Toddler Tantrums after Daycare: A Guide for Struggling Parents

Toddler Tantrums after Daycare

When you start your first child in any sort of care situation (nanny, care facility, preschool), emotions can run really high. Fear, guilt, stress, anxiety. It is the conundrum of working parents: how to be the parents we want to be while also paying the bills and advancing our careers.

Like many of you, being a stay-at-home mom wasn’t an option for me. It just wasn’t financially feasible. However, the transition from being home all day with me to going to daycare in the morning was easier than I thought.

Well, it was at first.

Those first few days went by fairly easily. My sons (ages 2 and 3) were tired at the end of the day. It was as if they were working, too. In a way, they were. But after those first few weeks there was a shift. Sure, they were thrilled to see me at pick-up! And I was thrilled too. All day long I had missed them. We would say our goodbyes to the teachers and their little friends. We’d get into the car and start home. Then, a switch flipped. They went from happy, energetic kids to throwing severe tantrums.

All of a sudden it seemed that nothing helped. They were tired and hungry. No matter what, I couldn’t get home and have dinner started fast enough. I’ll be honest, those afternoons were miserable. All I wanted was to come home and be with my little family. Instead, I rushed to get home and have dinner ready. Before I knew it, bedtime was near. And I was relieved when they finally went to sleep. All that quality family time had only been in my imagination.

Why do toddlers have meltdowns after daycare?

Young children frequently have emotional or even physical tantrums after pickup from daycare. And you aren’t imaging it. In fact, children of all ages tend to have more emotional moments after daycare/school, or even struggle with mischief and physical (kicking, hitting, biting) meltdowns. This is not necessarily a sign of anything bad or wrong happening at daycare, or that you as a parent are doing anything wrong.

When your child is at daycare, she is with people that aren’t her mom and dad (or other trusted grown up she is normally with). While this person may be friendly and nice and in all ways appropriate, she is still a stranger at first, or later, an adult who cares for her. But still not mom or dad. As a result, the child will be less likely to make herself vulnerable to the teacher/nanny/care provider. Your child may have experiences which generate some feelings (disputes with other children, hurt feelings, physical injuries, anxieties) during the day. But since the adults who she would normally go to with all those feelings are elsewhere, the child holds much (or all ) of those feelings in.

To make matters worse, the child (especially at the toddler stage) don’t even realize they are doing it. Nor can they necessarily even give name or understanding to the feelings they are having. Add all the normal other feelings that a child might experience in the day which are the result of a new placement in daycare: jealousy, hunger, thirst, guilt, disappointment, frustration. And again, not because of neglect, but because she is in a different place with someone caring for her who does things differently.

Your child will not know what to do with those feelings, and her immature brain will not do anything to help her cope with them. Instead, they will boil in her little chest. They will build and grow until there is a time when it is safe for those feelings to come out (as is necessary and healthy for them to do).

Turns out, mom and dad who are coming to pick up their baby after work are the ones who bear the brunt of it.

When the child is finally with the ones she trusts, all the control and restraint she exercised all day can finally be released. She might also be tired from the day and hungry. This is a recipe for tears, fighting, limit testing, irrational refusals, grumpiness, hateful words…you know name it.

As a parent who is also tired and hungry, the child’s emotion needs are heaped on us at the worst time of the day.

Remember, young children struggle with transitions and change.

In addition to the emotional release, another reason you might see crying and struggling after daycare (like she cries when you pick her up from daycare) is that children thrive on stability. When things change, we adults can just roll with it. We go from the house to the car in seconds. We rush into the store and back. We move from our phones to the dishes to our computers to work instantly.

Toddlers don’t work this way. It takes a little while for their brains and emotions to catch up with what is happening. When you arrive to pick up your girl, odds are, you won’t be staying for 20 minutes to play. You’ll be getting her coat and shoes and getting the heck out of there to get home to make dinner.

Odds are, your girls is happy to see you. Delighted, in fact. But the transition from the place she has been all day to another place is not easy for her. It happens too fast for her. The environment changes rapidly. She may be over stimulated by leaving the facility with you (who she desperately loves and wanted to see all day).

She can’t talk to you and tell you that she is having trouble. Instead, she cries. Fights, Struggles. Refuses. Tantrums. Expressing in her way that she needs your help.

How long does it take a toddler to adjust to daycare? Will the meltdowns stop after he is adjusted?

This depends on the child. Some times sail through the transition into daycare, while others are still struggling weeks or even months later. Even children who are well adjusted to being in daycare (or preschool) will have struggles. Their tears might seem like they are about daycare but they could just as likely be connected to something else. You just happen to be the one who gets all the tears dumped on them.

Even children who love their placement will struggle with post-care meltdowns. Sometimes the best we can do is work to minimize the strength and length of the episode.

Is changing daycare bad for toddlers? (and does it cause the tantrums?)

I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see meltdowns and tantrums around changing daycare placements. Children thrive on stability, after all. I suppose it depends on your definition of “bad.” It is certainly better for young children to be in a stable situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that children will be harmed as the result of a change. Children are resilient, and can adjust to change.

We as parents just need to be understanding as they work through their own feelings in the transition.

How can I tell the difference between a post-daycare restraint collapse meltdown and a tantrum?

Does it matter? Really? I know that we might have it in our minds that these should be dealt with differently. After all, it is okay for our children to have feelings, and to need to express them after school/daycare. And in general, we don’t like tantrums and may even feel like “tantrums” are efforts of our children to manipulate us.

For a toddler aged child, there is no real benefit to us as parents to try and discern between the two. In fact, if the emotional explosion is coming after daycare (or even hours later at bedtime) we can assume that it is associated with the need of the child to clean out her system of whatever events occurred during the day.

At the ages of 2-4, it might seem that our children have the ability to plot and plan with the skill of an experienced military field marshal. But science tell us that their brains are still very immature at this age, and that most of their decisions are the result of instinct and impulse.

If we can put manipulation out of our minds, as parents we can see what is really going on. A child who is refusing to allow you to buckle her into her car seat, who is throwing her food at dinner, who is biting her sister in the bath, is just that–a child. A tired one. And putting adult characteristics on her will just make it harder for us to help her.

How can I make these tantrums/meltdowns stop?

This is a great question, and the one that most parents are asking. But let me pose a question back to you…if your child has built up feelings and needs to let those feelings out in order to be happy and healthy, to sleep well, and to be bright eyed and ready to go back to daycare tomorrow, would you want to stop her?

Our children need food, water, clean clothing, sleep, hugs and kisses. And an opportunity to express their emotions.

By putting them in daycare, we are forcing our children to hold those emotions at bay until we are with them again to accept them, to hear them, to be there and help them have them.

Your child loves you and trusts you with her big, scary, unfamiliar feelings. She waits all day to give them to you. But the circumstances set her up to let out a lot of big feelings at once, rather than throughout the day as they come up.

Step One To Managing Tantrums: Stop thinking of post-daycare tantrums as something terrible.

Seriously. One of the reasons that tantrums can get so intense and out of control is that we don’t want our children to be having them. We try to stop them from happening, we criticize them for having them, or we might even punish them. You wouldn’t punish a child for asking to eat if she was hungry, would you? Send her to her room because she needs a diaper change?

I’m definitely not saying that you should allow or encourage your child to be rude, disrespectful, angry, to scream, to hurt, or do any of the other negative behaviors that we don’t want to see.

But what I am saying is that when the meltdown is because of the time spent in daycare, and the need to express feelings, if our children don’t believe that we are ready to hear them, that we want to accept those feelings, and that those feelings are valid (even if we don’t agree with them), then the entire experience is made worse. Those feelings may bleed from the drive home to dinner time to bathtime and to bedtime, and even to the next morning.

When you allow your child to express her emotions, while also keeping her safe and trying to stick to your rules about not hurting others or breaking things, you’ll be on the path to managing the tantrums, and to eventually to eliminating the need for them (which is what we ultimately want).

Step Two To Managing Tantrums: Remove contributing factors.

Tantums after daycare are caused by many factors that differ for each family. Think about all the reasons why we as adults might struggle to keep our emotions in check. Hunger. Tiredness. Overwhelm. Stress. If your child is melting down right after daycare, or in the hours afterward, start troubleshooting.

Does she need food?

Hunger is a common cause of post-daycare meltdowns. You know that your daycare offers meals and snacks all day, maybe even available at all times. That being said, just because the food is there, does not mean that she’ll eat it. (My sons take full lunch boxes to school and eat none of it because they are too busy talking to friends). Assume that your child needs calories of some kind.

But she’ll spoil her dinner.

Perhaps. I always kept lots of snacks in the car for the transport home after daycare. It never ceased to amaze me how much they wanted and needed to eat on the drive. and I didn’t hesitate to give them those calories even if it hurt their dinners, because I knew that they would be like at home if I did not.

After a few months of doing post-school snacks, I made the controversial choice to change dinner time from around 5:30pm to right after school. I figured that my kids could eat snacks later, but would fill up on the food they really needed to have after school: protein, fruits, and veg. Not goldfish and fruit leather. My partner missed out on dinner time as a family, but it did mean that he was able to play with the kids more before bedtime because dinner was over.

To take a dent out of the time crunch and to get dinner on the table earlier, my husband and I started cooking for the week in advance. Sunday was cooking day. We would prepare three or four entrees for the coming week. As an added bonus, our kids helped. This had an added benefit: it took the picky out of our picky eaters. When they helped prepare the food they were more likely to eat it. As a result, we had more time to relax and eat without complaints about the menu. Score one for team parents!

Does she need to get active?

If you are struggling with meltdowns after daycare, try to find some way to get your child moving and outside.

I discovered that my kids were much less likely to have meltdowns in the evening if I took them directly to the park after daycare to run and play, preferably outside. It was like they needed the exercise to let off some steam, and the movement allowed them to work through whatever was boiling inside of them. If this makes sense, I also felt like it was a “reset” on their little mental computers, and they were much more stable and rational.

Does she need a good cry?

Sometimes a cry is necessary. I think that is what consistent after care meltdowns are showing us. But if you can help it happen before it reaches the level of firestorm, all the better for you! If you see tears coming for some reason after daycare, don’t try and squash it or keep it from happening with redirection. Instead, confront them. Tell her that it is okay for her to cry, and that you’ll hear all of her tears. Then let her cry until she stops on her own, even if the other parents are giving you the stink eye.

In speaking of after care play, I also discovered that the playground could spark some kind of dispute or struggle that would bring the tears that needed to come out to the surface. I’d encourage the cry until the end, and then the play would resume…and I wouldn’t see a meltdown later at home.

Is she getting enough sleep?

Children tend to struggle with their feelings when they are tired. You might consider whether your child needs a nap, or a longer one. Or perhaps she needs to go to bed earlier. Try this, even if it puts a dent in dinner time or TV time. Focus on a stable and consistent bedtime routine to help overcome complaints or objections in response to the earlier bedtime.

Step Three To Managing Tantrums: Talk to your care provider.

Gather information about what is happening to and with your child at daycare. If your care provider can’t give you a good report of what your child was doing during the day, or is very vague about your child’s activities, I might consider looking for another placement. Not that the care provider is neglectful or doing a bad job per se, just that you need someone who is going to be responsive to your need for information, and is going to be good at keeping track of your child during the day.

If your provider is on board and understand that meltdowns are occurring frequently after care, you can try:

  • adding more snacks
  • administering snacks away from the other kids to reduce distraction
  • more fluids
  • longer nap/shorter nap/no nap/add a nap
  • add a “rest time” (lie down but no sleep)
  • adding in quiet time away from other kids (not lying down, just alone, without as much stimulation)
  • adjusting lunch time
  • changing up foods (perhaps switching from processed cracks and juice to grapes and water)
  • confirming the amount of screen time and adjusting it
  • tracking who has contact with her and what is happening (she struggles with another child or even a care provider)
  • spending more time outside (big one for us)
  • adding more unstructured free play time
  • adding more structure to alleviate boredom
  • making a more consistent schedule at daycare, so the child always knows what is happening next and when
  • slowing everything down (at transitions and during the day)
  • talking to your child more about what is happening and when

Try adjusting just one thing at a time (rather than all at once). This way you can see the impact upon your child after care is over, so you’ll know what to continue doing (or not).

Make notes of when the tantrums are coming. Maybe the emotional explosion isn’t actually about daycare at all. Maybe it has to do with diaper changes, or frustration with language development. Or maybe she needs some help with her growth mindset.

Step Four To Managing Tantrums: Make her feel heard.

As we talked about a little bit above, tantrums and meltdowns after care are a necessary release. Part of the exercise for her is to vent, and part of the exercise is that she vents to you, the person she loves and trusts. It is a plea for love and connection, even if it is delivered in the way least likely to succeed.

If you respond to her calls for love with love and acceptance (within your limits, of course), the emotions will pass and over time, so will the need for them. She’ll get older, her brain will mature, and she will gain confidence that you will be there for her once daycare is over.

One the other hand, if you tell her she is okay (when she is not), and demand that she stop crying (when she needs to cry), you’ll become part of the problem.

When you think about it, tantrums and meltdowns are about love.

When we’re away, our kids miss us. Terribly. Think about it. When I was home with my kids, there wasn’t a single problem I couldn’t solve in the moment. However, when I returned to work, those little problems during the day began to add up. Sure, they have great teachers. But the teachers aren’t you. Did you ever notice how your kids behave around their grandparents or aunts and uncles? Bingo. They are usually angels. Why? They expect us to love them unconditionally because we have seen them at their highs and lows.

We are the steadying force to their stream of emotions. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers are great. But they’re no substitute for mom and dad. We are the only ones that they can let their hair down in front of. So it should be no surprise that they throw such extreme tantrums after daycare. More specifically, as soon as they are in a private space like the family car. For an entire day, they’ve kept all those emotions to themselves. And now they are ready to gush. The trick is to manage that gush. I won’t lie, it takes patience. Plenty of it.

Especially after working an entire day you probably are running low on that ingredient. But channel as much as you can. When I’m in the car I start checking-in with my kids. Simple questions about their day. What did you learn? Who did you play with? What was your favorite thing that you did? Did anything make you sad? I found that once I got them talking they wouldn’t stop.

Small comforts go a long way after daycare. For us it’s a fifteen minute drive home. In reality, that is an eternity for a child. I make sure to have their favorite blanket in the car. I pack water bottles for them and a light snack, since dinner will be ready for them within minutes of getting home. Take away the small things that could easily escalate into a tantrum. Do they have a favorite toy? Pack it in the morning. Have them say goodbye to it. This way, when you pick them up, they will look forward to seeing their toy again. It’s a bit of a reward without having to actually give a reward.

The expectations we set at the beginning of the day will greatly impact pick-up at daycare later in the day. Sometimes, there is very little we can do to stop a tantrum. Keep in mind that your child is learning how to express their emotions. Developmentally, a tantrum is their way of learning to sort out those emotions. While it could be concerning, sometimes we just have to allow the tantrum to play itself out.

In the end, the best method is to just be present. I can’t tell you how many times I have pulled my car off the road to deal with a tantrum. Most of the times, a simple hug and “I love you” were all it took to get our evening back on track. Remember, tantrums are normal behavior. But if you sense something else is at the center of it, ask the teachers. Sometimes it’s a small issue like arguing over a favorite toy with a classmate. Turn those moments into teachable lessons.

The benefit of daycare is that your child is learning how to function in a group setting. For only children, this could be a real challenge. Make those challenges work for you. In the end following an established routine goes a long way. It all starts with the security they feel when we arrive at daycare. Allow that feeling to wrap itself up in you and your child. Chances are, the tantrums will pass soon enough. It’s all about being their rock, after all.

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