5 Strategies to Address Big Back To School Feelings


My youngest child started kindergarten last week, and I was prepared for some feelings. Having recently switched to doing freelance work from home, I knew the transition to an empty house for seven hours of the day would be an adjustment. (Can you call yourself an empty-nester if it’s kindergarten?) I knew there would be a mix of sadness, boredom, excitement, productivity, loneliness, and relief at a slightly cleaner house. I gave myself permission in advance to sit with it all and to not force anything.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one with feelings. This is not my first rodeo; I remember the adjustment to kindergarten with my daughter, who is now a third grader. I recall the exhaustion, the transition period, the navigation of new friendships and recess politics. What I don’t remember are the torrential meltdowns, though I’m not ruling out a hormone much like the one after childbirth that represses unfortunate memories.

What Is Happening to My Child!?

On the first day of school, I greeted the kids with adorable snack plates, big hugs, and way too many questions. And while my five-year-old proclaimed that he loved school and it was an amazing day, he proceeded to have the meltdown of all meltdowns eight minutes later. We’re talking collapsing on the floor, throwing things, primal screaming, and pounding his fists into the ground. Stunned, I picked him up off the ground and gave him hugs and assumed this was a reaction to some overstimulation and being overly tired. I hoped it might be a one and done situation. But then it happened again. And it kept happening periodically throughout the afternoon and into the evening and the next morning and the next several days.

The catalyst for any of these meltdowns, you ask? Could be anything. And everything. Did he lose at Go Fish? Did his sister get the blue plate he’d been hoping for? Was I a monster who told him he needed to brush his teeth before leaving for school? Did the cat look at him funny? Please note, these are not exaggerations. 

Now my children are very different – my daughter told me that while summer is fine, she’d rather be at school because socializing and learning are her two favorite things. My son has always been a kid who feels things very deeply and I was a little nervous about him starting something big and new. He is a sensitive soul who lives for rock music and requested a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt for the first day of school. I knew kindergarten would be a different experience for him, but feelings of this catastrophic magnitude were new and a little terrifying.

After a few days I e-mailed his teacher – was something happening at school? Were these episodes happening in class? Was he withdrawn? Lonely? Acting out? But to my relief and befuddlement, she let me know he’d been thriving in the classroom – he was engaged, social, and proud of his work. So what the heck is happening at home!?

Like Mother Like Son

As with most of my parenting struggles, I turn to the internet to learn about the twenty-eight contradictory ways to handle a situation and learn about the ways in which I’ve already messed up. But I found something useful this time and it’s given me some perspective. I learned a new term – after-school restraint collapse. This is almost exactly like it sounds, and it tends to be more prevalent in kids with big emotions. Basically, kids who are new to school (or even ones who are not) have had to keep it together all day, which is draining and all-consuming, and then all the feelings they’ve had on lock throughout the day explode when they arrive somewhere safe.

Face palm. Of course. Hadn’t I felt like this when I was teaching? Coming home from a long day of having to be “on” and hiding out in my car because the idea of talking to people was just too much. And as an adult, I have an arsenal of tools in my belt to work through these feelings, and my kindergartener does not. Deep breaths and mindfulness activities are not going to cut it when he’s in the throes of an episode; his feelings are bigger than his capabilities to handle them. The magnitude of his reaction might be bigger, but we are one and the same.

5 Strategies If Your Child Is Struggling After School

So my next question became (and still is) what to do? How do we support him and work through these feelings while also maintaining healthy boundaries and not walking on eggshells? Once again, thank you internet and also a well-timed Glennon Doyle podcast for the strategies I’m attempting to put into place.

1. I’m asking fewer questions – instead of my intense interrogation about their days the moment they get off the bus, I’m giving both my children quiet time if they need it. I can learn more about who did what at carpet time during dinner when everyone is feeling a little more social.

2. I’m asking what they need – do you need some creative outlets? Do you need to get some energy out and do something physical? Do you need quality time with me or do you need solitude?

3. I’m taking care of my own needs to make sure I’m in a place to handle his big feelings without becoming angry, exasperated, or reactive. I have enough calm for the both of us is the new mantra I’m attempting to adopt, and I’m going to be patient with myself when I miss the mark.

4. I’m validating his feelings, even when he’s mid-explosion. No one ever benefits from having their feelings denied or dismissed. Why, yes, I am crying because my favorite ice cream flavor was discontinued.

5. Reminding myself this is temporary. He will adapt, and I can look forward to our afternoons together. In the meantime, I’m going to show up for him as best I can and know this too shall pass. I mean, it’s got to, right? Please?

So how are these strategies working? It seems like we’re off to a promising start, but stay tuned! Good luck to all the parents out there navigating the biggest of feelings. 

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Emily Corak has spent the last three decades in the Pacific Northwest and prefers to live in Vancouver because parking in Portland terrifies her. A mom to two kids, ages 3 and 7, Emily has been an educator for the past decade and she currently works with middle school English language learners. She wasn't planning on becoming a mother, but she's glad she was so careless because it turns out she really likes being a mom. Most days. Emily is now going back to school for her MFA in creative writing after deciding she had more to offer the world than breast milk and unsolicited grammar advice. When the world allows, she spends any spare cash on plane tickets, and she lives for books, tea, and all things Top Chef. She occasionally writes about anything and everything that comes to mind, and you can find her work here: https://offbrandmusings.blogspot.com/