A mom of an eight-year-old boy called me as a last resort. In the days before making the call, she met with the classroom teacher, the school director and the school psychologist. She spent time in the classroom, observed from her car during recess and kept a close eye on him during his soccer games on the weekend. No matter how much investigating she did, she couldn’t figure out why her son seemed so unhappy every afternoon.

This mom went on to describe a scenario that I hear from parents of school age children over and over again: He’s bright and happy in the morning, but completely miserable when he gets home. He lashes out at his parents, he can’t get along with his siblings and he falls apart for no real reason. At first, she thought exhaustion was to blame. After a couple of weeks, she began looking for clues at school. What she found out too her by surprise: He was perfectly fine in school all day. In fact, his teacher couldn’t think of a single issue that might cause the meltdowns.

Going to school can be completely exhausting for many kids. The school day can be physically, emotionally and mentally draining. Young children expend a lot of energy sitting still and focusing in class. They have rules to follow, work to complete and responsibilities to fulfill. Many of them lack sufficient time to play, run and regroup throughout the day. By the time they get home from school, they are quick to fall apart.

The bad news is that kids tend to save their most difficult behavior for their parents. The silver lining is that they trust us to help them through those trying moments and to love them anyway. The good news in all of this is that we make simple changes to help kids cope with the overwhelming emotions that often settle in once the day is done. Here’s how:

Leave the questions for later. It’s no big secret that busy is the new normal, and sometimes this leads to immediate questions about what kids learned during the school day, how much homework needs to get done and what happened during recess. We engage in insta-catch-up during the ride from here to there because we want to connect with our kids, but most kids need time to decompress and zone out before discussing the daily play-by-play.

A simple greeting and a hug or high-five is a great way to connect and provide emotional space from the school day. “I’m so happy to see you!” is my favorite after school greeting with my own kids. They both meet me with big smiles when I start with a positive statement.

Prioritize downtime. Kids need time to play, hang out, read or create on their own terms. Unstructured time is the first thing to go when families get busy, and that can have big repercussions for kids.

After school routines should include plenty of time for kids to unwind and engage in free play.

Be present. We worry about the impact of screen time on the developing brain, but we forget that our own screen time use can negatively impact our relationship with our kids. If your child senses a disconnect, he will retreat. It’s important for us to disconnect from our phone and other screens when our kids come home from school.

The best way to reconnect with our kids is to be present when they are in our presence. Make eye contact. Listen with intent. Let your child speak without attempting to fix any identified problems. Often, children need someone to listen while they work through their feelings and problem-solve out loud.

Play together. I often recommend playing a board game or a simple card game with children right after school. Spending time playing quietly together or reading together helps ease kids out of the overwhelming feelings that the end of the day brings and into a calmer state of mind.

Snack it up. Get ahead of the hunger crash by planning the after school snacks in advance. Many children come home starving and dehydrated, even if they communicate otherwise. This is not the time to try new foods, however. Put out snacks they enjoy with tall glasses of water and sit with them while they refuel.

Create a homework routine. Prevent homework wars by setting up a clutter-free spot to work and trying to do the homework at the same time each day. Set a timer and allow for plenty of breaks. If your child is struggling, write a note to the teacher and close the books for the day.

Kids are under increased pressure today. They are learning academics earlier and earlier. They also don’t have enough time to release energy. It’s no surprise our kids return home in a compromised state. It’s important for us to let our kids get back to the business of being a kid to help decrease stress and improve their emotional well–being. 


Katie Hurley, LCSW is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, CA and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World (Tarcher/Penguin 2015).