Morning meltdowns: mine and the children’s

Since the children started back to school, it has been really stressful in the house. We have three children, who are six, eight and 10, and I’m caught in an endless cycle of rushing to get them into school and then rushing to afterschool activities and pressured homework routines.

I find myself losing my temper all the time with the children and I feel terrible. The morning routine is the worst. They all struggle getting out of bed, and then are really grumpy. I think each one of them has a meltdown every morning before I end up losing it and screaming at them. It is a terrible start to the day.

I work part-time and, though it is a busy job, to be honest that is the least stressful part of my day. I don’t know what to do. I know I am contributing to the problems and I feel guilty. I just want to get some sort of peaceful routine in the house.

This time of year can be very stressful for families. After the summer break, everyone is just getting back into the school routine, with the added pressures of homework, extracurricular activities and many other deadlines. Often these demands slowly build throughout September with more and more commitments being made.

Parents and children alike can become stressed and tired by all the extra demands placed on them. Unfortunately, this can lead to increased pressures on family relationships, not to mention tantrums and meltdowns. I’m not surprised that many families reach breaking point halfway through the term.

Take stock of your commitments
Nowadays, there is increased pressure on children and families to be doing more stuff. Whereas a generation ago a child might have one sport or one extracurricular activity a week, now the expectation is to have three or four, as well as to be dropped to playdates and other social activities. This means that children and families are busier than ever, with packed routines.

This pressure can take away much of the benefit of all these activities. Indeed, it is questionable whether there is much to be gained by attending so many things, when what children need much more of is simple, unstructured downtime at home.

Self-directed play at home, taking time to prepare and eat meals, and simply talking to parents and siblings can be much more valuable than expensive classes. So the first thing to do is to take a close look at your weekly family routine. Be prepared to turn down some commitments and to change them so that they fit into your schedule.

Notice your own stress levels
It is helpful that you notice your own stressed reaction to the children and how this can make things worse. See the fact that you find yourself losing your temper as a wake-up call that you need to take a step back to address things. No matter how difficult the situation is, you need to find a calmer way of doing things. This is hard when you feel depleted or if you are tired yourself.

Make a self-care action plan that allows you to find relaxation in the day. Simple things such as going to bed earlier, or getting up a little earlier than the children so you can collect yourself before they get up, or getting in a daily walk by yourself, or making sure to include a short play time with them each day, can all contribute to you feeling more relaxed and able to manage the morning stress.

Establish a relaxing daily routine
Your children are probably quite tired and stressed too and these are precursors to their tantrums and meltdowns. Try to establish a relaxing daily routine that gives them plenty of time to get ready in the morning.

This can be simply about saying no to some activities and prioritising things that genuinely relax them. In addition, work hard at establishing a relaxing and early bedtime routine. In my experience, the bedtime routine is the most important routine of all in families.

Parents and children who are stressed in the morning quite simply have not had enough sleep. The key is to aim for much earlier bedtimes and to start the bedtime wind-down routine much earlier than usual, so everyone has plenty of time to relax.

Have a plan of action for when the children have a meltdown
No matter how good a routine you achieve, no busy family will be able to eliminate all tantrums and meltdowns, so you will always need to have a plan of action for dealing with these challenges.

The important thing is to pause and to respond calmly and thoughtfully to each child, remembering that different things work for different children and depend greatly on the context.

Some children need a bit of space when they are mid-meltdown, so simply pulling back and saying you will talk to them in a minute can help. Some need a bit more support and coaching to calm down: “I know you are upset, but let’s take a minute and calm down.

For other children, especially the younger ones, a hug can make the difference: “Look, I know you are tired; let’s take a break and have a sit-down together and then we can try again later.”

Use a reward chart to start a new routine
Make the goal of getting to school calmly each morning into a special family project with the children. Do up a chart with the children listing all the steps to getting out in the morning.

Let them earn a star or point for each successful step and make sure to finish the routine with something relaxing that everyone can aim for, such as playing a favourite CD in the car, or extra playtime that evening if they get out by a certain target time.

Prof. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2018: Dublin, Cork and Galway weekend half-day courses for parents with Prof John Sharry. Details at