There's another reason that kids who are at daycare or school all day lose it when they're reunited with you. It's hard work for little people to keep it together all day in the face of all those developmental challenges, disappointments and rules. All day, they store up big feelings they can't process, waiting to be safe with Mom or Dad to let those emotions fly. This is true even if they love daycare or school and beg you to pick them up later. It may be fun, but navigating all those people is still stressful.
So the minute they see you, their "executive self" relaxes, and their "baby self" comes out to seek comfort. If you don't know what's happening, this can totally ruin your evening. But if you're ready to be emotionally present for your child and can focus on connecting with them, you'll stave off some meltdowns and set a pleasant tone for the evening. It all starts with you. Here's how.
1. If you can manage it, change into your jeans before you leave the office.
I know, it sounds crazy. But the minute you do, you begin to relax. And make sure to use the bathroom before you leave the office! What if you've been home with little ones all day? Steal five minutes to wash your face, have a cup of tea, and do nothing. Really, nothing.
2. Then, before you pick up your kids, sit in the car for five minutes by yourself.
Put on some soothing music. Breathe deeply. Notice the sensations in your body. Acknowledge how you're feeling. Then, put your hand on your heart. Pretend your heart is doing the breathing, and imagine the breath going in and out through your heart (this has been proven to lower stress hormones.) Tell yourself what a good job you did all day. Think of one nice thing you can do for yourself this evening (A hot bubble bath? Call an old friend? Go to bed early?) and promise yourself that present tonight. Acknowledge that after the kids go to sleep is your time, while this next few hours is "kid time." Then, get in touch with how much you love your kids and how much you want a nice connection with them. Once you've filled your own cup, you'll find you have a lot more to offer your kids.
3. Give your kids lots of hugs and "pre-emptive" attention when you pick them up.
When your kids get in the car, what they need is to re-connect with you. Turn off the radio and focus on them. Give everyone a big hug and a loving look in the eye. Make a ritual of starting with the youngest, and ask them how they're feeling. Most parents ask about their days, which is fine -- but many kids aren't ready to answer until they decompress. Be sure to ask open-ended questions to get them talking while you drive. You'll find that your kids will come to love this ritual because of your intense listening, so they wait for their turn with great anticipation.
Are they bickering in the car? Space them as far apart as possible, and give them healthy snacks to eat so their hands are busy. If the bickering is intractable, you can try listening to an audiobook on the drive home to keep everyone distracted, but it isn't as good as connection.
If you can get everyone laughing with a little roughhousing before you even get in the car, that's the best medicine of all. It melts away the stress hormones circulating in the body, and increases the bonding hormones!
4. Keep your kids with you when you walk into the kitchen to start dinner.
Why? Because they haven't seen you all day and they need to reconnect with you. Until they do, they're much harder to manage, and much more likely to fight with each other. They're also more likely to get into trouble while you're preoccupied with getting dinner on the table -- pediatricians will tell you that kids have more accidents at this time of day. They're overstimulated from being tired, which means they have stress hormones coursing through their veins -- that's how kids manage to get through the afternoon when they're tired, and it's what makes them so cranky and often hyperactive at this time of day. Using TV at this point can become an addiction because it tamps down the feelings your child has stored up all day, and numbs children out. But unfortunately when it's time to turn off the TV, all those unprocessed emotions come bursting out.
Instead, start a routine of sitting your kids down at a little table in the kitchen with a healthy snack, and some paper to draw on if they're toddlers or preschoolers. Ask them to draw you a picture of their day. If they're older, they can sit at the kitchen table and do homework while they snack. Young children may show you with their crankiness that they need your help to restore emotional regulation; the best way to do that is a short roughhousing game in which you get them giggling to let off their tension. Not a structured game, but any silly little interaction in which you express your affection and undying love in such a hammed-up way that it gets your child giggling. (Be a bucking bronco...Sing silly songs....arm wrestle.) You'll find that three minutes invested in re-connecting this way can transform your evening.
5. Put healthy snacks in front of the kids as soon as you walk in the door.
Set up a low table in the kitchen that your kids can sit at and draw and snack. Worried that you'll spoil their appetites? Make sure the snacks are healthy. Crackers with peanut butter, cheese slices, carrots, olives, broccoli florets, raisins, bananas, apple slices, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, red pepper slices, raw or cooked green beans, hard boiled eggs, even a healthy smoothie..... anything nutritious that takes less than five minutes to prepare, or that can be prepared the night before. In fact, think of this snack as the first course of dinner, and make sure your kids are getting protein or vitamins from it. It's amazing how many more vegies kids consume when they're served as a snack rather than competing with the carbs on the dinner plate. Don't forget to feed yourself a bit as you prep dinner, so you recharge your own batteries.
6. Are your kids antsy, not able to sit in one place to draw and snack?
Put them to work and tell them how much you value their help. As you chop the vegies, they can put them in the bowl. Or they can get ingredients out of the fridge for you. When it's time to eat, have everyone set the table together. Consider a "safety tower" for little ones to work next to you.
7. What to do when your youngest is a baby or toddler
What to do when your youngest is a baby or toddler who is just too tired even to sit and snack in a high chair? Get out the sling or baby backpack and let her watch from your back as you make dinner.
8. Simplify so you can connect.
Don't answer your phone and don't return phone calls before dinner. In fact, turn your phone off so you won't be tempted to check your texts. Don't go through the mail or complete school forms. Do not go near your computer to "quickly check email." Just get everyone fed as soon as possible. Once that's completed, everyone will have more internal resources to draw on to tend to any other tasks that need to be accomplished, including any kid chores.
9. Use the power of music.
Research shows that music can lift our moods, calm us down, make us happy. As soon as you walk in the door, put on soothing music.
10. As a matter of simple survival, don't spend more than 20 minutes getting dinner on the table.
Anything that's quick and nutritious is fine to serve for dinner on weeknights. When you cook a meal on the weekend, always cook several batches and freeze some (stews, soups, beans, lasagna, casseroles). You should be able to get a frozen main dish out of your freezer twice a week before you leave for work, and just add a salad that evening as the meal is heating up. The other three meals? Pasta, eggs, beans, quinoa, broiled fish or chicken. If your gourmet sensibilities are offended by this simplicity, think about what's more important -- an easy, happy family evening, or a gourmet meal. You can always cook on weekends when you have all day and (hopefully) adult backup.
I know it seems like extra work to cook and plan ahead. But the daily stress of being hungry and not knowing what you'll serve hungry kids for dinner can sabotage your mood and thus everything positive you do with your kids. If you're more of a free spirit, you don't have to plan, just look in your freezer every morning. If you can't find anything, make the decision right then in the morning: Will you order pizza tonight, or make scrambled eggs?
11. Feed young kids as early as possible.
Seriously, why wait? They're starving. They're tired. You need to get on with their baths and get them to bed. Why not feed little ones at 5:30pm, 5pm, even 4:30pm? What if one partner can't get home until later and the kids are too young to wait? Feed the kids early. Finish homework, bathe everyone. When the other partner gets home, everyone can sit down for Happy Hour together. Serve fresh fruit to the kids while Mom or Dad eats. (Or maybe both parents eat at this point.) That way, kids get some experience with family meals even during the week, and get to connect with both parents, but they get fed at a developmentally appropriate hour, they have time for a soothing bath, and they get to bed on time.