Many of us imagine late afternoons or evenings with our children as the perfect time to wind down and connect after a busy day. Unfortunately, this is often precisely when our children need to unload the day’s stresses. Which means that instead of enjoying restorative quality time together, we’re faced with challenging behavior, high emotions, and discontent. Janet unpacks some of the reasons why evenings can be so difficult for kids and what we can do to help them (and ourselves!).
Transcript of “End of the Day Crazies with Kids” Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be talking about something most parents are aware of: that the end of the day with children can be challenging. This is true even if we’re home with children all day, but it’s especially true when there’s been separation throughout the day that our child is going to school or to childcare or they’re at home being cared for, and we’ve been somewhere else, and then we’re reconnecting. I’m going to offer some guidelines and then examples from parents who’ve written to me, and I’m really hoping this will be helpful.
Okay, so at the end of the day, children are tired. We’re tired. It’s a tough time. Maybe children are woken up from a nap or they’ve been at school or in a childcare center or at home, and we’ve been away. We’re all reconnecting and it can seem like the longest period of time. How do we get through it? How do we survive this?
First I’m going to share some guidelines for the end of the day madness with kids.
1) Expect it, have our expectations in order that this is a stressful time. We’re maybe not going to be at our best. Our children are probably not going to be at their best either. It is a thing, you’re not imagining it. It’s not just in your family. It happens. And if it doesn’t happen in your family, count your blessings.
And of course, it’s hardest when there are other transitions that are going on in your family’s life: when you or your partner has a new job or children have been out of their routine for whatever reason. Maybe you’ve been on holiday and you’re back and everybody’s getting in the groove again. Maybe there’s a new sibling or a sibling who is maybe now between one and two and starting to walk and talk and be more of a threat to that older child.
So all of those stressors will amplify the difficulty of the situation. We want to expect this so that we don’t come into the situation feeling like we’re doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with our children — that this is our fault. Just that getting caught off-guard makes it so much harder for us.
But in fact, this is a positive. This is how it’s supposed to be that our children offload with the people closest to them.
Part of expecting that this is going to be a wild time is setting ourselves up for success as much as possible. And by success, I’m not talking about a smooth experience because it’s very likely not going to happen, but being able to set ourselves up to make this as painless as possible.
That might mean in the way that we structure ourselves. It can be even something like: before we pick up our children, or before we come home to our children who are there already that we take that moment to listen to that favorite song on our playlist. Or we take that moment when we walk in the door, we’re going to change our clothes and we’re not going to play. We’re not going to deal with our children until then. We’re going to say a big hello, and then say, “Okay, this is my time. I’ve got to go do this and then I’ll be back to you.”
Our children aren’t likely to let us go gracefully. They may claw us grab at us, but if we can calmly hold our ground, it’ll be easier than next time. That’s putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first. That’s that bit of self care.
And sometimes that may be impossible, but there could be some possibilities there that we’re not taking advantage of. So consider that. And then for our children, setting ourselves up for more success is in that predictable routine that we have. It’s understanding children’s true needs and how those might differ from those wants or demands that are coming at us, doing whatever we can to make it work. And that’s obviously gonna be specific to your situation, and that’s why I hope that the notes that I’m going to read in a bit will offer a chance for me to give more specific examples.
The second major point I want to make is:
2) Reimagine quality time. I talk in my book No Bad Kids, about the two hats our child needs us to wear as parents: the party hat and the professional hat. The party hat is when we’re sitting with our child while they play or we’re playing with them, we’re hanging out, we’re laughing. We’re having what’s classically considered quality time: a family meal, a lovely, gentle bedtime routine. That’s when we were in our party hats.
Our professional hat is what children usually need a lot more during the end of the day crazies. This is the hat we’ll be wearing more often than not. And this is also quality time because we’re giving our child so many invaluable messages through our leadership with our professional hat — that we’re going to hold boundaries for our child. We’re not going to let them do those things. We’re not just going to talk about it, we’re going to stop them.
And because we’ve expected this behavior for the most part, we’re coming in without being already overwhelmed. We’re coming in with the challenges already in mind, that our child’s going to need us to stop them. That they sometimes have this wild behavior. They need a safe place for us to help them be, that they’re going to be maybe nagging and nagging us, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” And that we’re going to allow that nagging, understanding it’s just another way that children share the stress of their day and their feelings. We’re not going to give into it as a way to appease our child when it doesn’t work for our bigger plan.
But as leaders, again, maybe we can decide that we will stop and play this game with our child but ,ideally, we’ll strive for that overall awareness that our child needs us to be leaders here.
It’s going to look messy. There are going to be feelings. It’s not going to be smooth and delightful, but it is a really important kind of quality time that we’re giving our children, probably even more important than the party hat time, because it’s doing something that’s harder than having fun together. It’s more challenging for most of us to meet this role, wear this hat with grace and acceptance of what our children are going through, acceptance of the fact that we’re not going to get kudos from them for this job.
That’s where the challenge is really to rise into this higher part of ourselves that can be loving without feeling that love returned, that we can still act out of love without our child’s agreement.
So a major part of this is the third point I want to make. We’re going to:
3) Hold boundaries with a lot of space for children’s feelings. And acknowledging those feelings as much as possible so our child feels seen. We’re not just saying, “I can’t let you do this, I won’t let you do that.” We’re saying, “Yeah, you’re having a hard time. This is tough. You really wanted me to say yes. And I said, No. And that’s so upsetting.” “You’re having a hard time with your sibling, and I’ve got to keep you with me for now because I can’t let you hurt your sibling.” Or, “Oh, looks like you two guys really can’t play right now, so let’s figure out another way.”
Because what we want is to help children feel seen. So they don’t need to keep trying to show us their feelings through their behavior. And we’re not doing this only because it’s positive parenting, but because it’s practical. It’s practical because when children feel seen and heard and safe in these feelings, feelings of wanting to act out with somebody, feelings of just repetitive asking us to do something for them that we can’t do now or we don’t want to do… When they feel safe to share those feelings with us, the feelings pass much more readily. This really is quality time. And if we can see it that way, it’s going to help us to come into these situations with much more confidence and peace in our hearts.
So the next point I want to make:
4) Be realistic and flexible. Cut corners as needed. There’s a lot of research on the benefits of family meals and we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make that happen, right? Because we want to reap those benefits. We want to do what studies show is the best thing.
The thing is, there’s also quite a bit of research on the not so beneficial effects of being stressed out as parents. This doesn’t feel good to us and it’s not helpful to children either. Yes, stressful periods happen and often they are totally out of our control. But stressing about making that family meal or that perfectly nutritional balanced meal or this playtime when we all get home, or any other type of what we perceive as this lovely quality time… trying to make that happen is something that we can work on reimagining and maybe letting go of. Because remember, whatever’s going on now, this is a season of your lives together. It’s a passage that you’re in. It’s not forever. It’s not always.
Every single evening having a meal together isn’t what counts. Making this work for us and our family as best we can is what matters most. So often with young children, that means they need to eat right away and we can give them a snack. But then it could be that by the time dinnertime comes, they’re really too tired to eat anymore, even if they are still hungry. So it may be more helpful to pick up your children and have a picnic on the way home, bring some food, even if it’s leftovers or it’s stuff that you just picked up on the way or whatever. And maybe this picnic will happen in the car, we’ll pull the car over and we’ll just be present with our child. Maybe we’re eating with them, maybe not, but we’re present.
So I would lower expectations around these “perfect quality time” experiences and family meals so that we can take that pressure off of ourselves. It’s not worth it. And the most beneficial part of a family meal is that we’re making a little time to connect with our child in a receptive way, which we can do with a picnic right after school, or their bath, their bedtime routine. We can give children this so many different ways.
For me, with my children very young it was often that we ate at around five o’clock and it was just me with the children or one of the children because my partner worked late. And then as they got older, there were times when they all had sports and after school activities. We had a lot of weekdays without family meals. I would have one-on-one time with each child. Sometimes that has wonderful benefits too.
And somehow our children are still fulfilling their potential as adults now in all areas. And we’re a very close loving family. So it’s not make or break. And there will be time for family meals, Maybe even breakfast works in your family as a family meal sometimes. Or weekends, maybe that’s the time that you have family meals that work for everyone.
Let’s let go of perfect parenting, particularly at the end of a long day when all children really need is to feel connected. And that brings me to the fifth point:
5) Make a new imperfect plan together that works for everybody. Meaning, children can eat when they’re hungry, rest when they’re tired, have downtime. Let them putter. Let them bump against walls. Let them wail if they need to. We’ll be accepting. We’ll be acknowledging maybe we’re even empathizing. That would be something to strive for, but we’re not trying to fix the behavior. We know that this is all part of the afternoon.
If videos are allowed in that family, this would be the time for a very low-key, relaxing, slow paced video. Or even better, I always prioritize audiobooks, or now there are all these podcasts for children, because they have many benefits over screens. They help to develop proper listening skills. They teach children to pay attention to detail and help to build memory skills, especially if children listen to that story more than once. My children wanted to hear the same thing every day, and I realized they were learning a lot from that.
Audio books and podcasts stimulate the imagination and encourage visualization skills. And then there are those ones that I used to love with the book, there’s an actual book that you can have in hand while you’re listening to the audio, and that helps children learn to follow along on a page and can even help them learn reading. So those might be things that we build into the plan.
Okay, now I’m going to read these couple of notes from parents so I can respond to those specifics.
Hi, I have an almost 3.5 year old little boy and an 18-month-old girl. My little boy has always had high energy and is extremely strong willed, but also a charming and funny little character. His preschool says he’s kind and caring and is building friendships while there. My concern is when he gets home from preschool, he goes wild. He’s running up and down, literally climbing the walls, throwing toys, and most frustratingly hitting and kicking his little sister. Nothing rolls me up more than when he hurts his innocent sweet little sister who never fights back and gets so upset from this interaction. I calmly try and tell him I won’t let you hit her, but he just keeps going and going until I take him out of the room as I can feel myself getting frustrated with him and I really don’t wanna lose it. How else can I approach this situation?
Most of the time he is really caring to his little sister. It just seems to be after preschool when they haven’t seen each other all day as his sister is in a nursery in a different building, many things. I would really appreciate your thoughts.
Okay, so using these guidelines for this situation, number one, expect it because he’s gone off to preschool. It’s a huge experience for young children and I’m sure that he’s extending himself. He’s rising to that occasion, but they are going to fall apart when they leave. It’s wonderful that he’s getting good feedback from the preschool because that’s what I would look for if my child seems incredibly stressed, especially if it’s no longer the beginning of the school year. If my child has been going for a while and they still come home with so much stress, I would always want to take a look at how they are at school because we want to make sure that this experience is not too overwhelming for them, that they are able to play and manage themselves there well enough.
So he’s got a brilliant report: “kind and caring and building friendships.” We can’t ask for more than that.
But he gets home and all that pent up energy is whew! He’s overwhelmed and he can’t manage himself. So understanding that helps it to see that none of this is personal. And if his parent has gotten really upset about him having negative interactions with the sibling, then instead of feeling that safety, he’s maybe feeling that he’s in trouble already or that he’s going to get himself into trouble. And this is kind of a scary situation.
So we can dial that way down with our expectation and with reimagining her quality time: that this guy needs her to wear the professional hat with him.
And number three, holding boundaries with a lot of space for his feelings. So instead of saying, “I won’t let you hit her,” he really needs that vibe of a helping hand, staying safe and venting his feelings in the energy of the day. So, “I won’t let you hit her. And wow, you’re all wound up. What can we do?” Maybe the sister could have a safe play space that would be a setup for success that he can’t enter. I’m not sure if that’s possible. Also, just deescalating your reaction to this because it really is very typical, typical behavior: lashing out at the sibling because he knows that gets a big rise, a scary rise for him out of his parent. But it’s really a call for help and for making a new plan together that works.
So I might sit him down with you in a quiet moment and say, “This is what I see. And you’re having so much trouble when you get home and those feelings, feeling wild and wanting to run around. What can we do to help you?”
And when you bring it to him like this, instead of: you’re doing something wrong and I need you to do better, you’re actually joining him in, This is our family, I want to help. We’re going to figure this out together. I see you and I realize you’re not being intentional with this behavior. It’s out of your control. Because really for the most part it is. And this is what I have to do. So I need to take care of these things when you get home.
And then maybe, “Here’s a little window of time that I will have for you. So how would you like to spend that time? How would you like me to help you when I can’t be with you? What kind of activities will be helpful for you?” Maybe he needs something that could give him a physical outlet, if there was some kind of play equipment that he could bounce on or jump on.
But most importantly, it’s our whole attitude that creates that sense of: Yes, you’re wound up, but we expect this and we’re calm about it. We’re not mad at you. That’s what helps shift the behavior.
Here’s another question:
Hi Janet. Your insights have had an enormous impact on how we raised our five and six-year-old daughters. We have happy children who respect our boundaries and who we love being around. This fall, we entered another stage of life. Our youngest entered kindergarten. While this is the second time we’ve had a child in kindergarten, this has been a very different experience for us. Our lovely daughter goes to school happy and as herself and comes home as an off the walls. A silly, exhausted, bossy and defiant little one. We know how exhausted she’s been from a long day at school and from possibly holding in lots of feelings during the day. We want to be that safe place where she can release all of her feelings. But we have struggled to find a routine that allows her to do that and also allows us to have any quality family time together at all. We’ve had a snack prepared for her right when she gets home, since we know she gets hungry and we’ve had her go to her room for some “yes” time, but we can’t seem to figure out a routine that helps her regulate in time for dinner.
During dinner, she’s lying on her chair, refusing to eat, crying. We then ask her to return to her room and come down when she’s ready to eat. This results in us rarely being at the table altogether. I’m not sure if the snack is interfering with her dinner or if for a while she just won’t be able to regulate enough to sit with us and eat. Maybe we let go of that expectation altogether while she adjusts to school? It used to be one of my favorite times of day, so it’s extra hard to let that go. And I’m sure I’ve been placing extra weight and importance on her behavior at that time, which she picks up on. I would love to hear more about your suggestions for this, particularly for children who have a lot to release after school. I’m guessing others can benefit from your advice too.
This parent has a lot of self-reflective ability here and she’s answering a lot of her own questions. Going over the guidelines around this situation: expect this. So expecting this behavior more. It could be that the other child in the family is not such an intense or sensitive personality and had a different kind of adjustment to Kindergarten. Kindergarten is a big deal. Any kind of new situation is a big deal. But for this child, she’s showing that, yeah, she’s struggling right now. So expecting this. It sounds like this parent already does this. She knows she’s been exhausted from the long day that she’s holding lots of feelings. Very intuitive parent here tuned in to her child. She says, though, that she struggled to find a routine that allows her child to release those feelings and also allows us to have any quality family time together.
So, reimagining quality time, really understanding this little girl’s floppiness instead of trying to get her to go along with this family dinner plan, which may be coming too late for her, even if she didn’t have the snack. Often tiredness overcomes hunger. And this would be difficult… for her to sit and eat dinner at that time. A lot of parents share this issue with me. I would try to do an earlier dinner with maybe just you and the two daughters, or just you and the younger daughter, figuring out another way that she can get her needs met. And you can have that family time in another way or on the weekends or as this parent said, maybe just let go of that expectation altogether while she adjusts to school. And this parent admits it used to be one of her favorite times of day, so it’s hard to let go of and she’s putting all this weight on it.
So yes, when we put weight on things, when we put that pressure on ourselves to make something work, then it shortens our fuse with our children’s behavior, right? Because we just want them to go along with that so much. And really it’s our expectation. And it sounds like with this family, everything’s going okay until that point. It sounds like she’s already holding boundaries with space for feelings because she understands that that’s part of what her child needs to do.
But trying to get her to come for a late dinner is not really a boundary that we can hold because a child is tired, a child isn’t hungry, and it’s not in our power to change that. So making that new plan together, reimagining this time, which could just be a season in your life. Everything changes so quickly with young children. And really the important thing is that we’re easy on ourselves, good to ourselves so we can meet the challenges of this time of day with as much confidence as possible.
And then there will be little surprises where it works. A nice moment here or there, when we can say, Oh, this was quality time, but maybe it only lasted two seconds. That’s okay too, because quality time, again is wearing that professional hat. At the end of the day, just helping our child get through, helping our whole family just get through it as best we can.
Please check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon. That’s No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting . You can get them in ebook at Amazon or Apple, Google Play, or barnes and noble.com and in firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.