“On the way home from work every day, I start getting stressed out because I know that my 15-year-old son will be waiting, ready to start a fight with me. There are times when I want to turn the car around and not deal with him anymore, but I know that’s wrong. I’m so tired of the screaming matches and power struggles. What can I do?”
I’ve had many parents tell me how much they dread coming home to their kids after work or how they feel overwhelmed by the fights and chaos in their house when the kids come home from school. Why is this time of the day often so stressful—and a prime time for acting out?
One of the reasons is that it’s a transition time. Transition events are when kids stop one activity and start another or move from one environment to another. It’s also a time when anxiety is high and inappropriate behavior easily gets triggered—you’ll see acting out on the part of kids, and often, arguing and conflict on the part of adults. It’s been my observation that many people react to that in ways that don’t help solve the problem.
As a parent, it’s important to know that kids are very vulnerable to the anxiety of heightened expectations and the stress of getting things done, especially if they have self-control problems. So when kids come home from school, that’s a time to have some structure for them. Remember this: structure is the key to helping kids manage transitions.
Many parents have a fight with their children before they even get in the house because they imagine that fight on the way home. Or the parent is waiting at the house, already in their corner, prepared to go head-to-head when their child gets home. Either way, if you’re expecting a fight with your child, you’re probably going to get one.
Here’s the truth: if you are expecting (or planning) to fight with your child, know that you’re not helping the situation, and you’re probably unknowingly making things worse.
One way to handle this situation is through effective self-talk. Effective self-talk means that we speak positively and soothingly to ourselves when we’re anxious—and it’s a very important tool during transition times.
So, for example, on the way home from work, start to prepare mentally by saying things like:
“I can deal with whatever is there. The kids need me right now, and if there’s a problem, I know how to deal with it.”
Another thing that I tell parents is that once they learn strategies to deal with their kids’ behavior, they should remind themselves of those strategies when they start to get tense. You can say to yourself:
“OK, if he does this, I’ll just do that; I can manage it and be in control.”
This helps calm you down and focuses you on what you need to do next.
Both children and adults need structure to manage transitions. One of the recommendations that I make in The Total Transformation Program is for parents to set up a procedure for what to do when they get home. For example, no matter what’s going on (unless it’s an emergency), you should go upstairs, wash your face, put on your comfortable clothes, and get settled in.
If your kids start bickering or calling to you, tell them you’ll be down in a minute. So the first part of the new after-school, after-work structure becomes:
“When I get home, I have to go change, and then I’ll come down and deal with my kids.”
By following this structure, you train your kids to give you time to transition.
Explain this new structure to your child ahead of time. When things are calm, perhaps after dinner, get together and talk. You can say:
“I’m tired of fighting every day when you get home from school or when I get home from work, and I want things to be better for all of us. From now on, this is what I’m going to do when I get home. I’ll be able to help you a lot more if I have a few minutes to relax and wash up first.”
If your child ignores the new structure, follows you, and tries to draw you into an argument, I recommend you do the following: say what you have to say to your child and then turn around and continue to your room. This conversation shouldn’t turn into a fight.
Remember, the way to defuse fights is to avoid them. If you’re fighting with a child, you’re feeding their sense of power and treating them like they’re your equal. Instead, say:
“I told you that you have to wait till I come down.”
And then go upstairs. Don’t ask them anything or prolong the discussion. If they act out while you’re upstairs or curse you behind your back, then you should have a consequence ready and give it to them.
If your children start bickering, keep walking. Don’t give that behavior power. If they know they can bicker to get you to turn around, they will. Don’t get sucked into, “Mom said this; no, mom said that.” Just keep walking and let them bicker.
In reality, squabbling is a way for them to download any anxiety they’re feeling, and it is typically harmless.
Let me be clear: when kids come home from school, there should also be a structure in place. They may have snack time and unwind for 15 to 20 minutes. (I’d say 30 minutes should be the max.) Let them do whatever they want, and then the structure should kick in.
In my view, all time should be structured. That does not mean you should be rigid and inflexible, but it does mean that morning and after-school time should be planned out.
So, for example, 7 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. is when we wash up and put on clothes, 7:30 a.m. is breakfast time, and so on. In the evenings, there should be dinner time structure, homework structure, and chore time structure, which should be defined by timelines and activities.
After homework time, your child should have free time to do what he wants. He can text, play video games, or watch TV. That way, kids learn that there are responsibilities they have to take care of, not when they feel like it, but during the structured time. It also gives them the idea that adults have control over how much free time they have. And it gives you a better supervisory method to figure out what your kids should be doing.
By the way, when you impose a structure on after-school time, be sure to build free time into it. If your child wants to do something, you can always say:
“That’s fine, right after you do your homework and your chores.”
Keep things structured, with chores and homework first, then allow your kids an hour of free time to watch TV or play video games.
Your child needs to know the schedule. I recommend that parents post it prominently, like on the refrigerator. So that way, instead of yelling or getting into a fight, your child knows that when it’s 6:30, he’s supposed to be in his room doing his homework. In other words, the structure helps manage the kids more than your personality does.
Once you have your structure in place and written down for everyone to see, it’s much easier to redirect your child back to the task at hand. You’ll often hear teachers asking their students, “Where are you supposed to be right now?” I think this is a brilliant tactic for parents as well. You don’t get into the “why’s” or excuse-making with your child this way.
So, let’s say you have imposed a new structure in the evening, but your child is texting instead of doing homework. Here’s how you can use this technique:
You: “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
Your child: “My homework.”
You: “Then go to the table and do it.”
Don’t say to your child: “Why aren’t you doing you doing your homework?” Or, “Why aren’t you doing your chores?” I call this the why trap. Avoid asking “why?” because when you ask your child why you’re just asking for an excuse. And if you don’t ask your child for an excuse and they are less likely to give you one.
As a parent, communicate calmly and matter-of-factly and say the following to your child:
“You’re supposed to be doing homework—so go do it.
“You’re supposed to be doing the dishes—so go do it.”
Starting a question with the word “why” in these kinds of situations just raises anxiety. When anybody is asked “why,” their first thought is that they’ve done something wrong.
Let’s face it, no one ever says, “Why did you do something right?” Once they’re asked a “why” question, kids start getting defensive and manufacturing excuses in their heads. Instead, ask them:
“What are you supposed to be doing right now?”
If you have a child ready to argue with you or complain about his siblings as soon as you walk in the door, you have to address this behavior with him in a frank, private conversation when things are calm.
Sit down with that child and say:
“Listen, when I come home, I have to go upstairs and change. I’m going to say ‘hi’ to you, but then after a minute, I’ll go wash up, and then I’ll be ready to talk.”
If you have one child who needs some attention, you can assure him by saying:
“When I come downstairs, I’ll talk to you first.”
This way, instead of feeling like he has to compete with his siblings or fight with you, you’re letting him know that he’ll get your attention first, as soon as you are ready to talk.
Some children are verbally or physically abusive and start ripping the house apart once they get home. Let me be clear: they need a much more aggressive behavioral management system than we can address in this article. That child cannot be left alone, and if they are, you’re probably going to suffer damage to your home and property. There’s not a lot of middle ground.
You can teach him how to manage that behavior, but it takes a much more rigorous program. I would suggest that parents in this situation seek out professional resources to help them with this kind of destructive behavior.
If your child spends part of their day alone, it’s essential to understand this simple rule: you cannot control your child when you’re not there. But what you can do is enhance their ability to make certain choices.
Here’s how that works: let’s say your kids get home at four o’clock, and you get home at 5:30, which means they have an hour and a half of unsupervised time on weekdays. When you structure their evening, you tell them that the schedule includes homework time, chore time, dinner time, free time, and bedtime.
Because there are only so many hours in the evening, your child will have to learn to use time more effectively. So you can say to your kids:
“Look, if you choose to watch TV or play video games before I get home, that’s up to you. Keep in mind that you have two hours of homework a night. If you choose to use your free time before I get home to goof around, that’s fine. But then homework will start as soon as I get home.”
You follow up by saying:
“If you do an hour of homework at that time and you can show me that your assignments are done, then you’ll have more free time later. So, it’s up to you how you will use the non-chore, non-homework time after school. You can use some now, or you can use some later. But if you want to watch a certain TV show tonight, get your homework started early.”
This way, you’re training your kids to schedule things, structure things, and make good choices. In short, you’re training your kids to problem-solve.
Remember, if your child doesn’t have an internal structure to manage their behavior, they need to have it imposed upon them externally. Part of maturing for everyone is taking that external structure that’s been imposed upon you from birth and internalizing it by the time you’re in adolescence. So, instead of arguing and getting into power struggles with your child when you come home, you’ll be able to lean on the structure you’ve set up to manage your child’s behaviors. You’ll be able to point to your schedule instead of getting into a screaming match with your child—and that’s the name of the game.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.