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Helping children resettle after a day away

Mother comforting little boy
Credit: iStock.com/supersizer

It’s been a long day at work. You just want to pick up your beloved children from their early learning centre or kindergarten, have a cuddle and head home.

But some days your child may be in need of more.

What is going on? And is it a cause for worry?

Guidance Counsellor Dr Rachell Kingsbury, who is also a mum of two and a clinical neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist, says it is common for children to be more emotional after a long day away from their parents.

“This is a really normal response and it is really common that I will have parents tell me that when they pick their child up that child will sometimes display their worst behaviour and often have some kind of meltdown,” she says.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unhappy, it’s more likely to mean their emotional cup is empty.”

Adults too, can be overwhelmed in re-engagement situations. Have you ever seen a relative burst into tears when greeting someone at the airport that they have been anticipating their return home? It’s kind of the same thing. Sometimes, no matter if we are big or little people, our behaviours and emotions can take over.
Dr Lesley Jones

Goodstart Early Learning Queensland State Manager, Dr Lesley Jones says while childcare educators work hard to ensure that children’s emotional needs are met through the day, many children are still developing their coping skills and self-regulation.

“Like most of us at the end of a busy engaging day, we can find it harder to cope with anything new on our plates. For children the re-engagement with mum and dad at the end of the day is a big event,” Dr Jones says.

“Sometimes their coping skills are a bit stretched and the behaviours or meltdowns that can occur are just a simple symptom of their emotional immaturity to manage (or self-regulate) the event as an adult would do.

“Adults too, can be overwhelmed in re-engagement situations. Have you ever seen a relative burst into tears when greeting someone at the airport that they have been anticipating their return home? It’s kind of the same thing. Sometimes, no matter if we are big or little people, our behaviours and emotions can take over.”

Depending on your child’s personality, there are a number of things parents can do to help their children unwind.

Dr Kingsbury says it is also important for parents to consider their own mood at pick-up time.

“Our children are connected to us through birth or rearing.  Within months, mother-child forms an emotional attunement. Which means, if you’re feeling really stressed from work, or your day, your child may connect with that emotion.”

If possible, having a quick break before pickup can help parents to release from the stress of their day before greeting their child.

Giving your children your undivided attention at pick-up time is a great way to set the scene for a calmer transition from kindergarten to home.

Dr Kingsbury suggests being really present when greeting your children.

“Understand the impact of digital distraction and leave your phone in the car and then if you can really get down to your child’s level, give them a big hug and try to really absorb them with that physical connection,” she says.

Using reinforcement or ‘attachment language’ is another strategy parents can use.

“As you’re hugging them, an example of what you could say is ‘gosh I thought about you all day today,’ or, ‘you did so well today without mummy (or daddy)’.

“Often parents will ask their child how their day was and then become worried if they don’t respond, but most times the child doesn’t have the cognitive maturity to report back on everything that happened during the day,” Dr Kingsbury says.

Dr Kingsbury recommends relying on your children’s educators to tell you about specific activities they engaged in during the day and maybe using them as conversation starters at another time.

“I think if you can just be really, really present and give them five to 10 minutes of uninterrupted time once you get home, it will give you currency for when you need to start the dinner, bath and bed routine.”

Brisbane mother Deborah Whiteoak has two young boys who attend an early learning environment three days a week.

“It’s been interesting to see how they respond to it in their own way. They’re often very tired after a long day and both are often very cuddly,” she says.

“My youngest can protest or cry on the way home, which I think is just letting off steam and my eldest often asks for the same favourite songs to be played in the car.”  

Deborah says routine offers the boys comfort and often leads to a smoother and calmer transition.

“The boys are tired and I think the familiar, knowing what is coming next is comforting for them. My eldest really relies on the routine and structure around the evening and likes to know exactly what to expect at every step,” she says.

Planning ahead allows Deborah to provide her children with some uninterrupted and completely focused unwinding time.

“I try and have dinner pre-prepared, which is an enormous help, because they are usually starving and a bit impatient and it erases a fair bit of stress for everyone. It also gives us time for a cuddle and a little play before we all sit down together,” she says.