School is hard work. Whether your child enjoys school or is somewhat less enthusiastic, for every child, it is hard work.
What is a school day like for a child -- big or small? It goes like this.
You have to sit still. For looooong periods of time. When you are built to move.
You are in "appearance management" mode all day. You have to mind your Ps and Qs. Do what is asked. Behave even though you might not know what exactly that means.
You are away from your special big people -- like your mom or dad or grandparent -- who have the just-for-you power of being able to restore you. And you miss them.
You have to manage disappointments and setbacks. Like your tomato soaked through your sandwich bread. Or having a teacher speak sternly to you. Or feeling like you didn't make the grade. And if you haven't really settled in with a big person at school yet -- like your teacher or a classroom helper -- you are having to manage those on your own.
And on the list goes.
So with all of this in mind, you might think that when you pick your child up from school, the fact that they missed you and needed you and are now done with school and free to run and play and burp and do whatever they need to do should have them ecstatic. Right?!
A lot of children have very different reactions. And for very good reasons that are easily explained by the science of child development.
Think of it this way. Your child's resources have been completely used up by all of that sitting, managing, and missing. And they just plain old have nothing left.
Then you -- their chosen comforter, the one they take all of their hurts and needs to -- arrive to whisk them away. But instead of melting into your arms, they angrily exclaim that you packed them the worst lunch ever. And they hate assembly. And spelling is lame. And their brother is stupid. And the cat is in their way. And why can't they go to play at Sarah's house? And YOU'RE THE WORST MOM/DAD EVER!!!
Wow. What happened?
Attachment happened. That's what. And attachment happened at a time when their level of need was super high. So the end result is an after-school melt-down-palooza.
How? Two forces are at work. The first is that the child had great need of you and you weren't there for them. Through no fault of your own, really. It is just how it goes. But the attachment brain is wired to scan and search for you -- their chosen comforter, their one and only -- in a time of need.
And after six or seven hours of searching for you and not finding you, rather than melting into you, it will defensively rear and attack. It does that from a place of wanting to protect itself from more hurt. This is sometimes called defensive detachment.
The second force at work is that your child is having defensive detachment crash around them at a time when they are already on empty. They have nothing left in the tank with which to regulate around this calamity, and so what was already a challenging circumstance is made even more so.
BOOM! The after-school meltdown. And the stronger and longer it is, the more you can intuit the "cost" of that day at school for your child.
So what can you do? How can these be tamed and/or resolved?
Here are five key ideas to get you back to some after-school happy time:
1. Fill them up!
Give your child more of you in the mornings before school. Do this by setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier and using that extra time to spend with your child. Maybe you snuggle in a rocking chair by the fire. Maybe you read a story. Maybe you sip on something warm and cozy while snuggled on the couch. Just do something together and full of the spirit of connection and care.
2. Send yourself to school.
Even though you won't really be there. Write notes for their lunch box. Fill their hands full of kisses. Visit the playground the night before to leave stashes of kisses for them under the swingset so they can collect them the next day at recess. Keep a picture of you and them together in their backpack. Or on a lanyard around their neck and tucked under their shirt.
I had one mom whose boy was in Grade 10. He was going through some tough times but he didn't want any stashes of kisses, to be sure! So instead, when she made his sandwich in the morning, she took a bite out of it. Then packed it up and popped it into his lunch. And he loved sitting down to lunch every day and seeing her right there in his missing sandwich bite.
3. Turn goodbyes into hellos.
Instead of focusing on saying goodbye to your child and telling them all of the fun things they will do that day, redirect their attention at your goodbye to your next hello. So instead of "Have a great day today -- have fun in gym class and doing your art project," you might try "Have a great day today -- when I pick you up after school, why don't we go to the playground/out for coffee/on a bike ride?"
All of a sudden, the attachment brain is now thinking about hello instead of the looooong day without you.
4. Use rituals.
We humans love our routines. We love expectations and the safety of having a script for exactly how things are going to go. So get your routines in place. Have a morning routine (full of connection!), a goodbye routine, a hello routine, and a we-just-got-home-from-school routine. These kinds of scripts provide a boatload of safety during an emotional storm. It can help the situation be righted a lot more quickly. It is like you know you have a mark that you can aim for landing on. And then you feel safe again.
5. Make lots of room for the blowout.
And if the meltdown happens anyway, that's OK. You know exactly why. It isn't that your child is impossible. It is just that they need to be replenished and comforted and reassured and filled up.
So do that.
As they shout and throw and generally lose it, just come alongside.
"It was a long day, wasn't it?"
"You are totally done, aren't you?"
"You need some special snuggle time, don't you?"
"I've got you... we're OK... it's OK to let your shout out... we will get this all sorted...."
And it may have to run its course for a little bit, but sure enough, your child will come around. Right into your waiting arms. Gently held in the softness of your heart.