My 4 year old seems to pick fights with me when he comes home. Every day it's the same thing. I end up yelling and he ends up crying.

My 7 year old daughter comes home and immediately starts to whine. She doesn’t like the snack I prepared for her or she says she’s bored and has nothing to do. No matter what I do she falls apart and ends up having a tantrum.

My 6 year old comes home and refuses to do his homework, although it just takes a few minutes. He just starts to cry. This could go on for an hour!

Sound familiar? These kids are suffering from the after school meltdown.

This happens with preschoolers, but it can also happen when children start first grade and through elementary school. It is really hard for children to hold it together the whole day at school. There are a lot of rules to follow, a lot of sitting when kids would rather be moving, challenging work and social situations to navigate. Children are exhausted when they come home. They don’t know how to shift gears, they have a lot of pent up emotions and it all comes out with the person who they feel most comfortable with, you, the parent.

Here is what you need to know to navigate the after-school meltdown.

1.What your child is really saying:

Think about it, when you are tired and have had a long day you know you need some down time. You know what you need to do; you know what relaxes you. You might take cold drink, a shower, curl up on the couch with a good book, call a friend, take a walk etc. Many mothers that I have spoken to, who are coming home to a houseful of kids, take a few minutes for themselves before they get out of their car to just regroup and transition before they start the dinner rush.

Children don’t know this. They don’t understand what is happening to them. They don’t know why they are feeling the way that they are feeling and they don’t know how to manage their feelings. They are overwhelmed and out of control and are falling apart.

When your child starts with his complaints and then his tantrum he is really saying: “I am really tired. I had to listen to my teacher the whole day. Sometimes I understand the rules and sometimes I don’t. We learned a new math concept today and I didn't quite understand it and I was too embarrassed to ask for help. Eli didn't sit with me at lunch the way he usually does and seemed angry at me. I didn’t know what to do.”

As parents, we need to understand the message behind the words.

2. Demystify:

Find a quiet time to talk to your child. Make sure you are both calm. Then explain to them what is going on:

“You know what, some kids when they come home from school are so tired and have so many kvetchy feelings inside of them, nothing seems right to them. Not their snack, or any of their toys. They don't even feel like they can do their homework. They have so many tough feelings they just need to cry to get them out! If that happens to you, you can just let me know and we can find a place where you can go and do that. You should just know that this happens to a lot of kids, and its okay. I will make sure that you are safe. I am here for you.”

3. Use a parallel story:

If your child feels shy and uncomfortable talking about their feelings and shuts down, you can use a parallel story. You tell a story about another boy the same age who comes home from school and often cries. You can get really creative or it can be straightforward depending on your personality. The points that you want to really touch on is all the stuff that “the boy in the story” has to do in school that might be hard for him and how a mother and father always understand and that children can feel safe crying with their parents.

4. Teach children calming strategies:

After you have explained to him why he is having these tantrums you want to teach him how he relaxes best and how he can do that instead of having a tantrum. You can say:

“I am here after a long day and available if you need to cry. The best thing to do though is to figure out some things that can help you relax after a long day. There are lots of ways to get your kvetchy and tough feelings out of your body. Crying does help, but there are better ways. Do you want to hear what some other kids do?"

You can then list a few things like:

  • Take a break
  • Exercise
  • Read a book
  • Play on the playground
  • Build something
  • Dance
  • Draw or paint

You can also talk about places they could go to calm down:

  • A walk outside
  • Bedroom
  • Den
  • Another quiet place

If you are using a parallel story you definitely want to mention how the child in the story learned all the different ways that can help you get calm and how he found one that worked best for him.

5. More ideas:

Many parents have found that they can create a “calming box”, a variety of objects that they can use to help them calm down. The box can include a stress ball, sensory glitter bottle, gum, drawing books and crayons, playdough, and bubbles. Many classroom teachers have created a calm down space which can be recreated at home.

The calm down area can be a tent, a big oversized pillow, or a beanbag chair. You can also add an exercise ball, silly putty/playdoh, books, earphones, and a music player.

Children need compassion and understanding when they come home. They need to learn skills on how to manage all their rough feelings. Understanding why they act the way they do, demystifying their behavior for them, teaching them calming strategies can all help.