The bus pulls up, and you brace yourself. She comes flying off the bus, backpack bouncing and arms flailing. You can already tell there is going to be an issue as soon as she walks in the door. Sure enough, she barges in the door, yelling and eyes flashing, ready to lash out.
Sounds like your child might have a case of “after-school crabbiness” syndrome. 😉
You might try to quickly manage the behavior by telling her, “Calm down, or I’m going to have to put you in a time-out until you can pull it together!” She escalates more, and you send her to her room. It can be a predictable dance; you know each others’ steps and cues. But this is a dance you don’t want to be part of through another school year.
Why does after-school crabbiness happen?
- When kids are in school all day, they receive a constant barrage of distracting or annoying sensory input all around them (the loud cafeteria, echoing in the gym, pencils scratching, fans whirring, and, let’s not forget, computers). This environment is very stressful for many kids, even those who don’t struggle with processing sensory input. For kids that do have sensory processing challenges, this can be truly aversive and distressing.
- Add to that limited movement because kids need to sit still most of the day and are under constant pressure to focus. “Motion changes emotion” because movement is the body’s most reliable arousal regulator/stress off-loader. But for hours at a time, usually during activities with higher cognitive challenges, the coping strategy of movement is mostly unavailable to kids.
- Kids may feel performance anxiety if things come more easily for other children.
- They may also receive rejection from unkind peers or teachers at school.
This combination is exhausting, and kids often arrive home feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. Their stress can pour out in anger at parents and siblings, demanding behavior, or being overly silly and physical.
So, if your child frequently returns from school acting like a mini-Godzilla waiting to trash something or someone, it doesn’t mean you have a “problem child” or you are deficient as a parent! There’s a good reason for this seemingly inappropriate behavior. Your child has been working hard all day to hold it together, and they may be tapped out.
Research indicates that self-control is a limited resource, and your child has probably drained their self-control tank down to the last fumes.
“For years, ‘ego depletion’ has been a dominant theory in the study of self-control. This is the intuitive idea that self-control or willpower is a limited resource, such that the more you use up in one situation [like school, for example], the less you have left over to deploy in another.” [like home] 😉
When parents address challenging after-school behavior by trying to manage or “fix the problem child,” they usually add stress and shame to a child who is already struggling. Stressed children don’t need another adult voice telling them they don’t measure up. Instead, focus on trying to reverse the stressful experiences your child has had all day at school.
In the moment, offer kids calming activities
Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you work to reverse your child’s stress when she arrives home from school:
- Affection – When your child walks in the door*, greet her with warm acceptance and no demands or expectations. Remember, she is coming home loaded with needs. Focus on how to meet those needs. “I love that you are home right now! What can I get you? How can I help you?” Your affectionate facial expression and tone can be powerful. If your child likes hugs, this is an excellent time for one of those!
- Snack – Being “hangry” can be one root cause of challenging after-school behaviors because kids often arrive home with low blood sugar and need a healthy snack as soon as possible. Beware: they may want to “regulate” and recharge with a sugary snack, which will be counterproductive. Once they have had a healthy snack and drink, you will probably notice they become significantly calmer.
- Sensory activity – Every child is different, even within the same family! Some children need a peaceful, quiet activity to rebalance their nervous system. (But be aware: oftentimes, screens can be even more dysregulating.) Others might love a firm massage or “squish.” Most children will enjoy lots of big muscle activities to help them feel more regulated. Generally speaking, rhythmic, predictable, and moderately intense things are most helpful. One mom found that their evening went so much better if she took her kids straight from school to the playground for even 15 minutes. Check out our Sensory Activities List and discover what works best for each of your kids!
How can you tell if what you’re doing is beneficial for your child? If an activity is helpful, you will generally notice your child is more focused, happier, and able to follow directions better afterward. Does your child have glazed eyes and appear to be on another planet? Or perhaps they are irritable? Or wild and giddy? If this happens, then you’ll know an activity was disorganizing to their nervous system.
* To our homeschooling friends: you don’t need to wait until the end of the day! You have the beautiful flexibility to incorporate these ideas throughout the day.
Daily Sensory Rhythms To Bring Peace to Your Home | Episode 112
Check out this podcast for more practical ideas on how daily sensory rhythms can bring down the chaos and cultivate more peace in your home
When things are calmer, help kids learn about their bodies
Our bodies were made to need not only a nutritious food diet but also a healthy sensory diet. This means we take in many “nutritious” sensory experiences in regular doses. These are enjoyable activities that can help us either calm down (like a massage or playing with play-doh) or energize and focus (like bike riding or pumping a swing).
In the same way, we avoid unhealthy foods, we can reduce aversive or over-stimulating experiences (like shopping at peak times or having music and TV blaring together). As we begin to look at ourselves and what our own body needs, it is important that we teach our children what their bodies need as well.
As you lead kids in sensory activities, you can say something like:
“This is so great! God created our bodies in wonderful ways to help our brains and hearts. Our bodies need different sensations like big muscle fun, hugs, music, and cool things to focus on and touch. It’s just like how our bodies need different kinds of healthy food. When we feel stressed, we can do what God has provided for us to feel better.”
Talking with kids about their bodies and yours shows, “I’m in this with you.” It also weaves together the miraculous way God empowered humans to self-regulate. After talking about it, model it! Take a walk when you’re stressed, come back in, and say, “That was just what my body and soul needed! I feel so much better.” As you continue to model this, your kids probably won’t feel controlled or judged when you ask them after school, “What would feel good to your body right now so you can feel better after a long day?”
What about after-school activities?
You know it well. Mondays are soccer, Tuesdays you go swimming, Wednesdays mean music lessons and church, and the list goes on. How do you incorporate calming activities and a sensory diet while rushing from one activity to the next? It can be done with just a little bit of forethought and planning. What you do in the first five minutes after your child gets home from school and before your activities can set the tone for the whole evening.
- Affection – Greet them with calm and safe words. This relaxed start is essential. If you are stressed and rushing, it downloads your anxiety into your kids, “C’mon, c’mon, we gotta hustle!” No wonder kids resist, are cranky, or even explode – your anxiety, combined with their exhaustion and stress, is combustible.
- Snack – Have a healthy snack ready for kids to eat in the car. If your child is looking forward to a snack, it will make the transition out to the car easier.
- Sensory activity – If you are going to an activity right when kids get home, they can have big muscle fun getting to the car.
- Jump like a kangaroo, hop on one foot, and race around the perimeter of the house on the way to the car.
- If you are going to an older sibling’s activity, you can work in a trip to a nearby park for 15 minutes while the sibling is at practice or the game. Consider this: your family may function better if your world doesn’t revolve around one child’s extra-curricular activity! 😉
Every person in your family has a unique body, unique nervous system wiring, and unique needs. Be intentional about learning what your child needs for a “sensory diet” when they come home from school, and you will likely find the rest of your day goes a lot more smoothly!
And while “a lot more smoothly” sounds terrific, remember….it’s not about you! The point is to communicate these important messages to your child:
- I want to meet your needs because you are safe and loved in this home.
- You are capable and responsible for learning what your body needs to help you have connected, respect-filled relationships with the people you love.
If you want more ideas for sensory activities, check out our short, FREE online course, 7 Practical Calming Strategies for Kids. You’ll receive even more practical ideas and be better equipped to navigate your child’s nervous system.
Do you have a child with EXTRA needs?
Parenting isn’t easy, but when you’ve got an extra INTENSE or SENSITIVE child with big feelings… it’s even harder.
The Sensitive and Intense Kids online course will equip you to parent well, even with these unique kiddos.