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Afterschool Meltdowns: How to handle them

With fall comes a new school year and new routine for many families. Regardless of the type of school your child attends, this transition can trigger some big feelings and major meltdowns. Traditional schooling forces families to hit the “reset” button twice a year.

So what can you do to help ease this transition and show up for your child in the way they need?

I’m going to give you some ideas, but first let’s do some ground work by exploring things from your child’s perspective. During their time away from you your child is working really hard on some important self-regulation skills. It can be a real challenge for them! The two areas they are doing the most work in are emotional regulation and impulse control.

Emotional regulation

They may be sad to be apart from you and also feeling the pressure of holding it all together until your return. (Cue meltdown mode!). They may be learning new dynamics among friends they have never been around before. They could also be processing feelings about the expectations their teachers have for them, which makes them feel emotions they haven’t experienced before. If you have a particularly empathic child, these experiences can be even more amplified as they are constantly sifting through the energy of those around them, in addition to their own.

Impulse control

Around their peers, your child is learning when it’s acceptable and not acceptable to act on how they feel. Because their prefrontal cortex is still under developed, they often act on impulses which elicit unfavorable responses. This can range from big situations to smaller, less obvious situations. It could be simply speaking out of turn, where they get a firm look from the teacher or a “shh” from their peer. Or it could be acting out physically toward a peer, where they are then sternly reprimanded by an authority figure.

No matter the situation, children are faced with many opportunities to hold back, and it can be hard work! For many kids, restraint is happening most of the school day. Since they haven’t yet gained the tools to verbally process all of their emotions and experiences, children tend to act out where they feel most safe… which is with you! This is an attempt for co-regulation and you can read about that HERE.

Here is what you can do to help support them and reduce the afterschool meltdowns:

-Offer a snack right away (children are often too distracted to eat well while with their peers so they could be experiencing low blood sugar.)

-Offer unstructured playtime such as park play, art, block building, Play-doh, sand play, or a child led outdoor walk. Sensory play is a great way for children to process through feelings and emotions. You can also check out my list of Maximum Effort Activities here.

-Create invitations to play or read. Prior to pick up, you can set out a couple of their toy sets or some books you know they enjoy. Strong willed children enjoy having choices so if you can provide a gentle “suggestion” that they think is their own idea, it can increase their willingness to engage.

*I can’t say enough about my 6 year old’s Leap Reader book set! It really helps in those moments when he needs to decompress. Kid friendly podcasts can be helpful too!

-Loosen up on discipline for the first hour or two after school. This doesn’t mean it has to be a free-for-all, but it’s best to pick your battles. If you have a “Type A” personality like I do, this can be a challenge! It helps to take a few deep breaths while in the pick-up line, and to try using a whisper voice when I do have to set a boundary. Those Love and Logic tools come in really handy here! Strong willed children tend to do really well with delayed consequences.

-Consider offering a transition period where you pick them up early or allow them to miss 1-2 days a week while they are getting used to the new routine. Depending on their temperament and life experiences, some children really struggle with new routines. If your little one is having meltdowns that last an excessive amount of time or if they are happening exceptionally more often than before, this could be a sign that they need a little more support as they ease into it. Of course, it would be important to discuss this with their teachers and come up with a game plan.

Remember that behavior is communication so it can be helpful to think “What is my child asking me for in these moments?”

Keep in mind that your child’s personality plays a role. Generally speaking when a child expresses big emotions they are asking 1 of 2 questions (sometimes both):

1. What do I have control of? (the need for autonomy)

2. Where is my boundary? (the need for security)

If you need help brainstorming how to set boundaries within loving limits, please book a session with me. I’m here for you!


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