The post school apocalypse

There are few things in life that are certain, but when it comes to the school pick up, some things happen with annoying regularity. Firstly, the heavens open – probably about 3 pm so you are suitably drenched by the time they walk out. It’s as if the rain is just watching and waiting…hang on, just a little longer, hold it…right…let ‘em have it! IT IS ANNOYING!

The second thing is the post school apocalypse – the pick-up meltdown. You’ve waited patiently (in the rain) hoping they have had a positive day. You watch as your loving child appears, waving goodbye to the teacher and smiling sweetly, then slowly morphs into a scowling, shouty ball of fury, as they walk towards you. Your heart sinks and you know it is going to be one of those evenings. What? – You’ve brought the wrong snack! Why? Why do I have to do this homework? I DON’T WANT TO WALK!!

Why does this happen? What is going on? And how can we prevent it (as much as possible anyway)

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons this happens:

  1. School is good and fun and exciting and…..tough. A child has had to manage separation from you, disappointment, anxiety, anger, frustration, sticking to the rules, and sitting still and being quiet when they want to be active and noisy – the list really is endless. How hard is that? Normally you would be there to vent their frustration on, or have a comforting cuddle from, or shout at – but they have had to hold and manage those feelings all day. When we have had a bad day at work or get frustrated when things don’t go well – do we shout or rant at colleagues or managers?…No, we save it all up for our loved ones when we get home. Children are no different. You are their safe person, their comfort, the person that helps them manage those strong emotions. Have you ever heard a young child come out of school and say in a calm voice, “It’s been a hard day today, there were things I wanted to do and I couldn’t, my friends laughed at me and you weren’t there when I needed you and I missed you”. No, me neither. Those feelings will come out through their behaviour and they will vent them when they feel safe to do so – with you or when they feel safe at home.
  2. School is exhausting. Learning new rules and routines, making new friendships, sitting still, self-care and managing emotions takes its toll. In the same way that your fuse is much shorter when you are tired, children are exactly the same.
  3. All through the school day your child has been using up their resilience levels. They go to school in the morning, rested (hopefully), with their emotional bank accounts fully topped up, but by the end of the day, these are running pretty low. They have nothing left in reserve and emotional regulation is no longer possible – and then they see you, their comforter, their security and their safety and BAM – here we go again!

So what can we do? – Well, quite a lot actually!

  1. Max out their emotional bank account with hugs, cuddles, reading a book together, having breakfast together – whatever it takes. Always make time for it, especially in the morning – I know, it’s always rushed and stressful, but build it in to your routine and give it as much importance as getting dressed and teeth brushing. Cover their fingers in kisses, ready for them to draw on through the day. If hugging and kissing at the school gate is a definite ‘no no’ for your child, do it at home.
  2. Stay connected and minimise the separation. Give your child something of you. It can be a small photo of you both, or a simple note from you, hidden in their school bag – something special just between the two of you. Put the same photo in your bag and tell them that you took it out and thought of them today.
  3. When you say goodbye in the morning, use it as an opportunity to focus on what will be happening when you are together again. “Have a lovely day. When I pick you up, we can go to the park”, or “Have a lovely day, when I pick you up we can watch (insert favourite cartoon here) together”.
  4. Have a special ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ routine between you. They feel safe and predictable – just what your child is looking for. Let your child decide what it will be and stick to it – they will soon remind you if you don’t.
  5. OK – here’s a tough one, but I’m going to go for it. Try to avoid taking out and looking at your mobile when you first pick your child up (aaaaagh…I said it!). Give this time to your child to reconnect (even if they are mid scream). Fifteen minutes can make all the difference. Listen to them, chat with them and hold back on all of those questions you are dying to ask. Give them your full attention.
  6. Give your child time to wind down and relax. If you rush straight into homework, it will probably kick something off. Share a snack or watch some TV together, chilling and having a cuddle on the sofa – anything that allows you both to slow down and spend a little time together.
  7. Speak to the teacher to find out how your child is doing at school and to rule out if there are any particular concerns like difficulty making friends or bullying.

When it doesn’t matter what you do and the meltdown happens:

  1. Remember it is normal behaviour. Ride the storm as calmly as you can, giving your child time and space to regain control. Easy for us to say, but if this happens in the playground try not to worry about what others think, every parent has experienced something similar. Manage your own feelings by counting or breathing to maintain your calm. Children feed off the emotions of those around them so if you feel in panic mode and out of control they pick up on this and the meltdown may last even longer.
  2. Have a favourite comforter waiting. Initially, it may be thrown or rejected, but they will come back to it. When you feel your child is ready, offer Time In – reflect their emotions back to them, without trying to fix. “I can see you are angry, would you like a cuddle when we get in the car”, or “You have had a busy day, do you want to sit with me?” At first your child may refuse, but they can always come back later when they feel ready.
  3. Remember that after the explosion has happened you will all be exhausted. It is time to give that reassurance, cuddles and time for reconnection. Don’t keep referring back to the meltdown, once they are calmer. It can be very shaming for children and puts them back in that space where it felt so overwhelming. If we had done something wrong, would we want to be constantly reminded of it? – I doubt it. In addition, if you constantly tell them what they have done wrong, it reinforces the behaviour, causing it to happen again.

Many children experience this at some point, whether they enjoy school or not. Generally it is a phase they work through, however, if your child experiences prolonged difficulties, or you are worried, it is worth speaking to the teacher to see if there is any additional support through the school or wider professional advice. I hear Purple Parenting are very good! 😉

Sarah and Michelle run a company called Purple Parenting, offering behaviour and sleep support through individual work, groupwork and workshops. Email to arrange your free telephone consultation to help with behaviour, selective feeding and fussy eating, sleep, tantrums, aggression, anger, anxiety and more.