For most parents, the so-called after-school meltdown needs no explanation. But knowing what it is and knowing how to handle the emotional eruption are two different things.
Global’s Laurel Gregory went to registered psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe for some advice on how to handle the tears, tantrums and silent treatment school pick-up can bring.
Laurel Gregory: What’s behind the after-school – or after-daycare – meltdown in the first place?
Dr. Vanessa Lapointe: The idea is that our children actually need us in order to kind of regulate their bodies and manage their emotions and all of those kinds of things. And when we are away from them for the course of the day, whether it’s the six hours they are away at school or a full day at daycare, they are following the rules and minding their Ps and Qs and doing all of those things in the absence of us, which is fine but it will deplete their coping reserves. The idea is because we are their caregiver, their number one, we become their chosen comforter which means that when we pick them up they will probably have this rush of being thrilled to see us – although you might not even get that – and then they fall into you as the chosen comforter. Which means that they are going to dump on to you all of the stuff that they’ve been building up through the course of the day as well as a little bit of a pushback that we call defensive detachment, which really is akin to, ‘You left me the whole day to deal with all this stuff by myself so now I gotta little something to say to you about that!’ Hence, the after-school meltdown.
LG: I imagine the behaviours will show up differently if you are two versus 10 or even 13, but is the reason the same?
VL: That’s right. So at the end of the day, if your child is having that kind of meltdown upon pick-up or shortly thereafter, then very likely it’s connected to everything we just talked about. And given their age and stage, it might drip out differently or explode out differently.
Your little ones are likely to have very body-involved tantrums where they are throwing things and getting a little more physical. Your older ones, it might become a little more verbal or a little more non-verbal where you are getting the stony cold, silent treatment and those kinds of things as they retreat inward to – ‘argh!’ – kind of process their upset.
LG: Is there anything you can do in the morning? I know for me it’s a miracle that I get (to work) with clothes on sometimes, so I don’t want to put too much on parents but, at the same time, is there something we could be doing in the morning to kind of ease that end of day stuff?
VL: The morning is going to become about preventive care. Lots of parents will say exactly what you said which is, ‘The mornings are crazy already!’ My invitation to parents is: might you set your alarm – even if it’s 10 minutes earlier – and really hold that 10 minutes as sacred connection time.
The idea is that we all sort of have this connection cup that needs to be topped up and if your child is really struggling with the after-school meltdown, it means that the connection cup is getting a little too empty over the course of the day.
So if you can take a bit of time in the morning to snuggle in and read a story, share a warm cup of something in your kitchen, share a meal together — just have some cozy connected time in the morning to try and top your child up before you send them out into the world to manage with the expectations and the demands that will be upon them while they are away from you.
LG: How about how to handle the actual ‘blah’ at the end of the day?
VL: The biggest thing with handling the actual ‘blah’ at the end of the day is to remember where it is coming from. It is coming from a place of, ‘I missed you, I needed you, and I am so glad you are here.’ So when you hear those things, there is nothing in there that requires discipline or requires consequencing or timing out or any of those things. The number one piece then around that becomes, make sure you create a big invitation for the child to dump all of their frustration about the day. That’s not to say that you’re going to allow your child to wail on you or throw things at you, but that you are going to say, ‘I really get that you’ve had a hard day. It looks like you are super frustrated. I’m here. I can help you. Come with me.’ And you start to move into that caregiving kind of approach.
LG: Do you think that it’s an aggravating factor that parents are coming home with their connection cups pretty empty? And also, what’s for dinner? I have seven minutes to make dinner! Just the busyness.
VL: Yeah, I think so. And what I’m always reminded of – even myself as a mother – is that in this dynamic I’m the grownup. So if I am feeling this at the end of a long day, imagine what it must feel like for a child whose brain is – by definition – still immature and still kind of coming online in terms of being able to manage all of these pieces by themselves. So it’s my job right now to kind of shelve all my grumpy grumps about that and really show up for my kid.
We know from the science of child development that connection is more important than anything. It is the foundation for healthy child development and from that foundation everything else goes and grows.
So even if you are like, ‘But I really need to get dinner on the table, could you just chill out for a few minutes while I get this sorted out’ – know that your primary job is to show up and be that connection source for them. Dinner can wait. Pull a box of crackers out of the cupboard if you need to top up an empty little tummy because you are going to be delaying dinner, but show up with your heart first and the rest will follow.