When your child falls apart after school, it's hard to know what to do. Part of you wonders if they had a terrible day and there is something you need to know. Which inspires questions… Which results in complete collapse.
If you have children, you know that the time you pick your child up after school, or meet them after the bus ride can be very unpredictable. We all want to hear about the day, to reconnect, and set the tone for the rest of the day. And yet often that is not what happens. Sometimes, children come to the car and present as demanding, …you know, “Where is my snack?” “ Why were you the last one here?” or annoyed, “I don’t remember. Ugh!”. And this can flare our own stress, even hurt our feelings, and trigger worries about whether we have raised a respectful child. On the other hand, you might just get really quiet, non-responsiveness or cursory responses, ”Fine.” Sometimes, you might actually get to hear about their day – perhaps they unload everything that went wrong, maybe more than you can even respond to effectively.
On some occasions, there may be a full blown tantrum or argument, either right away, or as a result of your own response to something they said or did. It's exhausting, upsetting and disconnecting. And it leaves you both feeling badly. Let’s first break it down, so we can understand what is happening, consider some ways to connect at the end of school, or at the very least, not make things worse.
It helps to consider the amount of self control a child needs to get through the school day. They are expected to wait in lines, raise their hand and wait to speak, complete tasks, negotiate with friends, respond to teachers, and all while ensuring that they suppress certain instincts to yell, run off, play etc. As they are surrounded by peers and teachers, they may feel or know they will be judged if they don’t “keep it together”. And there is a finite amount of this self control. As an adult, consider the analogy of stopping at red lights on the way to work. You are running late, and you hit every light. You are frustrated. And yet you continue to stop. And when you hit that 5th red light in a row, you are more likely to run through it. And your stress level impacts that as well. If you are feeling calm, you are more likely to push through a bit longer. And if stress is high, you are more likely to run that red light, yell, or maybe just snap at anyone who may be in the car with you, or who adds any demand on you. By seeing this in your child, it does help to feel less attacked and to expect a bit less after school.
Note that when a child experiences anxiety or stress, cortisol is released in the brain. These forms of stress and anxiety could be worrying if their friend will play with them, not understanding what to do, being corrected, or feeling rejected. When that stress is released, it stays in the body for up to 3 hours. So it’s cumulative. And yes, they may have experienced some relief from that, things that lower the stress response – when they felt understood by a teacher or peer, when they released stress hormones through physical activity, or when they were able to effectively express how they felt. Chances are throughout the day, they may not have been able to express themselves at times, may not have felt understood at each moment, and they probably need even more time to move. It helps to know that this stress response is not aimed at you, but simply a release of that stress in a safe place.
So, you may be thinking…”Ok, so you are telling me just to take it when my child snaps at me or insults me? And how do I know if something is really wrong, beyond the normal challenges of school and social life?” Your stress may be rising, even reading this now. These are great points. You can put boundaries on the behaviors AND also show understanding for what they are feeling without judgment. By doing so, you are more likely to get to the root of the problems.
Setting boundaries has to be really neutral and concrete…because judgment will only add to the stress. Make your expectations or boundaries clear. Tell your child what TO DO instead, to prevent them from doing things that hurt you, a sibling, or make them feel worse, “Keep your hands and feet to yourself.” “Ask me for the snack in a tone like this please.” “Tell me if you don’t want to talk yet.” This is more effective than telling them what not to do, such as “Stop yelling!”, or “Don’t bother your sister”. Or “You are being rude” or even, “Why are you so angry?”.
Along with those boundaries, express an understanding of what they may be experiencing through empathy. This might sound like, “It’s been a long day and you were wondering where I was.” or “You are just so hungry and tired.” or “You are not ready to talk about today.” By doing so, you are interrupting the cortisol and allowing for the brain to calm. This may result in telling you more, or simply feeling better and less reactive. Empathy is NOT a question and it is NOT connected to a “but I just wanted to know about your day”. To truly calm the stress response, empathy is simply stepping into their shoes as best you can and expressing it.
And your child may need reassurance. “You don’t have to talk right now.” “We can have a snack before we stop at the store”, “I’m not asking about whether you had any time outs.” Reassurance should be real – taking away an extra worry they may have, or taking down a demand, even temporarily.
If, at the end of this, you still are wondering how to find out more, choose a time that is calm to talk about school. Let them know that you are interested in their day because you don’t know much and wonder what they like or even what is hard. They may need to know your intention is not to check up on behavior (at least not every time!) and that you are able to handle the hard stuff, too.
Parents all want to be a safe place to land for our children, and also have our own needs met for how we are treated. It’s not easy. By recognizing when your child has reached their limit, setting clear expectations, AND offering understanding and reassurance, you can begin to create the environment you hope for at the end of the day.
Join us in our parent community with our brand new course, based on Mariposa Education’s proven method for building social emotional competence, with new content around growing levels of anxiety that children, and their parents, are facing. Or take a look at our self study course, and other resources at https://www.mariposaeducation.org/for-parents