My Child is a Popsicle: Handling After-School Meltdowns

My Child is a Popsicle: Handling After-School Meltdowns
Does your child come home from school and fall apart? Tears, screaming, kicking, attitude, pushback, the works? If children were popsicles, every September my house would have orange sticky popsicle juice everywhere because it’s… Back-to-School Meltdown Month!

If you have an after-school meltdown-prone child, you are probably nodding your head. Back-to-School starts out so full of anticipation and excitement, shortly replaced by the reality of getting up before it’s light, rushing to get out the door, and facing a long day of intense brain activity and social challenges while trying to hold it together so you don’t spazz out in front of your peers, except sometimes you do. And then someone makes fun of your sneakers and you have no idea what’s going on in math and horror of horrors, you didn’t get to the bathroom on time and had to go to the nurse for a change of clothes. Is it any wonder that this child gets to the safety of home and lets it all out in very loud, physical way?

Today’s post is going to be both practical and deep, with lots of wisdom from our team of Moms of Melters to help you get through Meltdown Month and beyond.

Sleep

First, let’s talk about the easy stuff. Think about how you feel on four hours’ sleep and a donut for breakfast. Nasty, grumpy, and irritable, I’ll bet. Not prone to civilized behavior. We need to start with the basics that your child needs to even have a chance at decent, self-controlled day.

Is your child getting enough sleep? My girl has to get up at 6 am for the bus, so this means she’s got to be in bed, calm and ready for sleep, at 8 pm. Does that sound like a tall order? Here’s the key: before school started, I sat down and thought through the afternoon and evening and what would need to happen to make a peaceful 8 pm bedtime possible. Here’s what I came up with for my daughter:

3:00 pm Get home, relax, have a snack, free time

5:00 pm Homework in the kitchen while I make dinner

6:00 pm Dinner, clean-up chores, family time, calm activities, bath if needed

7:30 pm Start getting ready for bed then read till lights out

I wrote this down and went over it with her the night before school. The hardest part is the discipline that I need to have to start dinner at 5 pm and make sure she is starting her homework. We also have a consequence in place: if she doesn’t come in from playing with friends outside in time to get her homework done, and by bedtime her homework and dinner chores are not done, then she can’t play with friends after school the next day. Protecting sleep-time is probably my number one meltdown prevention strategy. If your child has activities that are preventing a stress-free evening and decent bedtime, then I have to be frank: it’s probably time to let those activities go or choose ones that happen earlier. No one can handle themselves well when they are overtired, especially kids.

Food

Is your child’s diet full of sweets, white flour and processed foods? High in carbs? Maybe they have meltdowns at the suggestion of eating anything that reeks of “good for you?” Oh mama, we understand. Here at Mommy Medicine we all have at least one picky eater in the family who has taken us through many a food battle. But something must be done: sugary refined foods contribute to a body and mind that don’t feel good and are thus much harder to self-regulate.

I suggest starting out by making a list of the healthy, high-protein, high-fiber, foods containing healthy fats that your child *does* like, and stock up. Probably the two most important times that you want be sure they get a protein/fiber boost are at breakfast and right after school. Protein, healthy fats and fiber are three things that help your body keep blood sugar at an even keel. Sugar and refined carbs send your blood sugar into high spikes and deep lows.

When your child does have a refined sugary treat, teach them to balance it with protein, like a glass of milk. That will help tame the blood sugar spike a little, anyway. Keep stuff out of the house that you don’t want them to have. I don’t buy soda or fruit juice. It doesn’t mean the kids can’t have those sometimes when they are out with friends or buying something for themselves, but it’s just not available to them on a regular basis. Along with food, hydration is extremely important for a body that feels good… focus on water, milk, or get creative with infusing water with fruits and herbs like mint or lemon balm.

Quick note for kids who have an IEP: you can write in a break for a high-protein snack break during the day when you know they are going to need it.

An Anti-Meltdown Mental Strategy: Detective Parenting

Okay, we’ve talked basic human survival needs, now it’s time to dig deeper. I want to share with you a major mind-change that I have undergone in the past year that I believe has strongly contributed to a vast reduction in the amount of meltdowns in our home. I call it “detective parenting.”

Often, we want civilized behavior from our children and we want them to just magically do it now.  It’s easy for me to “act nice,” so why can’t they? Why do they have to be so difficult and fall on the floor screaming when I remind them to unload the dishwasher (which they did just fine yesterday and the day before)?

If your child is falling on the floor screaming about the dishwasher or just, you know, because her brother looked at her, it’s not about the dishwasher, or the brother. Something else is going on. The speaker and author Ross Greene puts it this way: kids do well if they can. Kids are not that different than you and me. They’d like to be able to handle situations with aplomb and dignity. But sometimes they just can’t. And they need you to help figure out what is blocking them from doing well. That requires you, the parent, to be a detective- to observe, ask questions, and listen to find out what stressors and barriers are in their way.

Last year there was a particular day that this idea solidified in me. My melty child was having the most horrible day ever. She couldn’t stand to be within twenty feet of her brother. Everything I asked her to do was met with tears and anger. Halfway through the day she totally lost it to the point of ripping things apart in fury. I sent her to her room to try to calm down. Once she’d worn down a little bit, I went in and sat with her. I did not yell at her about the ripped up stuff. Instead I hugged, listened, and asked gentle questions about why she was so angry. And since I was not yelling at her but just being a calm, safe presence, she opened up. It turns out she was having friendship problems with some girls who had suddenly stopped talking to her and were telling other girls not to talk to her.

Oh, man. My heart broke right there and all her behavior of the day fell into place. And this simple act of listening and providing compassion (and praying with her for these girls and herself) changed the whole day. She went out and cleaned up everything she had ripped up. She calmly accepted the news that she would have to pay me back for a certain item she had destroyed out of her allowance.  She was a changed girl, and so was I.

Now that I have (mostly) changed my mindset to being a compassionate parental detective instead of a frustrated angry parent, my daughter rarely has a complete meltdown anymore. When she does utterly lose it, I have a completely different method of handling the situation. I know you want to get down to the nitty-gritty, so here are some practical tips I’ve learned first-hand and from some more experienced parent-detectives that have mentored me in this process, tailored to our current problem of after-school meltdowns.

Some Practical Tools for 3-4 pm

  • When your child comes home from school, recognize that she is probably hungry, tired, and emotionally exhausted from having to try to be a nice human all day. She needs time to refuel before you ask her any questions about her day. First, supply her with some acceptable high-protein snacks and a glass of water or milk. If she likes affection, apply hugs and kisses and snuggles. Don’t make her talk, just be there. Let  her know that she has come home to a safe, good place where she is loved, no matter what.
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  • When she is ready to talk, be a good listener. Resist the temptation to tell her how she “should” be feeling or “should” have handled a situation at school differently. We don’t get to choose how we feel, and “should haves” generally do nothing but make people feel worse about how they handled things. Empathy, nods of the head, and “uh-huhs” to show them that you are listening are the keys to remember. It’s not until people feel like they have been heard and understood that they are open to talking about their problems and strategizing together about how to handle them in the future. Once you’ve gained your child’s trust that you are really listening and not just gathering ammunition to punish or lecture them, she will be much more open to talking about how to handle that difficult teacher or mean kid in their class.
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  • Think about what your child needs to decompress and relax, and give her time to do these things before homework or chores. Whether it is a cozy chair and a book, going to the playground to run around, a little screen time or Minecraft, or playing with friends… give her a little bit of her own time to do as she likes.  Is she overscheduled to the point where she can’t have free, relaxing, decompression time? Maybe it’s time to simplify and reduce the number of activities she is involved in.
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  • If you work and your child is in an after-school program, talk with her about what she needs to do to help herself relax and feel good during that time. Does she have any freedom there, or is it just like adding two more hours of school to the day, being told to go here and there and act right and be pleasant and respectful? That’s a lot for any child to handle all day long, and greatly increases the chances that she is going to melt into a puddle the second she sees you.
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  • If you see the writing on the wall that your child is heading for a meltdown, remind yourself that her brain is freaking out and she feels out of control and unable to handle herself. Heading it off before all heck breaks loose is a lot better, when possible. I’ve learned to recognize when my girl is starting to feel out of control and to withdraw with her to a quiet place to help her calm down and put on my detective hat to figure out what is going on: hunger, fatigue, a brother that just mercilessly keeps pushing her buttons. Then we strategize together about what to do. However…
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  • …if your child has already tipped over the edge into full meltdown, she is experiencing a primal brain event that she cannot just turn off when you offer bribe or a threat. Recent neurological studies on children have shown that the amygdala (the “primal” part of the brain that controls fight or flight, alerts you to danger, etc) pretty much hijacks the brain and disconnects from the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of your brain that helps you calm down and make sensible decisions. See a problem here? Pretty much the only thing you can do at this point is remain as calm as possible and recognize that your child has gone temporarily insane. They are physically incapable of listening to reasonable suggestions or threats- even trying to make a suggestion at this point will likely enrage them even more. Since my melting-down child likes to rip things up, I drag out the recycle bin and let her have at it. She can rip as much cardboard and paper as she wants until she calms down. If she wants me with her, I stay (I often pretend to read a book to keep myself from indulging in all the tempting things I want to say about how ridiculous she is being, which will surely backfire). If she doesn’t want me there, I leave until she does. And once she calms down, then we hug. And maybe just sit quietly without talking for awhile. When we do talk, we talk about what happened to make her feel so out of control that her brain exploded, and maybe what would help her deal with it earlier next time.
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  • Reassure them of your love and acceptance after the meltdown. When I am holding my daughter after a fit of screaming, or maybe later at bed-time conversation, I tell her something like this: “I want you to know that no matter how much you fall apart and scream or feel angry and frustrated, I still love you soooooo much.”
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  • Finally, if *you* react to your child’s melt-down by having your own, adult-sized meltdown- screaming, losing control of yourself, or worse, lashing out with words or hands etc… it’s not surprising that things are going to escalate in the wrong direction. If Mom or Dad can’t control themselves, the child may get the horrible feeling inside that they are making their parents lose control– and that is an awfully scary and powerful feeling for any child to deal with. You MUST learn to take all the anger and frustration that is building up inside when you feel that your child is acting like a disrespectful screaming brat and let it out somewhere else, not on your child. Deep breathing, counseling, punching bag in the basement, whatever it takes. Your child needs you to be in control (or at least appear to be). I like to picture myself as a big rock that stays calm and steady while waves are crashing against it. This takes every ounce of self-control and deep-breathing and prayer I can muster. But the truth is, the more I practice everything I have just shared with you, the less meltdowns we have. Really. We’ve had a 95% reduction in full-on meltdowns in the past year.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end.  This is a lot to process- after-school meltdowns are not the kind of thing you can just slap a quick bandaid on and we done with. It’s a journey. I wish you the best of luck in taming the meltdown madness in your home, and here’s to no more sticky popsicle juice floods! Please share in the comments if you have other amazing tips to help out your fellow parents of melters!

Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (9/21/2017) Denise Rosser (Flickr)

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