It’s a scenario that almost every parent of a neurodivergent (ND) child has come to know well. Your child has had a good day at school, no calls from the office and no big surprises. They get off the bus, or get into the car, seeming tired or shut down. When you try to ask how their day was, you are met with curt or sullen answers, and your shoulders start to tense. You try to focus on a fun thing going on after school, reminding them of the visit to the park or the special dinner treat; maybe you ask about how much homework they have. The attitude continues, and once you get home, the inevitable meltdowns start.
It can be a frustrating situation when teachers, peers, and administrators all report that your child does great in school with no apparent adjustment issues – but once they come home, the storms begin. Some kids withdraw completely, some kids run a very short fuse, and many more have total meltdowns complete with throwing things, yelling, and crying. So why on earth are they having such a hard time at home if their school day went so well? Why do they turn into a completely different kid once they’re at home? Is it something you’re doing wrong?
If you’ve ever been through any of the above, keep reading to learn why this is not your fault, why your child isn’t being bad or naughty, and how you can help calm the storms of the post-school meltdowns! In this post we will explore what is happening in a child’s brain and body while at school and when they arrive home, learn about cumulative stress and what a young child’s brain has capacity for, and discuss some strategies to help head off the meltdowns and reduce after-school stress.
Understanding the Nervous System
To understand why kids so often seem to lose it at the end of the school day, you need to know some basics about how our brains and bodies function to keep us safe. You know how if you get startled awake, or if you have to brake suddenly in traffic, you might feel jittery, like your heart is pounding, or like you are on “high alert?” That’s your body going into “threat mode” after your brain detects a perceived danger and sends signals to your adrenal system.
When your brain is in threat mode, it is sending signals to release adrenaline and cortisol into your body to ensure you have the energy to run or fight. However, these days that “threat mode” can more aptly be named “stress mode.” Upcoming deadlines, disagreements between friends, and harsh lighting might not be a true physical danger to your body, but your brain really can’t tell the difference! These same chemicals are released if you have, for example, an overactive sensory system that perceives fluorescent lighting as painful, or if you are constantly on edge trying to interpret the behavior of those around you.
Being in “threat mode” gives your body temporary energy and focus, and sometimes that can be helpful! Think of how much you can buckle down and get done the night before a project’s due date, or how that extra awareness might help you avoid a collision in traffic. However, we are not meant to sustain this state for extended periods of time. Many kids, and especially ND kids, remain in threat mode all day during school, even if they are not aware of it. Social expectations, sensory sensitivities, executive functioning challenges, and unexpected changes in routine can all keep the brain under stress.
That temporary energy and focus often gives our kids just enough gas in the tank to white-knuckle it through the day. They bite their tongue when another kid jostles them in the hall, hide their stress when they get called on in class, make themselves eat lunch even though the cafeteria is loud and smells bad. According to the teachers, they never cause any issues and are quiet and well-behaved in class. Then finally they get to come home, to their safe space. It’s like taking a deep breath in for the first time all day – and letting go of that death grip you’ve had on your self-control!
Collapse in your Safe Space
When kids get home, they have a little more freedom and control for the first time all day. Imagine going to a workplace where your boss tells you where to sit, who to talk to, when to go to the bathroom, what you have for lunch. The surroundings at home are familiar and more predictable, and their safe people are around. Their brain can finally relax and come out of threat mode – but once the adrenaline and cortisol stop circulating, the self-control often collapses!
For some kids, this can look like a total meltdown. For others, it’s a complete shutdown. In either case, it is most often a result of the cumulative stress and need for self-control during the school day – thus the sharp dichotomy that so many of us see, where the “joy to have in class” or “quiet little professor” turns into a child we barely recognize. As parents, it can be distressing to see your kid start to shift into a bad mood, seem sad or discouraged, or lose it out of anger and frustration. But most of the time, scrambling to find a fix just makes things worse! So what can you do about it?
Some Simple Solutions
The first thing I tell most parents when we discuss immediate changes is to be much quieter when they get home from school or get in the car. It’s important for many of us to know about what they did that day, who they talked to, if they ate their lunch. But for a kid who is already exhausted from holding it together, sometimes that immediate barrage of questions is just too much! Hold space if they want to chat, but otherwise turn on some of their favorite music and just let them chill.
Feeding your kids right away is also a great strategy. Even if dinner is only a couple hours away, getting some snacks into them can really help regulate their bodies. And I’m not just talking a bag of chips – if you can, try to get some protein into them. That can be as simple as a cheese stick or a PBJ.
Setting aside some dedicated “transition time” or “cool down from school” hour is the next big thing I advise parents to work on. Just like you get home from work and sometimes just want to scroll your phone or lie down, your kids might need a little time to recharge their internal batteries. Don’t jump into homework right away, and if you have the option, opt out of after-school activities or push them until later in the day. “Low-demand” is the name of the game.
Definitely think about turning down the sensory dial – can you make them a little space that is cozy, quiet, a little dark? Also don’t be afraid of screen time! It’s incredibly regulating for so many kids, and an hour or so after school generally won’t hurt.
If your kid seems to have a lot of energy or frustration that they need to work out after school, is there heavy work you can incorporate? This can be anything from carrying gallons of milk in from the car, to pushing the walls, to crashing around on the couch. Many kids may need a more active period of time to get out their jitters and big energy, and that’s OK! Plan for it and find safe, fun ways to express that energy.
Even with all possible transition time, whole body exercises, and cool-down space, sometimes meltdowns are still going to happen. If they do, make sure everyone is safe and let it just run its course. You can stay close, stay low and soothing, and try to offer your own calm body and brain to help steady theirs, but don’t push it. Avoid trying to talk them through complicated breathing exercises or reminding them things are actually fine – kids have a much harder time accessing language when they’re upset, and sometimes it can send their brains into overload!
Once things calm down a little bit, connect and offer support. Empathize with and validate their frustrations or stress, offer some soothing distractions, reassure them that you still love them. Remember, meltdowns like this aren’t anyone’s fault – not yours, not your child’s. They are the result of an overwhelmed nervous system and they are as exhausting for your kiddo as they are for you!
It can be really, really hard not to feel like it’s personal when none of the teachers or school staff seem to see the same side of your child that you do. But I promise, it’s not that you’re doing anything wrong. Your child feels safe enough with you to let go of that self-control, and it’s our job as parents to provide a safe landing space and a shelter from that storm.
Reminding our kids that we love them, that we understand and believe their stress, and that we will hold space for them to refill their emotional “gas tank” are the biggest things you can do, and will help your connection bloom and grow. When you feel frustrated, keep reframing that your child isn’t giving you a hard time – they are HAVING a hard time.
Take space and breaths for yourself so that you can approach your child with calm and caring. And if things seem too overwhelming, or you need help really implementing any of those changes, please reach out to see if any of my group or one-to-one services may be a fit for you and your family!