How to Manage After-School Meltdowns With a Neurodivergent Child

Photo: Tracy Garbett (Shutterstock)

By the time your child gets home from school, there’s a good chance they are ready for a class after-school meltdown. Also known as after-school restraint collapse, these meltdowns often happen because a child has been exerting an extraordinary amount of effort to behave during the school day, only to lose their control the moment they reach a place where they feel safe. These meltdowns are especially likely for neurodivergent children with disorders that affect their social and/or cognitive abilities, including ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or dyscalculia.

“Kids are expending extraordinary amounts of energy going through their daily lives in a neurotypical world with a neurodivergent brain,” said Andrew Kahn, a psychologist with the non-profit Understood. This could include spending the day in an overwhelming sensory environment; having to exert additional energy sitting still, focusing on the teacher, or deciphering social cues; or having additional difficulties with reading and/or math. “Navigating those wiring differences is a little bit like riding your bike in the wrong gear all day long. It’s exhausting,” Kahn said.

Offer compassion 

If your child is regularly having meltdowns once they get home from school, it’s important to have compassion for what they are going through—and to find a way to help them self-regulate their emotions. As Kahn notes, meltdowns are different from tantrums in the sense that meltdowns are driven by emotions, to the point that all logic goes out the window. “A meltdown is not a negotiable moment,” Kahn said. “They’re not responsive to reinforcement and consequences.”

To help their children, parents need to establish a safe space and some calm down rituals, while also extending some compassion for what they may be going through. “If we can understand they are really having a hard time, then we can have compassion,” said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, author of the book The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More.

Find a way to keep your own cool 

This includes finding ways of coping with these outbursts without losing your cool. “What happens for parents is that their emotions escalate as their children’s emotions escalate, so that they all become less logical in the moment, and then it just becomes a nightmare,” Kahn said. That’s why it’s important to anticipate that there will be periodic meltdowns and identify strategies for keeping your cool. “You’ve got to keep your fuel tank filled in order to handle it,” Taylor-Klaus said.

If your child hasn’t reached a meltdown yet, but is frustrated from their day, Taylor-Klaus recommends giving them some extra space to vent, without passing judgment on their struggles. “You’ve got to give them the space,” she said. “It’s about meeting them where they are at and acknowledging that their experiences are real.”

Work on transitions 

For many kids who are struggling at school, the transition from school to home can be especially difficult. “Parents need to be mindful that transitioning from one environment to another is really hard for kids at times, especially neurodivergent kids, and the best way to make those transitions more effective is to talk about them, especially when everyone is calm, and to problem-solve in advance,” Kahn said.

If your child is prone to struggling at school, then it helps to plan for the outbursts, or plan for the days when they are upset because nothing went right, and they are struggling to understand what their teacher expects of them. “Plan for the outbursts, plan for the uncomfortable moments by creating strategies for your child, to help them feel more in control, and stay calm,” Kahn said.

Establish a homework routine but adjust as needed 

If homework is an issue due to a learning disorder, Kahn recommends establishing a routine for your child, where they are working on learning the concepts for a set amount of time every day—but to also adjust the material as needed so it stays at a manageable level for them. “Parents should not be in a position where they are trying to re-teach their child, as that is just going to trigger them and make things explosive,” Kahn said.

Instead, it can help to dedicate that time to reinforcing previous concepts they have learned or to work on alternative exercises that are at a manageable level. “It never hurts for kids to really nail down some of those really basic skills,” Kahn said.

This establishes a routine and expectation, that they will be working on math or reading for a set amount of time after school, while keeping it at a manageable level. “If the kid knows the expectation is always the same, but the tasks will be able to be shifted, then they are much less likely to blast off or melt down eventually,” Kahn said.

   

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