It’s 3.30pm. There’s still so much to do — the housework, the kids’ homework and dinner beckon. The kids need to be bathed and the floors need mopping, so the three baskets of washing in the laundry will just have to wait. A fight has broken out in the games room, the dog has dragged in a tree branch from outside and the phone is ringing.

Welcome to the witching hour, that stressful time after work and school that has driven many a mother to lock herself in the bathroom or pantry just to have a five-minute breather from the madness.

Often fuelled by tired and hungry children, a hectic day at work and a long list of tasks, parents can feel overwhelmed even before four o’clock rolls around. But plenty of talking, preparation and planning can keep the chaos to a minimum and save your sanity, according to child behaviour experts.

“When a parent’s time is limited, at both ends of the day, that can be a real struggle, ” Ngala co-ordinator of education Julie Holschier said. “As parents we often fire off a whole list of instructions for our children, not stopping to think about whether they can understand and cope with them.

“If we can get the children to start preparing the day before and get them into a routine, things are a lot smoother. If the child is taking responsibility for their uniforms, shoes or swimming gear, and knows where to find them, the process is much quicker.”

Ms Holschier said chaos often occurred when planning had gone astray, or when communication between parents and children had fallen away.

“It might be that mum suddenly remembers swimming is on today, but none of the gear is ready — the parent should be the manager, and the children the co-ordinators, so planning and preparation are really important. It’s the parent’s job to be the stronger, wiser and kinder one.”

Ms Holschier said parents should make it a habit not to attempt weekly shopping or make complicated dinners during the witching hour, and making lunches the night before would help with the equally busy before-school routine.

Preparing weekly dinners at the weekend and freezing them could also help.

State Child Development Centre clinical psychologist Jane Doyle said parents needed to be prepared, not just in a practical sense, but in a psychological sense too.

“Understanding the child’s developmental stage is really important, ” Ms Doyle said. “Parents need to consider whether their children have sufficient memory and communication skills to understand the instructions and then remember what is expected of them.

“It’s incredibly stressful for parents juggling all of those tasks, and there is no simple strategy that suits all situations but if parents stay attuned to what their child needs, can consider their child’s temperament and take into account the child’s developmental level, it can make things easier.

“If parents remember to stop and breathe before they react, it can often prevent the situation from escalating. It’s tempting for a parent to think that if they ignore their child’s emotional needs at these stressful times, it will save time. Stopping and attending to the need is more likely to be more time efficient.”

Ngala practice consultant educator Wendy Muller said the families who coped best with pressure-cooker times of the day were those who stayed on top of “basic hygiene” practices.

“Parents should be asking themselves are the children getting enough sleep; are we giving them nutritious meals; are they getting enough down-time, ” Ms Muller said. “A lot of this should be in place way before children start school. It’s about talking to the young child, modelling good behaviours and demonstrating good planning skills.”


• Plan, plan, and then plan again: Making lists can save valuable time and keep the entire family on track, according to Ngala’s Julie Holschier. “These should be made well in advance and they should take in all of the activities and tasks the family has over those seven days. Put the lists and charts on the fridge where they can be seen.”

• Be in charge: “Set down the ground rules and boundaries and stick to them, ” Ngala’s Wendy Muller said. “Modelling is so important — if mum is out of control, then children also feel out of control. Children need consistency and predictability; they need to know which behaviours are non-negotiable. If sibling rivalry breaks out, then a parent needs to intervene before someone gets hurt. The way a parent handles conflict resolution will be reflected in the child, so think about how you react during a stressful situation.”

• Prioritise: Parents should give priority to the activities and social occasions that best suit their children, and be careful not to over-extend them. “When it comes to after-school activities, the focus should be on having some positive family time, ” Jane Doyle, of the State Child Development Centre, said. “How much is the child enjoying the activity? Carefully consider your motives for enrolling children — remember to focus on whether they are developing and learning from the activity rather than just focusing on the outcome and a child’s performance.”

• Get them involved: “Give the children, especially the older ones, some ownership by giving them responsibilities around the house, ” Ms Holschier said. “Get them to set the table or peel the vegetables.” Ms Doyle said there was good evidence to indicate children could benefit from being allocated chores. They were more likely to have self confidence and be self disciplined.

• Take time to reflect: Constantly reviewing and re-evaluating their parenting style meant people were more likely to be effective parents, Ms Doyle said. “When parents look back on a situation that didn’t go according to plan, it helps to be calm and reflect with curiosity and interest, without guilt or blame.”


© The West Australian

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