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Ask the Experts

How Can I Stop My Daughter's Emotional Meltdowns?

By Dr. Lisa Hunter, Child Psychologist

Question:

I'm really worried about my daughter. She seems so exhausted when she comes home from school, and she doesn't want to talk about school at all. My husband and I have to pry the information out of her.

She says she likes school but is not happy about going. She gets really emotional when she gets home. Anything will trigger a meltdown. She went to preschool for two years. The first year was two days a week for four hours and the second year was three days a week for four hours. Now kindergarten is five days a week for seven hours. I just want to know what I can do to help her get past these emotional meltdowns and help her be excited about school.

Answer:

I would recommend talking to your daughter's kindergarten teacher to get a better sense of what is going on at school.

Some questions to ask include:

  • What does she like to do during the school day?
  • Does she have friends? Does she seem tired during the school day?
  • Does she have emotional "meltdowns" in school?
  • If so, what triggers them?

The responses to these questions will give you a better sense of how your daughter is adjusting to kindergarten.

If your daughter's teacher expresses concerns about her adjustment to kindergarten, you will need to work with the teacher to identify the best strategies for helping your daughter in school. These strategies will vary depending on the nature of the teacher's concerns. For example, if the teacher reports that your daughter seems tired during the school day it may be possible to arrange for her to have a nap at school. If the teacher reports your daughter is having difficulty making friends, it may be helpful for the teacher to facilitate interaction between her and other students by organizing some structured activities during free time in the classroom.

By working collaboratively with the teacher and enlisting the help of other school staff members (i.e. school social worker or psychologist) if necessary, you should be able to successfully address whatever challenges your daughter may be having adjusting to kindergarten.

If your conversation with your daughter's teacher indicates that she is doing OK in school, you will need to figure out what is triggering her emotional meltdowns at home. To do this, pay close attention to what happens before and after a meltdown. Is she having them to avoid doing something or to get something? Once you determine what may be triggering her behavior, you will be better able to prevent it.

For example, if she is having a meltdown to avoid talking about school you may decide not to ask her any questions about school and wait for her to talk about school spontaneously. If she trying to get something, like attention from you or your husband, you may want to schedule play time with her on a daily basis.

If your daughter continues to have meltdowns despite your best efforts to prevent them, I would recommend speaking to a child psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you more systematically determine what may be causing them and how to address them.


Dr. Lisa Hunter is an assistant professor in the department of child psychiatry at Columbia University and the director of school-based mental health programs at Columbia University's Center for the Advancement of Children's Mental Health. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and evaluation of school-based mental health and prevention programs. In addition she is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. She specializes in cognitive behavioral treatment for children and adolescents.

 

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/23/2010:
"I don't know if this has already been tried but when she gets home, maybe have some quiet time (either together or alone) she can either take a nap in her room or just allow her some time to rest her eyes. Just think how we feel after a long day at work, wouldn't it be great to just take a quick snooze before dinner to recollect? Just an idea."
07/19/2010:
"i live in st.louis mo and i'm moving to California and my daughter will be in the 11th grade this school year and she has 15 credits and i want to know how many credits she needs to gradute from california high school"
05/17/2010:
"I have a 4 year old son that at age 2 decided he did not want to eat anything other than chicken nuggets, pizza, watermelon, and applesauce. I took him to the doctor to rule out anything medical such as a chewing and swallowing problem or texture but he was fine. I went to a therapist who also said he was fine but he is not getting even more pickier and only wants certain kids of chicken. I did the 'you eat what I cook' technique and he didnt eat for 4 days! Then I tried the 'you dont leave the table until you try one bite of something new' and he fell asleep at the table. He sat there for four hours. Any suggestions would be appreciated. My husband is also a poor eater and we are really trying to avoid this with my son. Thanks."
01/15/2010:
"I'm sorry if this seems rude, but look at the ovious. 7 hours 5 days a week is a huge leap, of course shes upset shes going to get overwelmed. Try to get her to go a little more steadily, this is why there was half day kindergarten, all day is cruel to a small child"
12/7/2009:
"The first thing I would look at biological factors such at food, sleep, and exercise. Many children do eat very little at school, and, as a result, have low blood sugar in the afternoon - making them VERY cranky or withdrawn. Taking a snack to school pick up might be helpful. Then, the sleep issue: I am of the opinion if you have to wake your child up in the morning , they are not getting enough sleep. It can be a challenge, but getting to bed a bit earlier might make morning more pleasant. (Hey, I am not a perfect parent, and some weeks are better than others re: bedtime...and it's easier to move a herd than an only child, I think. But, you can move the direction of more sleep). Finally, I found converting over to Kindergarten can, depending on the school and the teacher, contribute to new lack of exercise issues. The best thing I have ever done for my child was to get him up SUPER early and let him have a little exercise before school. What we do varies, and how long we work out depends on how much time we have. Many schools expect 5 year olds to sit like grown ups for a long day (I am grown up and I don't do well sitting all day). Sounds like your child does enjoy schooland there may be something very simple you can do to make the afternoon easier - like a snack and/or a very early dinner. "
09/24/2009:
"I believe, if, my daughter... 1) bedtime : 8:00 she should be in bed after dinner, homework and shower or bath. Have her put her clothes out for the next day. 2) Set alarm clock and have her get up on her own. She is not a baby. Have breakfast waiting then have her brush her teeth and get dressed. With little or no help from you. 3) talk to her teacher. Ask the teacher to keep an eye on her and maybe the teacher can talk to her or help her 'get' through her hard time. 4) Tell your daughter she can talk to you about anything. About the time they are 5 years old, they will deal with there own problems in the same way for the rest of their lives. So, if my daughter, I would hurry and try to help her. She needs to talk and make friends. "
09/1/2009:
"It sounds like my childhood classroom experience, over worry about home work,anything and everything. Its exhausting.20 years later I read an article on anxiety disorder I wish they knew about it then. Had it my whole child hood its the balance of seritonin, a chemical in the brain, not serious ,but I felt like I was going to the electric chair on my way to school, if a paper wasn't finished. "
05/15/2009:
"Hello - I beleive that the real answer here should be that this poor child is exhausted. Seven hours/5 days per week is an adult work week and no child (esp a 5-6 yr old) should have to be in school and working that long. Consider 1/2 day kindgarten - if not available, simply bring the child home and let her rest. It is very important that she learn to like school and not consider it an onerous burden"
04/23/2009:
" My son suffered melt-downs as well. I found the book: 'The Highly Sensitive Person' by Elaine Aron helpful both to gain perspective and to develop effective strategies for coping (his coping as well as my own). It may be appropriate and helpful in this case as well. The advise of others who recommend a protein snack was wisdom I learned through experience--blood sugar levels can seriously affect ability to cope."
03/18/2009:
"First, I would like to comment that Kindergarten is NOT how most of us remember it. It is not snacks, naps, and painting. Which is an unfortunate truth. Our five year olds have academic skills they must master. Skills that most of us were not even introduced to until second grade. I am a full day Kindergarten teacher. I would like to state that there are MANY reasons why students have 'meltdowns' that have NOTHING to do with the teacher or other students in the classroom. The biggest reason is simply maturity. A child coming from a preschool environment (2 to 3 days a week) where they take naps and 'play' all day is simply not prepared to be in a 'working' environment for six hours a day. I do my very best to include in my day the fun artsy things, singing, and exploration. However, my job also requires me to teach these little ones to read, add, subtract, tell time, and problem solve by the end of the year. It is difficult to do this when we have children 'meltin! g down' or being disruptive. For my studnets that have consistant meltdowns, I will allow them to bring in something from home (small stuffed animal)they can keep in their desk that would provide them a sense of security. Our goal is to ween them off of these items by mid-year. For many students this works. However, that will not help the student that has meltdowns because they are struggling academically or socially. In response to a previously posted reply...IT IS NOT FAIR TO THE TEACHER OR YOUR CHILD TO A 'SUPRISE' VISIT! Quite honestly, it is the absolute worst thing you could do to your child. I had this happen to me this year with one of the oldest and brightest students. Mom would 'surprise' visit often. With each visit he had a meltdows which would result in many times her taking him home and for days he would fight not wanting to come to school. I know mom's how hard it is to let go, but it is the best thing you can do to help your child get through this n! ew experience. Work with the teacher, not against them, to fi! nd a solution; talk up school to your child; put a reward system in place (maybe you coming for lunch or volunteering if they can go two or three weeks without a meltdown); talk to the teacher about snacks; have your child go to bed earlier. There are several strategies your child's teacher would be happy to discuss with you. Implying to the teacher that it is something that he or she is doing to cause these meltdowns will not benefit anyone. You child will soon pick up on your attitude towards the teacher or situation and use it to their advantage."
03/2/2009:
"My son is now just 3 years old, and he doesn't go to even the preschool. However, e sometimes feels bad when he can't do something well or when he is supposed to be stop doing something. That story sounds like my experiences."
02/18/2009:
"The solution to my sons afternoon meltdowns ended up being simple. Food! His lunch was at 11:30am and he didn't get home from school until 3:45. So now I send 5 bananas to the nurses office for a mid afternoon snack. He comes home much happier (still a little hungry) but homework goes much smoother and he's not fighting with his brother."
02/10/2009:
"how do i stop my son meltdown he is in high school and feels that no matter how hard he tries he is not getting a fair deal/grade. he hates school, wishes he was dead and hates life as a result"
01/2/2009:
"My son at 5 years old had a lot of meltdowns after a full day of school; even now at 6 years old they occasionally occur, but after tweaking his schedule, I have found he has less irritability if he eats a snack in the car on the way home and I allow him to sit quietly. Being with other children all day can be alot for some kids, so alittle quiet time can be relaxing. This gave my son the ability to recharge and have energy to play after school (inside ot out)and tolerate his younger siblings' loudness, as well as make it through the dinner hour. If we waited until we arrived home for a snack, he had less tolerance for his younger siblings noise and he would be cranky and get in 'meltdown mode' for the remainder of the afternoon. Napping after school did not work for us b/c my son would be unable to fall asleep until much later than he needed to in order to get enough sleep to start the next day well rested."
11/12/2008:
"I am a retired teacher and a grandmother of a little boy, who turned six in Oct., and is in his first year of kindergarten. I , personally, think seven hours a day is too long for a little kindergaten child. His school does given him a chance to nap,but he doesn't sleep, but does rest, a bit. We need to make sure the children are getting adequate time to attend to bathrooom needs, are getting proper hydration, TIME to actually eat their lunch and snack. They also NEED PHYSICAL activity...some time to interact with other kids without it being a structured physical education class. They need music, dance and art and in my opinion, if they are not getting these things, the school is failing those kids."
10/31/2008:
"i would love any information on this subject. My daughter did not used to have meltdowns and this year at school she has already had 4 or 5"
07/17/2008:
"I am no expert, but i sense maybe your daughter could be holding back something that is personal. Visit the school and her classroom without notice.(a surprise visit) Observe her teachers behavior and make a point of finding out the teachers & all staff members that are employed at the school.someone of authority or even a student from a higher grade level,could be making her uncomfortable..What if she e was told not to tell information about someone or something, if she is not talking to her parents, this should be a clue.Is she ashamed of something is she embarrassed about somthing,why would she like school but does not want to go? put yourself in her position. Ask yourself,(and we've all done this) when you get the chance to do or have something you really want and really enjoy,why is it that sometimes we will give up something or suffer a little, or sacrifice a little,in order to continue or acquire whatever it is that gives us enjoyment? in other words, we will accept! a little bad to get alot of good? The psychologist did not mention that it could be a teacher,staff member, adult figure, older student,that is the problem.Id like to think that we can trust our schools to ensure our childs safety and well being, but i cant help thinking that kids are exposed to everything these days. I hope it is nothing too serious with your girl,especially when she is so young. just be extra aware of her friends and their families, and the people who she is in contact with or have access to her.by looking at every angle you will find out why your girl is not talking. My daughter is 13 and i am trying to stay aware of and up to date, of what is out there facing our kids today. i am concerned and terrified knowing there is a possibility or a slight chance that something,(good or bad) could affect her for the rest of her life. young children are vulnerable to many people and to many situations. We as parents have to protect them."
07/14/2008:
"awesome idea for an article. I have a question of my own I would like answered. Since starting high-school this past fall, I have gone to ridiculously enthusiastic about school assignments to practically ignoring homework and if I do it, doing it at the last minute. I have this application/follow-through issue in a lot of things, but only during the school year. Annoyingly, I know I can do better, but never actually DO BETTER. Advice? "
06/2/2008:
"I would suggest a nap; she's tired! My young kids take naps when they get home from school and it does everyone a world of good."
05/1/2008:
"My daughter also used to have severe after-school meltdowns and while they still occur, now that we have discovered she had a severe gluten (wheat, rye, barley & oats)allergy and modified her diet she is more manageable. She also finds school exhausting because her eyes are not working together properly (eye-teaming) so we are addressing this by having her attend bi-weekly eye therapy sessions with a developmental optometrist in our area. A former teacher of my daughters asked me what we were doing differently because she had noticed how much more in control she was of herself and her emotions. Hope your daughter's problems are not as drastic as this but I just wanted you to know about these sometimes obscure reasons for emotional outbursts. "
03/17/2008:
" We have a granddaughter that has been in one school for kindergarden. She had many problems and now in another and starting same thing. None of this behavior is at home. She sees a doctor that does not semmed to be that concerned. NOW WHAT?"
03/17/2008:
"I have a master's degree in school psychology and am the parent of three. My middle child had similar meltdowns, and he had early developmental problems and a sensory integration disorder, which is not a term clinicians or school personnel are really familiar with (unless you have an experienced occupational therapist familiar with SI). Although I understand the temptation of believing if it doesn't happen at school, it must be a situation from the home environment, it is also true that kids, just like adults, try to hold it together as best they can. After a stressful day, they can fall apart in the safety of their home. I agree that the expectations of school aren't really developmentally appropriate. It just isn't normal for a young child to sit still all day, not to talk all day, and not to have a chance to play or rest. If they did that at home all day, we would think they were sick! On top of all this trying to restrain their movement, speech, and natural learning styles (exploring the environment, interaction with things, learning through play and high interest, etc), we are asking them to work all day at tasks that might be at a pace they can't keep up with. I really hurt for the little ones. They try and try and often feel like they are bad or stupid. Although my oldest son fit the mold very well and had no struggles with adapting to school, I quickly realized my middle son was going to suffer from damage to his self esteem and ability to socialize if something didn't change. His teacher was wonderful, by the way!! After kindergarten, I homeschooled him for about 2 years, then placed him in a Montessori school (expensive, but very nurturing). In my work, I have seen many, many demoralized precious kids who have literally given up by 2nd or 3rd grade, because they really have given their best day after day and feel like a failure. I wish the best for you and all the little ones!"
02/4/2008:
"I am currently having my daughter evaluated in school. We recently moved to a new district & she is having difficulty with her academics. Also she is on an emotional roller coaster. We completed a conner's scale & our physician comfirmed a lot of hyperactivity. I have noticed that food seems to play a large part in her emotions. Is this typical or oculd there be underlying factors? "
01/8/2008:
"thinking about moving to lower PA, York area, (Southern School Dist) My son has Sensory Integration Disorder as well as some ADHD type behavior. He isn't 'bad enough' for No Child... here in Md. Is PA better about this or where can I get real info regards this Thanks"
12/17/2007:
"My son has had similar meltdowns since beginning Kindergarten in his school and he is now in second grade and at various times the meltdowns still continue and It is definitely school related because he returns to normal behavior during the summer and Christmas Break. My son has been dealing with bullying issues at school and has had his private areas touched by a group of boys, particularly one boy, and the school has not taken it seriously. I do feel from what I read about the little girl having the meltdowns right after school that it is somehow school related and needs to be taken seriously. It's hard for children this age to verbally describe their frustration about what is happening at school. Parents need to trust their intuition and if your child did not act like this before entering Kindergarten then I think you have your answer."
10/22/2007:
"We experienced similar problems. I think my youngest was simply fatigued & hungry. Often dehydration was a factor; she wasn't drinking enough at school because she didn't want to have to go to the bathroom. Check for thirst, hunger and fatigue first - and address those issues. NEVER have a tv in their bedroom because it decreases the amount and quality of their sleep. Be sure they get enough sleep -- each child has an individual set-point for amount of sleep. My youngest (9yo) has a bedtime of 8pm. Many of her peers stay up *much* later... A technique to try to encourage discussion is to ask 2 'superlative' open-ended questions -- what is the funniest, dumbest, most exciting, really boring thing that happened at school today? Be sure you're not 'grilling' her and that she feels she has some level of privacy. You may include some direct questions, like Who did you sit next to at lunch? What did you play at recess? Who got in trouble today? Sometimes it is easier for them to talk about other children rather than themselves... "
10/22/2007:
"I'm not sure who come up with the bright idea of keeping 5 year olds away from their parents for an entire day without a mid-day nap and often no outdoor recess. I am the child of retired public educators and now at 40 vividly remember kindergarten and the wonderful play (the kitchen area was my favorite!). I remember being a 'little kid' to an 8 year old and being almost sequestered from the older children in the school. We kinders ate in the cafeteria before the other children did because teachers were aware that the daily noise and craziness was too much for our still developing senses. I made the decision this year (after 1 day of my son attending a supposed top elementary school in NYC) to homeschool my son for kindergarten because of the lack of daily recess, the new harsh focus on academics/ testing and not learning by play, the large class sizes that prevent teachers from learning the individual temperments of each child and the spiritual foundation that I'd like to ! instill my son. My son is active, social, giving and an avid learner. The financial hardship is there for our family but in my evening work with pre-teens and teens I see the results of children who have gone unheard and been systemized away from their feelings and natural talents. "
10/19/2007:
"'HOW DO I GET MY SON AND DAUGHTER TO START GETTING INTERESTED IN SOMETHING THAT WILL KEEP THEM PHYSICALLY FIT. THEY DONT LIKE GOING OUTSIDE. WE BUY BIKES, BATS AND GLOVES, SKATES, AND NOTHING SEEM TO WORK. HELP ME PLEASE.' Sounds like our kids were 'cut from the same cloth'!I have found that my kids (any age) will do what they see their parents do. If I am interested in riding the bike, throwing the frisbee, walking the dog, swimming, then they become interested. If I or their father shows interest in TV,video games, or internet, then they do likewise. Unfortunately, they learned their 'couch potato' habits from us and we will have to model a different behavior and set some different ground rules about indoor activites in order to turn the kids' behavior around. -Hope this helps"
10/17/2007:
"Emmotional meltdowns also occurred for my son almost immediately after school. I gave him protein snacks. I gave him more rest, spent more time with him, etc. Now that he is a year older, in a new school, new teacher, they have completely stopped. Now I think it was more than hunger & rest. Looking back, I can see that my son was stressed at having to behave so perfectly all day for his teachers approval. also, his school did not have enough recess/ outlets to be a kid. My child did not want to talk about it either. I had a do a lot of talking with other classroom parents to piece together what was happening. I was told by his last school that my son had sensory integration issues ...so I spent a ton of time & money to investigate. Totally worth it for my piece of mind. But interesting that his new teachers do not think he has issues at all. The best advice i can give...is listen to what your heart/gut are telling you is the reason...and start there."
09/4/2007:
"HOW DO I GET MY SON AND DAUGHTER TO START GETTING INTERESTED IN SOMETHING THAT WILL KEEP THEM PHYSICALLY FIT. THEY DONT LIKE GOING OUTSIDE. WE BUY BIKES, BATS AND GLOVES, SKATES, AND NOTHING SEEM TO WORK. HELP ME PLEASE."
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