of the issue and find ways to be proactive instead of reactive to make after school meltdowns more manageable for everyone.
And on those days when your little one is having a tough time despite your best efforts, I urge you to remember these helpful words by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
‘Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.’
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