Remedies for the Witching Hour

Surefire strategies for preventing evening meltdowns
busy family

Alexandra Rowley

An hour ago, you were confidently giving a budget report or happily chasing your toddler at the park. Now you're consoling a crying child and stirring a pot on the stove, close to tears yourself. Welcome to the witching hour, when the day's stresses catch up with the whole family, turning well-mannered children into kidzillas.

The witching hour is not just the province of colicky babies. It actually can affect every member of the household: "None of us is at our best in the hour before dinner," explains Carol Baicker-McKee, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of The Preschooler Problem Solver. "Blood sugar is at its lowest, and fatigue is high. Families are in transition, and kids are often at their neediest. It's no small wonder that this time of day can feel like a lethal experience for parents."

No mom gets a free pass from the pre-dinner doldrums. "Employed moms desperately want some time to decompress, and stay-at-home moms may yearn for quiet time alone," says Kathleen A. Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., a health psychologist and author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood. How do you switch gears while keeping the peace, without resorting to pinot grigio and earplugs? Start with a few of these ideas.

Dress the part of parent.

Changing after work helps you make the mental shift you need to quell sour moods, yours included. "The minute you put on your comfy clothes, you begin to relax," says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and founder of AhaParenting.com. Your child gets equal benefits. "When I taught day care, I'd see parents in expensive clothes literally pushing their grubby kids away to avoid dry-cleaning bills," says Dr. Baicker-McKee. At least keep an old coat or a smock in the car to put over your nice dress -- so you can avoid getting finger-paint all over it when you give your child a big hug.

Get a dose of nature.

Kids and parents may be cranky and tired, but chances are they're also overstimulated. So give everyone the opportunity to get away from it all, even briefly. Before beginning your evening routine, take a walk around the block or just head out to the yard, says Janet Allison, a family coach in Portland, Oregon. "Focus on the smallest plant, discover a bug or a worm, or just watch the sunset -- it will help you let go of the day's leftover stress," she says.

Give kids what they want -- you.

"The mistake that many moms make is to come home and immediately feel they have to jump into household chores," says Dr. Kendall-Tackett. Experts advise working parents to give their children (especially babies and toddlers) the undivided attention they crave after a day of separation, before seeing to dinner. "Prior to doing anything, even taking my shoes off, I give my kids my total attention so they don't spend the next two hours fighting for it," says Shannon Eis, a New York City mom of two."They just need ten minutes with me, and then they move on to more entertaining things."

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