Navigating After-School Emotions

Children and teens often come home with intense emotions. By understanding why, addressing the basics, and staying stable, we can help them develop emotion regulation.

mom comforting little girl

At the end of a school day, it can be hard to know who’s going to walk through the door. Will your kiddo be elated, down in the dumps, overwhelmed with energy, or a shifting mess between them all? Here are some tips on helping your child navigate their after-school emotions – so you can feel better, too!

  1. Understand Why Feelings Are Often Strong After School

Regardless of circumstance, children and teens feel emotions in a more intense way than adults. This occurs because the emotion center of the brain – the amygdala – is proliferating while the part of the brain that inhibits outbursts of feelings and behaviors – the prefrontal cortex – is not fully functional until about 25 years of age.

On top of this neuropsychological challenge, children and teens have had to “hold it together” all school day. Willpower is like a muscle, researchers have found, and it gets depleted with use. By the time our children come home, they may be unable to manage even the slightest upset, such as having their favorite snack run out.

Finally, the school day can be full of minor and major blows to their developing sense of self and esteem. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, children and teens actively and constantly comparing themselves to one another in all ways – from academics to athletics to appearance – and are trying to forge an identity through the reactions they receive about their choices and abilities. In other words, the school day is filled with “self-relevant data,” and they’re soaking every little bit up. That’s a lot to process.

  1. Address The Basics

Once we’ve understood why our kids are often not their best selves when they get home from school, the next step to navigating after-school emotions is to make sure their basic needs are met. While this is especially important for younger children, whose emotion regulation skills are less developed and therefore more vulnerable to minor disturbances, even teens benefit from having their basic needs attended to.

The after-school snack has become a cultural norm for good reason: our brains use a lot of energy, so the more they’ve thought during the day, the more they need to reload their calories. In addition, there is evidence that willpower – including emotion regulation – is boosted by enhancing blood sugar. Finally, many kids are too distracted, busy, or overwhelmed to eat enough during the school day and so need to make up the difference soon after school ends.

Giving the body a chance to rest can also be invaluable for emotional resilience. While you may believe in the importance of doing homework right away, if your child is showing intense emotions during this immediate homework time, it’s worth considering whether a short break before continued action might make a difference in performance.

The “basics” for each child are also very individualized. Some kids, especially young ones, can’t control their emotions as well when they need to use the bathroom, for instance, and others might need snuggle time to feel reassured after a long day apart. Knowing what’s worked for your child in the past – even if it was years ago – can give you clues about what to try in the present.

  1. Listen Without Fixing

Simply being present for our children at the end of the day has been found by researchers to be invaluable – especially during the teen years. They might not want to talk, and the ubiquitous “nothing” response to our questions can make us feel like we’re not needed. That said, by being present and available, information about their day may come spilling out.

Some of that information may feel alarming. They’ll suddenly mention a peer who has been saying hurtful things on the playground or over social media, for instance, or they’ll announce that they “never” plan to do a certain activity they’ve previously loved “ever again.” It’s natural to want to jump into fix-it mode when they provide information like this – especially when we believe it may be underlying their foul mood. They’re likely to clam up, though, if we immediately start throwing out advice and “you should”’s – especially if they’re a tween or teen.

Sometimes they simply need to vent the information and feel heard (which we can do by saying things like “that sounds difficult”), and that’s all it takes for their mood to shift. If more is needed, we can ask, “would you like help thinking of ways to work through this?” and, if so, empower them to solve their challenges by brainstorming together and helping them choose their course of action.

  1. Watch For Patterns

While empowering our children is often the best tack to take for their long-term emotion regulation, there are situations where we’ll need to intervene. For instance, repeated mentions of harm done by the same peer, any mentions of abuse or neglect perpetrated on them or others, or longstanding patterns in their emotions regardless of circumstances all warrant a proactive response from us. Contacting your child’s pediatrician and/or teacher in these situations is a good place to start.

In general, our kids’ big feelings after school tend to result from fatigue and overwhelm and are actually a sign of their sense of security at home. While it can be frustrating in the moment, serving as a stable presence teaches children emotion regulation practices will set them up to be able to handle harder and longer days as they grow up.