“Mama, my day was hard.”
This is what my little guy lets me know when kindergarten is over…except he doesn’t tell me with words, not with those words anyway. Instead he tells me with tears, meltdowns, shouts, and sometimes a little swipe as he walks past his older sister.
Although I don’t condone this behaviour, I recognize that it’s developmentally appropriate. Children will develop better ways to express emotions, but right now they are simply not equipped to self-regulate, as they are so often expected to do.
Kindergarten can be a wonderful, rich experience for children. It can also be hard. It’s hard for children to hold on to their loved ones when apart for that long. It’s hard to hold it together for the whole day. It’s hard to navigate peer disagreements when your brain is not yet equipped to do so. And not only can it feel hard, but also it can feel LONG. (Heck, it can even feel long for adults - just ask any teacher!)
We look forward to seeing our little one at the end of the day, so if we’re met with tears and anguish, it can feel discouraging and difficult to handle, especially when we too may not be at our best. If we look only at the child’s behaviour and not what’s behind the behaviour, then we are likely to respond with punishment instead of compassion. If we use time-outs and take away special things to punish a child, then we inadvertently erode the trust in the parent-child relationship, sending the message that love is conditional upon behaviour.
“Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress” ~ The Gottman Institute
Resiliency is built when we allow children to move through these emotions. At the end of the school day, they often need to release built-up emotions that may not have been appropriate to release during the day. Home should be a safe place for children to express these feelings, without shame or punishment.
While supporting your children through their upsets is helpful for their emotional well being, you can prevent many of the after school meltdowns by supporting your children while they are away and creating opportunities to reconnect when they arrive home. Here are some things that we find helpful in our house:
· Help your child become attached to another caring adult in your absence. Young children have difficulty hanging on to us when we aren’t physically there. To cope with the separation, they need to attach to another loving adult, ideally their teacher or care provider. There are lots of things we can do to help nurture that attachment between teacher and child – see this article by Dr. Deborah MacNamara for tips on how to do this.
· Bridge the time you are apart. I write a note each day for my little ones to discover in their lunch box or pocket to remind them that I’m thinking of them. Sometimes, I give my youngest something of mine to hold on to until we’re together again. Lately, it’s been my hair band around his wrist. The idea is to you give your child a little something that connects them to you until you’re together again.
· Greet your child with open arms and a big smile. Whenever I see my kids after we’ve been apart, no matter what has happened in my day or theirs, I greet them with excitement. I give them my full attention, look them in the eyes and tell them how happy I am to see them. For a young child, their parents are their world. I want to make sure my children know that I feel the same about them.
· Make sure basic needs such as hunger and thirst are met. I like to arrive to pick up my kids with a healthy snack and fresh water in hand. None of us are at our best when our energy dips and little ones expend a lot of energy in the run of their school day. Refueling can help prevent meltdowns resulting from a blood sugar crash.
· Get outside (if you can) and play. There are a lot of rules at school to keep everyone safe, but children also need to play freely. On the days we can stay to play, I let the kids climb up the slide (and the trees), chase each other around and horseplay. Children aren’t civilized, and they aren’t supposed to be, so let them get their wild out either outside or at home.
· Disconnect to connect. They’ve been away from us all day, so when they first arrive home we put away all devices to give our children our full attention and focus on reconnecting. Quiet activities like reading together, drawing and building LEGO can help children settle into the evening, even if it’s just for twenty minutes.
· Don’t take their behaviour personally. If your children have big upsets when they walk through the door, remember that it isn’t about you, even though it can feel like it. Children often release their big feelings with the loving people they feel safest with.
· Have realistic, age-appropriate expectations. “With expectations that children should act like adults comes great disappointment when they act like children.” ~ Rebecca Eames. Children are not just little adults; their brains are still developing. Therefore, expecting young children to self-regulate is not a realistic expectation.
· Reduce Screen Time. Yes, there are definitely times that our children get to watch a show on Netflix, but we try to be mindful of keeping screen time to a minimum. Our preference is to put on an audio story (our favourite ones are Sparkle Stories). A friend introduced us to these when my daughter was two as an alternative to television, and six years later, she still asks for them when she needs some down time.
· Have a dinner plan. Your day is a long one, too, and the last thing most of us want to do at the end of a busy day is try to figure out what to make for dinner. So, take the guesswork out of dinner by making a weekly meal plan. We like to let the kids help where they can. (Of course, make sure you always have a few things on hand as an easy alternative when the dinner plan goes out the window.)
· Make sure your children get the rest they need. Protect bedtimes and bedtime routines whenever possible. Although it doesn’t always unfold the way we would like, we do strive to create a slow, calm lead up to bed. It often feels like we are rushing around all day long – to get out the door, to get to school, to get to ballet. I don’t want bedtime to feel rushed too. Allow an hour for bedtime routines, if you can.
Even if you’re the super mama that I know you are, no one can do all of these things all the time. And even if you can, they won’t always prevent an after school meltdown. The truth is, we aren’t meant to prevent these entirely; we don’t want to stifle those big feelings. Our job is to meet our struggling child with empathy and all the compassion we can muster at the end of the day. After all, our little ones can’t always say, “Mama, my day was hard”. But it’s our role as parents to decipher that message and to answer their call for help with a gentleness that speaks for itself - I hear you, your feelings are valid, and you are safe.
“When your child is having a meltdown, remember, it’s their crisis, not yours. Breathe deeply. Calm yourself. Then use a quiet voice and gentle hands to guide your little one through their crisis. That is living what you want them to learn.” ~ L.R. Knost