After School Meltdowns: Why they happen and what to do about it
If you have a school aged child, then you no doubt know all about after school meltdowns. They seem to come from nowhere, with no warning and no obvious trigger. Sometimes they start with an argument with a sibling during the car ride home. Sometimes it’s when you ask your child a simple question when you walk in the front door. And sometimes it seems to start from the moment you greet them at school.
And what makes these meltdowns even more confusing for us as parents, is that the feedback from the teacher is generally that your child has had a good day. A good week. A good term. That they are settling in well to their new classroom. That they are polite and respectful during class. That they are making friends and getting along well with others. That they have been an absolute dream.
So then who is this child who is coming home with you? Why are you seeing a completely different picture? Is it you?
Well, yeah. Kinda. But not in the way you might think.
Why do after school meltdowns happen?
After school meltdowns are ultimately a self regulation issue. Self regulation is our ability to manage our stress levels – to navigate our way back to baseline after something brings our nervous system out of balance. All day long your child’s system (and yours too) moves through different states of regulation. It moves away from and then back towards baseline, in response to different stressors, over and over again – usually without too much disruption to your child’s day.
And all nervous systems (but especially immature ones) require a little bit of support to do this. So when your child is with you – their responsive caregiver who they feel attached to – they experience the process of co-regulation. This means that your regulated nervous system help their dysregulated nervous system return to baseline after a stressor occurs.
So when they attend school, and they are separated from you, regulation becomes more difficult for your child. They do not have you to help them co-regulate. And in fact, for many children, your absence becomes a stressor itself – because you are their safe space.
So what happens at school?
School is, by definition a stressful place for an immature nervous system. It’s loud. There are lots of people. Bright lights. New rules to learn. Lots of expectations. Unfamiliar people. Less opportunities to move their bodies. Demanding cognitive tasks that require a lot of focus and attention. A ton of new learning and information to process.
And of course, there’s social stress too. Children have to navigate new social relationship and process social cues while also keeping their own behaviour in check. And yes, even if your child enjoys these social interactions, they are still stressful for the nervous system because they move it away from baseline and require your child to expend a large amount of energy getting back into balance.
And of course, there’s the ultimate stressor. Your child is separated from you – their safe place – while they experience the full spectrum of tricky emotions: excitement, nervousness, disappointment, frustration, anger, happiness and even fear. So yeah. School is stressful for kids.
The tipping point
In the absence of you, your child moves further away from their baseline with each small stressor they experience during the day. They enter a crowded, noisy classroom – up goes their stress. The teacher gives them a warning to stop talking – up goes their stress. The canteen ran out of their favourite drink and they feel disappointed – up goes their stress. Their socks keep falling down into their shoes – up goes their stress. Their friend doesn’t want to play the same game as them at lunchtime – up goes their stress. They don’t get their usual quiet time after lunch because there is an assembly – up goes their stress.
And you are not there to co-regulate with them, so the stress goes up, but it doesn’t come back down. At least not all the way back to baseline. Which means that each time one of these events occurs, your child get closer and closer to their tipping point. Except they don’t feel safe to let out their big emotions at school, so they use up all the energy they have left to hold it together. To push those big feelings down and battle through.
Until you come to pick them up. And it all comes spilling out. Because now they feel safe.
So what can you do about it? Well, it all comes down to effectively reducing your kiddos stress.
What to do about after school meltdowns
1. Feed them
None of us is at our best when we’re hungry and tired. Hunger is a significant stressor for us humans, especially the little ones. So getting some nutritious, healthy and filling food into your kiddos as soon as possible after school will help lower their stress and lessen the likelihood (or at least reduce the intensity) of after school meltdowns.
2. Keep conversation to a minimum
After a long day away from our kids, we naturally want to catch up on their day. But your child is tired. And they may not feel like talking. In fact, when you begin to ask them questions, you may even push them away further. You are trying to re-connect, but to a tired child, your questions just feel like an interrogation.
So instead of grilling your child about their day, try a simple “I really missed you today” or “I was thinking of you all day” and then give them space to offer up any information they might want to tell you. If they don’t have any, that’s ok. They may need to walk home in silence, or listen to their favourite music in the car instead. Sometimes we all just need a bit of space from our day before we talk to someone about it.
3. Allow for down time
If your child is particularly prone to an after school meltdown, then scheduling more activities, appointments or play dates immediately after school may not be the best thing for them. They need time to decompress and rest, and rushing them off to further commitments after school may just be too much for them, no matter how much they enjoy them in the moment. So try scheduling in some down time immediately after school, and push those playdates back a little, or even save them for the weekend! Instead, encourage your child to do something they enjoy that reduces their tension and helps them feel re-energised. It could be reading a book, riding their bike, drawing or colouring, climbing a tree or listening to music – whatever works for your child.
4. Connect before you correct
Have you ever found yourself walking in the front door and immediately barking orders at your child? Instructing them to put away their school bag, do their homework, or pick up their discarded shoes or jumper from the doorway? Yep, me too! But try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Sometimes when you get home from work, don’t you just want to sit and rest first before you do all the other stuff on your to do list? Kids are the same. They need time to reconnect with you after a long day apart. Give them a hug, sit down and have a snack together, or play with them instead. Once their cup has been re-filled, they’ll be more likely to comply with your requests to pick up their shoes anyway.
During the meltdown:
1. Hold space for emotions
Despite your best efforts to keep things calm and reconnect with your child after school, meltdowns will still happen. And that’s ok. Sometimes all of that pent up emotion just needs a release. Your job then, will simply be to allow it to happen safely. The meltdown is an indication that their stress levels have reached a point where they can no longer contain their emotions. They have reached their tipping point. Punishing your child or trying to squash their emotions in this moment will only cause them further stress and make the meltdown worse.
2. Validate how they feel
Next, try to respond with empathy to your child. They’ve had a difficult day. Let them know that you understand how they’re feeling and that you’re there to help. That may sound like this, “You had a tough day today, huh? I’m right here with you.” And then stay close. And wait. This time is not the time for problem solving, for using calming strategies or for any kind of reasoning with your child. They just need you to witness how they’re feeling.
After the meltdown:
Once your child is completely calm, you can offer them a chance to talk about what happened. But if they’re not ready to talk to you right away, that’s ok too. Sometimes they don’t have any idea what contributed to the meltdown anyway, they just know that it felt big and overwhelming. You can work on slowly building up their self awareness with tools like The Mindful Little Calm Down Kit. Now is the time for problem solving. Talk to them about what they can do next time they feel that way. And of course, let them know that you love them no matter what. Even when they have a meltdown!
How to prevent after school meltdowns:
While we can’t necessarily eliminate these meltdowns entirely (and nor do we need to), there are some things we can do to help our kids feel more safe, secure and connected to us while at school. When children go off to school with already elevated stress levels, it will take much less for them to reach that tipping point, so the goal in the morning is to reduce their stress levels as much as possible to allow them to self regulate more effectively throughout the day.
Start the day with connection
Focusing on filling up your child’s cup before they go to school means their stress will be lower and they will be feeling energised and ready to face the day. Try to eliminate chaos in the mornings with a clear and consistent routine that includes opportunities for connection. A snuggle in bed before everyone gets dressed, eating breakfast together, a story on the couch once everyone is ready to go. These small things can have a huge impact on your child and set the tone for the rest of their day.
Give them a transitional object
A transitional object is an item that helps your child feel comfort and security in your absence. I like to think of it as you sending a small piece of yourself to school with your child .It could be a picture of you together, a small item that reminds them of you that they can carry in their pocket, or a special note that you write and leave in their lunch box (see our lunch box notes for some fun ideas). It could even be a special transition ritual rather than an object. Maybe a sweet goodbye exchange, a special handshake or hug, or a secret way to say “I love you” at drop off.
The most important thing I want you to remember about your child’s after school meltdowns, is that they do not happen because you’re doing something wrong. In fact, quite the opposite. They happen because you are doing so much right. Your child feels safe and secure with you and you are doing an amazing job.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.