After school transitions: 5 strategies to help navigate afternoon family dynamics

It goes without saying that the time between 3:30 and 6:30pm is the most hectic time of the day for most families.  This time is filled with pick ups, drops offs, homework, dinner, and if you live in my house, sibling arguments seem to be at their peak at this time of day.

There is nothing that drives me crazier than trying to cook dinner while my kids fight. I am not a multitasker, therefore attempting to referee their battles and cook a wholesome meal, usually results in a burnt dinner.  This is a challenge I face on most days…. Especially towards the end of winter.

But, recently, I decided to pause and really tune in to the dynamics of this tricky time of day. I have two children ages three and six.  What I have observed is that in the afternoon, little brother, who is not school aged yet, is well rested from a two hour nap, and excited to play with his older brother,  while older brother is exhausted from a full day of kindergarten and just wants to relax.

The dialogue sometimes sounds like this;

Little Brother: (sitting outside the bathroom while his brother is inside) Hi C! C do you want to play with me? Last morning, after dinner I went to the library with Mommy and we ate snacks and I spilled them on the floor. Is that funny? I saw a bug today too.

Little brother: (to me) Mommy, C isn’t answering me.

Me: He is tired from school. Just let him go to the bathroom alone.

Little brother: (still outside the bathroom) Do you want to play with me in the tent?


Little brother: I want to play with you.  (annoying noises follow)

Big brother: you are my hurting ears.

Little brother makes louder noises.

Fight ensues.

Problem: conflicting needs, little brother wants attention, big brother wants to eat, drink and relax.

After identifying the problem, I have a new strategy. Instead of busying myself, at this critical time of day, I get down to eye level and say something to little brother like, “You are sad that big brother is busy when you want to play.” to big brother I say, “You are tired, hungry and thirsty from a long day at school and you want to eat and relax. And you feel annoyed that little brother wants you to play with him.”  I suggest, “why don’t we read a book together while big brother eats and then you can play together”.  Or I suggest that big brother say to little brother, “Hi little brother, I am hungry and thirsty right now, after I get a drink and a snack I can play with you.”

Amazingly they get along.  I am not joking it is actually working.  A little feelings validation can go a long way.  My hope is that eventually they will be able to do this on their own.  But for now, with assistance they are getting it.  And the truth is, it doesn’t take as much time as you would think.

Some other ideas that work for us to transition after school…

  1. Parallel play at the kitchen table.  I give each child a tray with their choice of play dough or play sand and some toys.  Pro: They get their own space and a chance to interact.
  2. Dance Party– because a little dancing loosens up the atmosphere
  3. Join them in their play– When I was working full time, I found that spending fifteen minutes playing with them shortly after arriving home made dinner prep time go more smoothly. Plus, sometimes by observing them play you gain some insight for what is going on in their little heads.
  4. Have one child assist with meal prep- and maybe alternate each day if your kids are old enough.