A Parent’s Witching Hour: 5PM to 7PM
How to Keep the Stress Down
Parents of younger kids often dread the late afternoon/early evening hours between 5PM and 7PM. It’s a time of transition. You're getting off work, picking up the kids from school, day care, or sports practice, and coming back home.
It’s a heavy workload time too. Dinner has to be prepared and eaten, homework started, and baths taken. Everyone’s tired. The kids are often irritable, whiny, and unruly. Parents are usually exhausted and stressed. Some parents call it the Arsenic Hour, and many call it the Witching Hour. Either way, it’s not an easy time.
To make it better, it helps to understand what’s going on with the kids. When you have some insight into their emotional temperature during this time, the unwanted behaviors begin to make more sense, and you can use some strategies to head them off and bring down everyone's stress level.
Here’s What Happens
Usually the problem begins when you pick your kids up. They seem happy to see you (most times), but as soon as you get in the car, they become whiny or irritable. This is especially true with preschool or younger kids. They can and often do have meltdowns in the car on the way home. Older kids may not have a meltdown, but they might be irritable or pick a fight or just annoy you. Conversely, they may be quiet and unapproachable as though they are annoyed with you.
Three things are going on here:
#1 There’s a disconnect.
Your kids have been away from you all day and they missed you. They likely feel some disconnect. Some kids actually act this out by being indifferent to you when you pick them up instead of whiny and cranky. Basically, the message is,
“You’ve been gone all day and I need you to reconnect with me.”
This is an unconscious process for kids. They are not aware of the problem.
#2 They’re tired.
Secondly, your kids are tired themselves. They are often hungry, may have a drop in blood sugar, have not had any real downtime, and when given the chance to let down, they are downright cranky, tired, and overwhelmed.
#3 They feel separation anxiety.
Third, and most importantly, they can sense that you are tired too. Kids have radar when it comes to your emotional status. They know if you are worried, anxious, tired, sad, overwhelmed, cranky, or angry. At the very least, they can sense you are tired and to them this translates as you being emotionally unavailable to them.
Kids are ego-centric which is just a fancy word for self-centered. All things lead back to them.
So if you are emotionally unavailable, it is personal.
Just at the time your child needs you to reconnect, be available, provide reassurance, and tend to their discomforts, you don’t seem to be all there. They feel this as separation and that makes them anxious. Anxiety at this point is like fuel on the fire. Now your kids are not only tired, hungry, cranky, and overwhelmed, they also feel abandoned. So they act out, just at a time when your emotional reserves are down. It's a lose/lose situation.
Here’s What You Can Do
Pick your target for intervention.
If you know your child is suffering from feeling abandoned or disconnected, and her anxiety is on the rise, then the goal is to close that gap as quickly as you can. If you can restore the reconnection and feel emotionally available, your child will calm down some, and then you can take care of the other problems.
The best way to do this is to designate a set amount of time to give your attention totally to your child as soon as you get home. This can start in the car. This is difficult when you are tired yourself and need downtime, but if you plan it out ahead and remember it's a short of amount of time with a beginning and end, it’s quite doable. The results will make it worthwhile because you can head off hours of discord, and make the evening routine go more smoothly.
I suggest spending 15 to 20 minutes as soon as you get home to chat, listen, cuddle, or whatever works for your child depending on her age and temperament.
Some kids want to show you stuff, others want you to listen, some just chatter, some want to get in your lap, and some pull out toys.
Let them know up front that your going to spend 15 minutes with them because you missed them during the day, and you want to know how they are. Be firm on the time. They will become accustomed to it and will be able to let go after the time is up so you can move on to dinner.
As hard as it might be, if you make this a routine and spend this time up front, everything after that will go smoother.
If dinner is going to take much time to get on the table, give your kids a very small snack during your 15-minute time. A piece of fruit is best. That will boost blood sugar, provide some Serotonin, quell hunger pangs, but won’t spoil dinner. I would avoid junk food because that can make things worse as the evening progresses.
Set up self-entertainment.
After you’ve spent your time with your child, get him set-up for activity he can do while you get dinner on the table. This should be self entertaining activity. Play is the best option. If you have more than one child and they tend to bicker with each other when tired, then separate them and give them their own space for playing.
If your child is older, you might engage him in helping you with some of the dinner preparation such as setting the table. Pre-teen kids will chat with you while you are working in the kitchen.
Whatever you decide, make sure you set it up and direct it so that you can be assured of having the time you need to get dinner ready without a lot of interruption.
A great choice is to have your spouse or partner take over at this point and spend some time with the kids. That way they get time to reconnect with both parents, and you are free and clear to work on dinner.
What Not to Do
One of the worst things parents can do when they get home from work (and school) is to hop on a tech device. That means, don’t sit with your iPad or Smartphone, or pull out your laptop. That really adds insult to injury for the kids. It says not only are you not emotionally available, you aren’t available in any way and “we don’t count.”
Parents who do this often are trying to gain some downtime themselves. Getting on digital media is often stress relieving, but the timing here is all wrong. You should aim for successfully reconnecting with your kids, getting through the nighttime routine without an uproar, and getting your kids to bed at a regular time so that you have ample downtime in the evening with no interruptions.
Things That Help
#1 Having dinner planned ahead and pre-made as much as possible.
A big stressor is not knowing ahead of time what you’re having for dinner, and then having to scramble and get it together in the last few hours before eating. If you have to stop at the grocery store on the way home, get what you need to cook, and then get home and start cooking, the whole nighttime routine becomes twice as stressful. Many parents compensate for last minute dinner decisions by running through the drive-thru and getting something already made. That relieves the immediate problem of having to cook dinner, but it creates other problems which are the negative effects of junk food and poor nutrition.
A big help is to plan meals a week at a time and pre-prep as much as possible. At the very least, avoiding last minute grocery shopping helps a lot because not only does it eat up time and energy, it increases your kids’ irritability and they are more likely to misbehave.
Cooking ahead is a real help. Just knowing that the dinner preparations aren’t going to take a lot of time is relieving and will cut down a lot on your stress.
#2 Sticking to a routine for the two hours.
If you start by allowing some time to reconnect, and dinner is partially ready or at least easy to prepare, then the rest of the nightly routine will go more smoothly. Create a routine and your kids will get used to it and be less stressed following it.
If things are different every night, then you open the door to more disruptive behavior. A routine that is well established creates a feeling of security, and cuts down on chaos.
#3 Maintaining a regular bedtime schedule and sticking to it.
This is a big one. If you’re kids are in bed at a reasonable time, and they stay in bed once they’re there, then you can count on regular downtime for yourself every night. I know parents who end up spending hours getting their kids to sleep, often up to 10 or 11 at night. Then there is no time left for them to wind down. That’s a grueling way to live. It also is not good for your kids because they become sleep deprived over time.
Look at the sleeping chart below to make sure you are allowing for enough sleeping hours. Keep your bedtime routine short and sweet, and make it a habit for your kids to sleep in their own beds.
12 to 15 hours
11 to 14 hours
10 to 13 hours
School Age (6 to 12)
10 to 12 hours
8 to 9 hours
- Spend 15 to 20 minutes with your kids as soon as you get home, and give them your full attention so that they can reconnect to you.
- Pre-plan dinner. Plan meals ahead, grocery shop ahead, and cook ahead as much as you can.
- Engage your spouse in helping if possible, so that one of you can cook dinner uninterrupted.
- Stay off tech devices until after the kids are in bed.
- Adhere strictly to a bedtime schedule that allows your kids the proper amount of sleep, and allows you downtime in the evening.