Anxiety Meltdowns

Dear Cathi,

We don’t know what to do with our 9 year old son. He is a really good kid with no school problems, but when he gets home, he falls apart. The second he walks through the door, the littlest thing sets him off. Settling down to do homework is a nightmare. He fights my husband and I every step of the way, and yet, he is a straight A student and his teachers have consistently called him a “well-liked, wonderful leader in the classroom”. During parent/teacher conferences, I seriously wonder whether the teachers are describing someone else’s child! This situation is making my husband and me crazy. We just want some peace at home. Do you have any ideas for us?


Sheri M.

Dear Sheri,

You are experiencing firsthand a very common but extremely challenging problem: the angel at school, devil at home phenomenon. So frequently kids save their most difficult behaviors for their families where they feel free from the structure and expectations of school.

School can be a very stressful place; one where kids feel they have to hold it all together, constantly regulating their attention, performance, and behavior. By the end of a school day, some children are like walking pressure cookers, barely making it home before they can finally take off the lid and let some steam off.

The upside of this phenomenon, of course, is that you, unlike his teachers and classmates, have the opportunity to connect with your child in many ways on various levels, both emotionally and physically. This means you have the good fortune of seeing your son at his best…. but also at his worst.

So, as a parent, how do you respect your child’s need for his home to be a relief from stress without allowing his behavior to wreak havoc on the rest of the household? The good news is that you can create a peaceful environment at home while offering your son the structure and boundaries he needs:

Step One: After school activities notwithstanding, allow your child a short break after school to relax. Give him a snack. Ask him to describe his favorite part of the day. Set the timer for 20-30 minutes and tell him that homework time starts when the buzzer goes off.

Step Two: Designate a specific homework area for your child to work. Set the timer for 30-45 minutes depending on his capacity to focus and allow him a quiet break for 10 minutes after each homework interval.

Step Three: You and your husband set up brief (10-15 minutes) quiet one-on-one time with your child. Spend this time listening and going with the flow. Steer clear of asking questions. Allow the child to dictate how he wants to spend his alone time with each of you. You may want to incorporate quiet time into a bed time ritual with your child. Quiet time goes a long way in reconnecting with your children and helping them feel safe and secure.

Step Four: Create “chill zones” in the house for your child. These are places where your kids go to calm themselves down when they are getting revved up. When your child is emotional and upset, make sure you use a neutral tone of voice. Say things like, “In a minute, when your body is still, then we can talk.”

Step Six: Teach your child relaxation exercises to help him relax. For example, you can teach your child to breathe deeply and think relaxing thoughts when he is stressed. Your son can take “a breather” at school without anyone knowing. In this way, he relieves some of the pressure cooker feelings before he comes home from school.

Positive parenting is an enormous buffer against the stress that your son experiences every day at school. Watch your household go from pandemonium to placidity as you introduce a few simple strategies to your family’s routines. And won’t it be nice to experience a bit more of your son’s “angel” at home too?

By Cathi Cohen