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There is nothing worse.

NOTHING compares to the struggle of an after school meltdown.

This after school restraint can happen for any kid, but for a child who may struggle with sensory, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, focus, self-regulation or social skills, the meltdown can be debilitating.

Before we dig into strategies to help you cope and prevent after school meltdowns, lets discuss why they may be happening. After all, if we understand why it’s happening, we may be able to prevent the struggle in the future.

Let’s paint a picture of what the day of a child with ADHD or Autism may look like at school.

  • – Morning Routine: “rushing through breakfast, the bus comes in 7 mins, I don’t want to miss the bus, I have to go to school, Where are my shoes? the tag in my pants feels scratchy, the bus smells funny, so many kids are talking, people are touching me as we get off the bus, my coat makes me feel like I can’t move”
  • – Morning schedule: “Hanging my coat up in my locker, everyone is bumping into me, we only have 6 mins until it’s time to sit for math, I love math, why do I have to show my work? I don’t know how to show the work I did in my head so now my answer is wrong, it doesn’t make sense, The teacher is asking me a question, but what is that noise? People are quiet, there is a noise in the hall, what is that noise? wait, I missed what the teacher said, what is that noise? My body needs to move, the teacher says sit down, my body needs to rock, my pants tag is still itchy”
  • -Lunch: I’m feeling hot and angry because there are so many people walking here, I can still hear that noise, where is it coming from, I’m hungry, why is this line taking so long, don’t they know I’m hungry, this makes me so mad, these tables are small and my elbows keep bumping people, only 2 minutes left to eat? I’m so hungry, my heart is racing, how will I finish in time, i’ll be so hungry for the rest of the day if I don’t finish! Some one is talking to me, it’s so loud in here, I can’t slow my body down when it’s so loud!”
  • -End of the day: Hurry! The buses are here, do I have all my work? This coat makes it hard to move fast, It’s so loud, people keep bumping my bag, it makes me frustrated, why are they bumping me? I’m trying to hurry, the bus smells weird, its hot in this coat, my pants are still itchy, the cars next to us are driving fast and making a screeching noise, I can’t talk to anyone because all I hear is the noise, I’m hungry, someone is laughing too loud, Mom wants to talk, I can’t talk, it’s too hard to focus!”

And cue the meltdown.

Guys, can you imagine what that feels like to hold that all in during the day? Do you see all the thousands of reasons our kids are feeling overwhelmed during the day? How many of you hear “he’s great at school! We never see meltdowns like that.” I’m betting a lot of you! It’s great that they aren’t melting down at school, but chances are that doesn’t mean it’s because everything at school is smooth sailing. Our kids are working so hard all day just to hold it together so they don’t meltdown at school. They walk into the house, their safe place, and just explode.

How can we help?

Let’s talk about the strategies you can use to help prevent the after school meltdown and ways you can make it through for when it does happen.

1. Validate your child’s feelings and stay calm

Remember that empathy doesn’t mean agreement. During a meltdown, your child may have a faster heart rate, seem irrational and inconsolable (which trigger headaches and stomach aches for real!). Compassion will result in a quicker calm down to your child’s frustration. Remind yourself, that this irrational fear is outside of their control, if they could control it they would. No one likes to feel this way. Validate their feelings by saying things like “I can see that you are upset, I’m not mad that you’re upset. It can be frustrating to work all day and still have to do homework at home.” This isn’t saying that you agree with them, but that you can understand why this might feel hard for them.

2. Try to minimally engage 

Too much discussion can often fuel the fire. Try to repeat the same phrases over and over again. Try sitting quietly, out of their personal space and avoid any arguement. Repeating the same phrases “I can see that you are upset, I’m not mad that you’re upset. It can be frustrating to work all day and still have to do homework at home.” will help your child to feel reassured that their feelings are valid and heard. Often, less is more, when it comes to a parent’s response to a child’s intense emotions.

3.  Reassure yourself

This approach is not “spoiling” your child, but instead that it is responding therapeutically to the high anxiety. Although it may feel time consuming or that you may be reinforcing bad behavior, keep in mind that traditional discipline likely hasn’t worked and a new approach is necessary.

4.  Model positive behavior and coping mechanisms

Children absorb their parent’s anxiety, so model optimism and confidence for your child. It can be easy to feel angry or anxious over your child’s often explosive meltdown, so it’s important that you keep your own emotions under control. The only person you can control is yourself! Try deep breathing, closing your eyes and counting, maybe even stretching if the situation allows, anything that will help you model positive coping strategies with minimal discussion.

5. When in doubt, ride it out

Sometimes all you can do is to wait out the storm. Continue the repeat phrases, keep your child safe and minimally engage in discussion until your child has calmed enough to be distracted. After everyone is calm, use a follow up question like “I know you were upset earlier, what was going on?” Be careful to not place blame or point fingers, but discuss healthy alternatives to cope with those feelings for the future. Setting a plan for coping, can also prevent the severity or re-occurrence of the same meltdown as before.

Getting ahead of a meltdown can be a HUGE task. Take data on what is happening, what is being said, what was happening at school that day etc. After a few days or weeks, look back to see if you can identify a pattern. Keep in contact with the school about the details of the meltdowns. Often times, it can be something simple like the need for an additional snack before getting on the bus. If it is more than just a hunger issue, your student may need a few minutes of calm down before getting on the bus or a modification in homework expectations. Working with the school to identify triggers and minimize meltdowns can change the way your child accesses his education. The goal is to teach our children skills that they can take into adulthood, dealing with after school meltdowns is just one piece to the puzzle.

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