The after-school period can be one of the hardest parts of the day for families. Kids who have gotten through the school day without a hitch walk through the front door and immediately fall to pieces.
Some experts refer to this phenomenon as “after-school restraint collapse.” Children spend all day keeping themselves in check — or at least trying to. Their self-control collapses as soon as they reach the safety of home. It can be frustrating for parents, but it’s perfectly normal. (It can also be a sign that you’re doing something right, too, since your kids feel safe to let down their guard at home.)
Once you recognize that this is a typical reaction to the end of the day, you can start making a plan. The goal isn’t to “fix” your children. Rather, it’s to provide a structure that allows space for release and regrouping. Here are nine activities to help you support your kids’ mental health after school.
#1) Outdoor play
Who says kids have to rush in the door as soon as they get home? After a day in the school building, some fresh air may do them good. Plus, outdoor adventures give your kids time to burn off steam before digging into their homework.
The activities your child chooses may depend on the space and equipment you have available. For example, a warm day and a backyard pool are the perfect combo for an afternoon swim.
Other ideas include:
- Climbing on a swingset
- Kicking a soccer ball
- Playing tag
- Riding bikes
- Shooting baskets
- Taking a walk
If the weather isn’t cooperative, try indoor physical activities instead. Need ideas? Try bouncing on a mini trampoline, hitting a kid-size punching bag or having a family dance party.
Hungry kids are often crabby kids. (That goes for adults, too.) Nip afternoon crankiness in the bud by having a snack waiting for kids as soon as they get home. Their moods may improve after just a few bites.
Snack time is also an opportunity to load your children up with extra nutrition. Try combination snacks that include a couple major food groups, like celery sticks and dip, yogurt cups sprinkled with berries, or whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese.
Some kids crave connection with a parent when they get home from school. They don’t want to be peppered with questions; they just want you to be nearby.
Reading together could satisfy this need. For the youngest kids, a few picture books will do the trick. Elementary students and up may enjoy sharing a novel — one chapter per afternoon — with Mom or Dad. Even teens can benefit from read-alouds. If reading out loud isn’t your thing, listen to an audiobook together instead.
Some children may want to snuggle with you and a blanket during this time. Physical touch can help them feel close to you after a day apart.
#4) Board or card games
For another approach to after-school bonding, take a look in your game closet. Board games and cards can help kids and parents unwind together after a long day.
Save the hours-long board games for the weekend. For afternoon play, pick games that take just 10 or 15 minutes. You may be able to squeeze in a few rounds before heading to the homework table. As you play, your kids and teens may start to let down their guards and, unprompted, share stories from the day.
If the idea of losing is more likely to amp your children up instead of calming them down, try cooperative board games. All players work together to achieve a common goal. Everyone wins — or everyone loses — together. Cooperative games are great for building teamwork and engaging kids who hate to lose.
#5) Water play
There’s a piece of new-mom advice you may have seen before: calm a crying baby by putting him in water. Your school-age child might not be a baby anymore, but the same tip still applies.
Water provides sensory input. It can be quite calming for overstimulated kids. Half an hour in the tub with some toys and bubbles may turn your worn-out grump into a brand-new kid.
Plus, an afternoon bath will wash away the school germs and get your child one step closer to being ready for bed.
If you’ve ever felt more centered after a yoga class, then you know how calming this activity can be. Encourage your kids to try it, too.
Any yoga could help, but try to focus on inversion poses. Don’t worry, there’s no standing on your head required. Just position your body in ways that put your head lower than your heart. That sends blood to the brain and has been shown to reduce anxiety.
Child’s pose is an inversion that’s suitable for beginners. Start in a kneeling position and lower your chest until your head is resting on the floor. Breathe slowly and calmly while in this position.
#7) Alone time
Some kids crave parent-child connection after school. Others need space to decompress. If the latter applies to your children, then let them have some alone time.
Keep in mind that wanting to be alone isn’t a rejection of you. It’s just the way some people are wired. After some time on their own, your kids may be in a better headspace for family togetherness.
Every kid’s alone time looks different. Some may want to stretch out on their beds. Others may stick their noses in books or head to the toy room to build with blocks. Drawing, dolls and fidget toys are additional possibilities.
You could choose to allow some after-school screen time, too, but keep it brief. Playing a game on the tablet or watching a show may give your child a chance to regroup. If you go this route, set boundaries ahead of time so that your kids know what activities are allowed and how long screen time will last.
For some children, music offers a creative outlet. If your kids have a musical bent, they might enjoy reconnecting with their instruments after school. Teens, in particular, may benefit from this activity.
This shouldn’t be a time of high-pressure practice. Instead, it’s an opportunity for kids to relax and simply enjoy making music. If they’re into guitar, let them strum away. Piano players’ fingers might tap out tunes they’ve known for years.
Even if your kids aren’t musical, they could find familiar songs comforting. Yours may prefer to pop in a pair of earbuds and spend 30 minutes listening to their favorite albums.
#9) The right questions
Once your kids have had some downtime, they may be ready to talk. When that happens, your role is to ask the right questions.
“How was your day?” isn’t the best choice. Most days are a mixed bag, and your kids may be unsure how to properly answer. It’s also a question that will likely lead to a one-word response.
Try these conversation starters instead:
- What made you laugh?
- Can you share something you’re proud of?
- What was the best thing about the school day?
- When did your teacher seem really happy today?
- What did you do at recess?
Be prepared to listen to your kids’ stories — and to share a few of your own.