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Parenting My eight-year-old comes home from school and loses it. How do I prevent the meltdowns?

Question: My eight-year-old child is coming home from school every day and falling apart. No matter what I do, she’s grumpy at best and has a meltdown at worst. I know she’s tired and we are trying to get her to bed earlier. Is there anything else I can do?

Answer: Ah, the after-school meltdown. You are not alone. It’s especially common when school starts and our children are experiencing change in routine and new demands. Let’s talk about why it happens and what you can do about it.

I’m going to assume your daughter hasn’t reported any difficulties at school (or on the bus, etc.) and that you’ve spoken with her teacher to confirm that everything is going reasonably well. Trouble at school needs to be ruled out.

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Getting more sleep is a great idea. Tired children (and parents) find it harder to stay emotionally regulated. We also want to make sure that she has a snack after school to avoid the “hangries” (hungry plus angry). Ideally, she can finish her lunch or you can bring a snack when you pick her up. Low blood sugar can aggravate the after-school meltdown.

If you can check “tired” and “hungry” off your list of possible causes of her after-school difficulties, and she’s still having a hard time? There are a few more reasons why the meltdowns could be happening and some effective strategies to help her.

Your daughter is likely working really hard to be “good” at school. She needs to listen to the teacher and pay attention, follow the rules of the classroom, and navigate interactions with her friends and peers. It is a lot of work. When she gets home, she can’t keep it together any longer.

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve been on a diet and stuck to it all day, only to eat a big piece of cake at 11 p.m. after a long day. Or maybe you’ve been patient all day with your employees, and then come home and snapped at your partner or your children. Our willpower has been used up.

The American Psychological Association reports that “some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse.” We, children and adults alike, can only keep it together for so long before we fall apart. This could be part of what’s causing the after-school meltdown. She really is doing the best she can.

Your daughter also likely has some stored-up tensions and emotions from the day that she hasn’t been able to let out. Maybe the teacher scolded her or maybe her friend didn’t want to play with her at recess. Maybe she missed you.

When we feel stressed, our bodies pump out chemicals such as cortisol and adrenalin. When we have big feelings that we can’t process in the moment, we hold onto them until it feels safe to let them out. This happens to grown-ups as well: We want to cry at our desks during a rough day, but we push the feelings away until we feel safe to let them out. The stored-up tensions and emotions can make us feel irritable, anxious and grumpy. Cue the meltdown.

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What can you do?

Try to make after school as undemanding as possible. She’s already used up most of her willpower and resources. Now is not the time for play dates or extracurricular activities.

If she walks in grumpy, try a hug and a few minutes of quiet together time. If that doesn’t restore her equilibrium, get her laughing before she has a chance to fall apart.

Use laughter to release the tensions and stored-up big feelings. You can actually prevent the after-school meltdown by spending 10 or 15 minutes laughing together.

Laughter actually changes the body’s chemistry. It reduces the physical symptoms of stress by clearing our bodies of those chemicals that make us feel anxious and grumpy. Laughter improves our mood. When we laugh, our bodies create endorphins, powerful feel-good chemicals. Our bodies also produce the bonding hormone oxytocin when we laugh. Ever wonder why we are drawn to those who make us laugh?

Some ideas: Get silly with a roughhousing game.

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My children loved it when I would make them into a pizza. Roll out the “dough” (massage her body), and spread on some imaginary “sauce” and “toppings.” Sometimes the pizza would escape before I could eat it, and I’d have to chase it and catch it. Bop a balloon up in the air and, together, try keeping it from hitting the ground. Smaller kids love a ride around the house on your back or being chased by a silly monster.

Follow her laughter: Do more of whatever she likes. It takes time and effort to do this, but it will make the rest of your day much easier.

I don’t recommend tickling. Tickling can make children feel powerless and out of control, even as they laugh. Tickling laughter doesn’t result in the same release as funny laughter. If your daughter asks for tickling, tickle her a few inches away from her body without touching. Even funnier.

If the laughter isn’t enough?

Respond with empathy. She’s not giving you a hard time, she’s having a hard time. If you can remind yourself that your daughter is doing the best she can, you will be able to respond to her with more compassion and patience. She might need to cry to get out those feelings and tensions if laughter isn’t enough.

She will grow and mature and adjust to the demands of school. Keep providing for her physical needs of food and sleep and an undemanding evening routine, and get her laughing to shed the tensions and process the big feelings. The after-school meltdowns should melt away.

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Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.

Do you have a parenting question? Send your dilemmas to srosensweet@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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