After School: Conflict and Confusion

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you pick her up from school and greet her with “How was your day?”. You hear her barely whisper “fine” accompanied with a big sigh. You ask her if she wants to talk about it – she says nothing. So you explain she needs to make her bed and then walk the dog. You reach home and as soon as she enters the front door, she yells and screams, and slams her bedroom door. Not 5 minutes later, she comes running to you and in her sweetest little girl voice asking if she can have one of the cupcakes you bought this weekend. Confused? Join most moms today trying to raise a preteen girl.

I have heard various versions of this story – moms trying to connect with their daughters and yet feeling so disconnected. After school, conflict seems to ensue so easily – you can’t seem to ever do or say the right thing – and you end up feeling confused by her mixed messages.

After a busy stressful day, after school is one the toughest parts of her day. Why? This is the time when she’s at her lowest energy level and often her highest stress level. She’s had a full day of learning, listening, and being told what to do, and perhaps some hidden surprises – a test she didn’t expect, a permission slip she forgot to get you to sign, a friend who is now ignoring her and she doesn’t know why. Perhaps she misspoke in class and everyone laughed or in an attempt to fit in she turned to gossiping about a friend and is now feeling guilty. Whatever the minutiae of her experiences, it’s a very big deal to her and it’s all part of her stress.

So, when she gets in your car and doesn’t want to talk, when she’s not in the greatest mood, or doesn’t respond well to your “to do” list for her we have to understand why and we have to try some alternatives. Here are some ideas for what to do after school and how to give her the nurture and support she needs:

Don’t talk to her but notice and respond to what she shows you. It’s reasonable to say that a growing girl is fluctuating between happy and hyper and sad and despondent and her feelings can change without warning. So watch her and gauge her mood: pay attention to her facial expressions, body language, and verbiage – if she’s not talking, she’s not ready so wait. In stress mode – where her emotional brain is dominating – her cognitive brain is simply not able to process language – so don’t try. Wait until she is ready.

Be ready to talk. If she greets you with exuberance and quick talking, perhaps eager to share the details her day, be ready to be the active listener she needs. Be curious not critical to keep the conversation and connection going. Instead of the cliché questions she’s expecting from you, surprise her – ask her what she’s most proud of or where she took a risk or ask her to share some of the stressors she experienced so she can release her burdens. When we ask novel and interesting questions, we show we care and we stimulate her brain, as she actually has to think about her answers.

Help her to restore and rejuvenate. Girls have a natural inclination to grab their devices, but this is not a healthy choice as it’s visually stimulating, not to mention potentially damaging and often hidden stressors such as seeing a friend’s post for an event she’s not invited to. Better choices that can help her feel calm and grounded (not just quiet) need to be found without the assistance of technology: try deep breathing, meditation, yoga, an art project, listening to music, baking, exercising and playing, or simply laying on her bed to rest.

I know the after school time is a tricky one to navigate – girls do need time to decompress and “download” the day’s events and share what’s one their mind but the how and when is based on responding to her. I hear parents say they are trying to connect by discovering how her day went and girls telling me they just need some time to relax, and just maybe a cupcake first!