School is a place of rules, spoken and unspoken, of strangers, of unfamiliarity, of best behaviour. Of challenges to learn, to think, to obey, to listen, to be quiet, to play together with other children, to negotiate. School is a place to eat and drink, which can be really stressful for little people who are often quite particular about what they like and how they like it. It is place to remember where the toilets are, to be attentive enough to their inner needs in a high stimulation environment to notice when they need to go to the toilet, to remember when they can and can’t go to the toilet.
There are SO MANY expectations on children in school, and to a lesser extent at nursery and preschool, that when they come back to you, they have usually reached their capacity, if not passed far beyond it! They tend to become explosive, whether with angry tantrums, or crying. They are exhausted from suppressing their emotions, which they often do out of fear of how those around them at school will react if they do show their “big feelings”. It is with you, at home, with their safe people and in their safe place they can really let out all this frustration, this anger, this sadness. And boy do they! Tantrums over being asked to change out of their uniform, meltdowns about the sandwich being cut into the wrong shape. So much anger, frustration and upset.
What we need to remember is, for them, the sandwich is the tip of a huge iceberg. And it is at that point that their lid flips, they just can’t contain any more of their emotions and having relaxed a bit in their safe place everything they have been suppressing all day comes tumbling out. They have been left without you all day, they were jostled in a line, they had to sit when they wanted to stand, they had to be outside when they wanted to be inside, or inside when they wanted to be outside, they had to listen but they didn’t understand, they had to focus and take on new information and now, they’re done. It isn’t really about the sandwich, the sandwich could have been formed into a to scale model of a triceratops and it would probably have been wrong. They need to let it out. They don’t have the capacity to tell you what is wrong, they don’t have the capacity to “just calm down”. They are emotionally overwhelmed.
So what can we do?
- We can be there for them. We can hug them, we can name their emotions. I can hear how angry you are, I can tell how sad you are. We can tell them we love them, we can stay calm and be there. Naming emotions and talking about them helps them develop the ability to start to use words to describe how they feel BEFORE they get to this stage in future. It helps build their neocortex (the part of the brain that controls our emotions, and our reasoned thoughts). Our love and our relationships with them, our acceptance of them even when they are struggling helps them get better at dealing with their feelings. On the other hand, when we shout and scream back they feel rejected, they feel less loved, and they learn to fear these big emotions, they try to suppress them, like they do at school, and they never learn to process them and deal calmly with them. That means that they tend to continue to burst out in uncontrolled misery or angry rages for much longer, even into adulthood. Supporting our children as calmly as we can, loving them when they feel most unlovable is one of our hardest jobs as parents because these tantrums tend to trigger us, and our feelings of failure or shame. They make us feel some really uncomfortable things. We aren’t perfect, so when we don’t handle these tempests with zen like calm, we can apologise, another valuable life skill to model to our children, and we try again next time.
- The other thing we can do, which I mentioned in my recent blog, is meet their basic physical needs! Sounds simple but think how hard you find being patient when you are hangry and need a pee! If you can get them to eat, drink and go to the toilet then you tend to raise the flashpoint that triggers these explosions of feelings so you have some warning and chance to avert them and talk, hug, or intervene to help them manage the situation and the feelings before they become too much for them.
- Work out what works for them. For Jacob, after school the ideal activity for around an hour was to curl up in a blanket fort, or on the sofa, with a big snack (small snack on school run, big snack at home was our pattern) and zone out. No demands for chat, no questions about his day, no requests to do things. With me, sitting next to him, snuggled up. Often I could leave after ten minutes, do a bit of chopping veg or whatever for dinner if needs be. For your child, especially in older years as sitting still is more part of their day, running around may be key. Going for a walk, visiting the park, playing in the garden can work well. If this can be with you to give you something fun you have done together, a bit of quality time, something to laugh with them about, something to reflect on as a positive thing at the end of the day then this helps hugely with reconnecting.
- Be ready for bedtime– I don’t mean fantasising about the cuppa and chocolate bar, although I know that feeling. I mean, regardless of how many times you ask your child about their day after school, bedtime, as they really start to relax, is when a lot of the worries come out. It’s when kids are often best able to talk about how they feel, and this can be incredibly frustrating when you are tired and needing to relax, but it is also really important to hold that space for them to open up. If it is routinely taking a long time for them to talk over their feelings each night, then factor that into bedtime, even if you go upstairs 15 minutes earlier to allow it to happen for a few weeks. Listen to what they are saying, empathise with them, name emotions. You don’t always have to turn it into a big discussion. Sometimes just allowing them space to feel heard will be enough for them to feel better and to drop off to sleep. Sometimes it will throw up issues that do need to be addressed at another time, whether by a more in depth conversation about expectations at school, or by speaking to the school to let them know of your concerns or what your child is struggling with so they can be more aware and support them with these issues. You can let your child know that you will help them with that and that you will set some time aside to talk to them in the morning, or the next afternoon, or with their teacher when you get to school the next day. Again, try to be patient with them, as parents we want our children to come to us with their worries, discouraging them from talking about them too firmly risks them not feeling able to talk to us.
And what about you? How can you help yourself cope?
- Find a supportive parenting network. It is hard to deal with our children’s emotions sensitively. It is hard when we feel like we are failing when they aren’t happy or “well behaved”, it is hard when a lot of mainstream parenting approaches seem to work by trying to either bribe or shame children out of showing their emotions. Find a group of people where you can tell them how you are struggling, without them trying to suggest you are doing it wrong or you “should” try this. Friends who can say “I hear you” “I know that feeling” without judging are incredibly valuable. And look, they are doing for you exactly what we are doing for our child. giving them a safe space to express themselves, without trying to distract you or change your approach. Allowing you to feel your feelings and express them and deal with them. These friends are worth their weight in gold!
- Try to meet your own needs too. Eating, drinking, going to the toilet etc allow us to have more patience, but going beyond that too. We can better deal with the many and varied emotions of our kids when we feel valued, when we get the time to do some things that make us feel better about ourselves. In an emergency you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, and as parents we have more capacity to deal sensitively with our children when we make self care a part of our life. For me this means walking or running and getting time completely alone. When this hasn’t happened for a while my ability to cope is hugely reduced. Work with your partner, family, or friends to make sure you (all) get the time you need to meet your own needs. You matter too.
Looking for more support? Our ToddlerCalm workshops might be what you are looking for!