Avoid Five O’Clock Meltdowns, for You and Your Kids

by Cara Stevens

Avoid Five O’Clock Meltdowns, for You and Your Kids

For a while, longer than I care to admit, 5:00 p.m was the time of meltdowns in our house, in the form of older child’s homework frustration, yo.unger child’s tantrums and, with my plans for a clean house and healthy dinner thwarted, my “angry voice” increasing in volume until we all needed a time out. Then, little by little, over the course of a few years, I began incorporating strategies that have kept all of our meltdowns at bay . . . at least most of the time. And now, after they’ve been kid tested and mother approved, I will share them with you hoping to bring a little peace to “the witching hour” in your home, too.


  1. 5pm, kitchen closes. I only serve cut veggies and fruits, and maybe a cheese stick if I can tell they’re really hungry, not just bored. I set it out on the coffee table, sometimes with toothpicks if I’m feeling super-mom-ish, and we have a little appetizer time. This way, they eat the healthy stuff and I don’t have to worry if no one’s eating vegetables at dinner.
  2. Plan dinner in advance. Whether I’m throwing ingredients in a Crockpot, doing the cutting, slicing or other prep-work, or simply planning menus in advance, many time-consuming dinner preparations can be done in advance. Since I buy groceries online on Sunday nights for early morning delivery on Monday, I have to plan a week’s worth of meals ahead of time. I have two can’t-live-without cookbooks: Monday-to-Friday Cookbook, by Michele Urvater and How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart by Pam Anderson, which help me choose, plan and execute with more skill than I naturally possess.
  3. Put on mood music. Pandora andMP3 playlists have joined CD’s and the Music Choice cable stations to set the mood for any occasion. Whether it’s dance music or background jazz, somehow music really does soothe our frazzled nerves. Dance breaks when things are looking tense really take the edge off!
  4. Set up redirects and workarounds. When a computer or business system isn’t working, it’s vital to have alternate strategies. For kids, that means setting them up for success when it comes to finding something to do or finding a way to help themselves. Here are my favorites:
    1. Chips: A friend suggested I write up chores we each need to do every day. Like practice math facts and piano (ten-year-old), feed the fish and wash the table (five- year-old), and empty the dishwasher and clean out the lunchboxes (me).  I wrote them on masking tape and stuck them on color-coded poker chips—red for my daughter, blue for my son, and white for me—then put them in a bowl. When you’re looking for something to do, take a random chip from the bowl, do what it says, and leave it on the table. If  you empty the bowl of all your chips by the end of the day, you get an extra Hershey’s Kiss for dessert.
    2. Stars: Occasionally, okay, actually often, my perfect children need extra incentive to behave well. Enter the star system. I picked up a sheet of tiny star magnets at Staples and put them on the fridge. When either child does a good deed, tries a new food, or exhibits exemplary behavior, they get a star. When unwanted behaviors threaten to appear, especially in that 5-6 p.m. hour, I warn that a star may be removed. As the stars pile up on the fridge, the kids can cash them in for special privileges or outings. Trade in five stars for roller skating, ice skating or bowling. One star can get you five extra minutes of bedtime. Each child is different, so personalize your rewards and the price of each. I steer clear of making food the reward, though I do offer a trip to Starbuck’s or Dunkin’ Donuts in exchange for two stars if Mommy needs some coffee STAT!
    3. The power of suggestion. When I’m cooking, cleaning, on the phone or taking care of some other vital Mom-task, the kids may not need my attention as much as they need my presence. To this end, I place a few toys or art supplies near where I’m working, choosing different toys every week or so, and suggest an activity. Kids can have a hard time selecting an activity in an open-ended way, but if you give them a few visual options, it’s easier to pick one.
  5. Be there. If kids are in school all day, when they get home, they crave the comfort of home, and luckily, that often means YOU. Before you begin your whirlwind of have-to’s, take five minutes for snuggling, sitting down together and going through things they want to show you, or just chatting before redirecting everyone to their activities.
  6. Take a time out if you need it. During major kid meltdowns, my blood pressure rises and if I’m not careful, so does my voice. When I feel like I’m about to boil over, I excuse myself and tell the kids “Mommy needs a little time out.” I walk out of the room, take some calming breaths, do some positive self-talk to diffuse my frustration and anger, and ultimately realize I’m an adult, talking with children who are relatively new to this world and don’t have the same self-control (or the agenda) that I do. Often, by the time I return to the room two minutes later, the situation has diffused and we are ready to move forward.
  7. When all else fails, punt. When things are hairy and just don’t look like they’re going to calm down any time soon, recognize it for what it is: a tough evening. Then move forward with plan B . . . ordering in a pizza, popping out to pick up take-out, or serving breakfast for dinner. The kids will be just as relieved as you for the change of pace.


To sum up, since you know five o’clock meltdowns will happen surely as winter follows fall, the three keys to calm are be prepared, keep your cool, and be flexible.

Got meltdown avoidance tips that work for you? Share them here!