Dealing with End of School Day Moods & Meltdowns

Aug 31, 2023

With kids going back to school, do you wonder what mood they’re going to come home in at the end of the day and nervous about what you’re going to get?

When kids are little, most parents dread the “witching” hour that often happened later in the day.  As parents, we often want to wind down as the day goes on — but late afternoon to early evening is often when children are extra sensitive and fussy and parents need to be even more on top of their game.

The “witching hour” term is most commonly applied to babies and toddlers, but it can happen to kids of all ages and for school-age kids you often see it right after school.  It’s so common that parenting educator Andrea Loewen Nair came up with a name for it.  She calls it after-school restraint collapse and it’s a very real thing for many parents.

It is not uncommon for parents to tell me that they are shocked to hear that their children are absolute angels at school, because their kids are a hot mess at home.  These parents dread the end of the school day because they never know what they’re going to get.  More often than not their child loses it in one way or another.  Some kids may cry, some kids yell and throw things, while older kids might act rude and disrespectful.

I explain that kids are faced with all sorts of challenges, disappointments, and expectations all day in school, and they have to manage to hold it together all on their own. It’s exhausting to navigate through it all by themselves.  All of those emotions get bottled up, and they let it all out when they get back home where they feel safe.

I remind parents that kids have to keep their prefrontal cortex online all day to maintain self-control and to pay attention. Operating from that part of your brain uses up more energy than a physical workout, and our kids are working hard to hold it together all day long.  No wonder they’re exhausted by the time they get home.

Not all kids experience after-school restraint collapse, but some are more susceptible than others.  You’re more likely to see it with kids that struggle with BIG feelings and those that have learning and social skill challenges.  These kids generally have to work harder to keep it together in school, so their self-control bucket is completely drained by the time they get home.

So how do you deal with moods and meltdowns at the end of the school day?

Know up front that when you try to talk a child through a bad mood or heightened emotions, your child is more likely to escalate than calm down.

The alternative is to just be present for them when they come home from a bad day at school.  Accept their frustration or pain, and don’t try to solve it.  

Just give them room and validate that it was a long day.  Be open to sitting with them as they yell, and say “It sounds like you’ve had a really tough day.”

As a parent, dealing with a meltdown can be extremely frustrating and stressful, especially if your child is throwing out insults.  That said, do your best to not get triggered or take it personally.  Meltdowns are one way that your child can release their pent up emotions from the day, as long as they are not hurting anyone or anything around them.

Is there anything you can do to avoid the end of school day moods and meltdowns?

Start by giving your child some time and space after they get off the bus or you pick them up.  Greet them with a smile and a hug, and don’t launch into questions.  If you’re driving, consider putting the radio on low and stay quiet.  If you’re picking up from the bus, you might comment on some pretty flowers as you walk by, but for the most part work on not talking.  Leave open space for your child to have some quiet time to decompress.

Have water and a healthy snack ready for them as soon as they walk in the door.  Having cut up veggies, fruit, cheese, chicken cubes or turkey roll-ups ready in a container in the fridge can be an easy way to help kids refuel.  Again, remember to keep the questions and talking to a minimum as they eat.

For kids that commonly struggle with end of day meltdowns, you might also consider cutting back on after-school playdates or activities to give your child space and time to wind down.

In September we are doing a deep dive into how to CONNECT more with our kids now that they’re back in school in the Confident Parenting Club.  We’ll discuss why it’s so important, common parenting mistakes that make kids distant and disconnected, how to deal with after school meltdowns, and easy ways to connect more even when you’re pressed for time.  Click here to learn more about the CPC and make this the best year yet! 

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