Q: Why does my child seem so tired and cranky after school and how should I respond?
A: Many parents are frustrated when, after a typical day of school, their child is cranky or has a huge meltdown at home. His teachers report everything is fine during the day and yet at home after school he is a mess.
Kids on the spectrum may be stressed by stimuli that we take for granted. Although they may not show it on the surface, they work very hard all day just to cope. Especially for those easily overstimulated kids, a school full of noisy peers and fluorescent lights all day is a challenge in and of itself. Much like an adult in a demanding professional setting, a child can “hold it together” all day and then hit the wall when he gets home.
Here are some things to consider:
- When your child walks through that door, he is home, a safe place where everyone still loves you even when you fall apart. He may feel overwhelmed at school but not be able to express this until he is home and can let it all hang out. It’s not because the child is miserable at school, or that he likes school better than home, but because he loves you and feels safe at home.
- For kids on the autism spectrum, both the ability to hold it together all day at school AND the ability to appropriately “decompress” (i.e. self-regulate and calm down) at home is harder than for the “average bear”. He will need your help to figure this out.
- Let’s be honest: Meltdowns are inevitable for kids and adults alike when we are pushing ourselves hard. If the previous night’s sleep was poor, or the day particularly long (think about those activities we go to after school) there will be a time where we just can’t hold it together anymore.
How to address this? Adults hit the gym, watch the news, surf the web, have a beer, take a bath, eat some chocolate, etc. Typically during the late afternoon/evening hours, kids need some down time for a snack and play. He may then have another burst of energy and ready for homework and activity again. Here are some strategies to help decrease meltdowns and fatigue after school:
- Building physical endurance can be helpful especially in older children. If your child is low tone, sluggish and sleepy all evening, he may need more physical activity to reach and sustain alert levels required to finish those last tasks as well as blow off steam. Our bodies, muscles included, support our nervous system and brain function. Slowly building strength and endurance over time will allow your child to tolerate more physically and mentally. (More on this endurance issue next month!)
- Don’t underestimate the power of going for a walk before dinner to clear everyone’s head and pump the heart. Physical activity also will support good sleep patterns, which helps set up the day for better coping.
- Some kids benefit from a snack followed by physical activity to help burn off those stress chemicals, create input that is calming, and help with body awareness. His focus during the upcoming meal (which is a stressful time for many of our kids) or homework can be made easier. Swinging for 20 minutes in a hammock, riding a bike, or jumping on a trampoline are after school favorites for many families.
- School staff may be resistant when parents ask for more support in the classroom because they are not seeing behaviors at home. However, addressing stress during school can reduce that buildup of stress over the day, allowing more productive outcomes in all areas of your child’s life.
- Do so by building in regular sensory breaks during the day, adapting assignments, looking at changing work environments, transitions and having a safe place to decompress or take breaks at school. Help your team understand that this supports your child at home and will also increase his ability to learn.
- At home, some downtime with a book, or favorite TV show (20-30 min) with a snack (ideally carbohydrates combined with a protein) will give children time to regroup.
- Quiet play in the child’s room can be a winner. -Do I mean stimming? Maybe. Isn’t that what we adults are doing when we decompress with Facebook or reruns of “Big Bang Theory”? It’s good stuff, in small doses. Let them stim for a bit, but only if you can get them re-engaged afterward.
- Keep the screen time to a minimum and know that it does not generally help with reduction of stress levels or self-regulation in the big picture. Avoid it right before bed or homework.
- A note on napping: So many of our spectrum kids are up and down all night. After your child is 7 or 8 years old, I generally advise to end napping so that he is appropriately fatigued at bedtime. Keep in mind it’s different for every child; a nap before homework may not be a great idea and may disrupt the nightly sleep cycle for a 10-year-old boy. However, for a kindergartener, a quick nap before dinner may be helpful. If your older child naps but he is not sleeping at night, it may be a good idea to explore his sleep patterns further and tweak them a bit to help with nights.
As always with sensory strategies, it is trial and error, so be persistent and patient!
Joanna Blanchard is an occupational therapist and the mother of two boys on opposite ends of the autism spectrum. She is the owner of Everybody Stims Occupational Therapy in Vancouver, Washington. Have a question for Joanna? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.