The ADHD Witching Hour: Surviving the After-School Medication Crash

Does your child return home from school mentally exhausted, physically edgy, and starving — all at the same time her ADHD meds are wearing off? Here are ADHD expert Terry Matlen’s afternoon meltdown survival strategies for parents and kids.

A kid playing with a puzzle to avoid a meltdown after school
Child with ADHD putting puzzle pieces together on yellowish brown carpet

When I talk to parents at ADHD conferences, I always say, “See the afternoon crash coming, and have a plan.”

We parents know that it is a hair-raising roller-coaster ride from the time kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) get home from school until they go to bed. Three o’clock is probably the toughest time of day for our kids — and the rest of our family.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Kids walk through the door mentally exhausted, physically edgy, and starving — though they usually don’t realize any of it. What’s more, their meds have worn off, causing their ADHD symptoms to return with a vengeance — which means hyperactivity, inattention, and in some cases, earth-shattering meltdowns after school.

My after-school plan was to give my daughter a healthy snack the moment she got home (it actually became an early dinner for her) and to disappear. Anything beyond a simple “Hi” could have triggered a tantrum. She needed to have time to herself.

Here are a few other things that helped reduce the steep drops of the 3 o’clock roller-coaster ride:

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  • Don’t over-schedule your child with after-school activities. She worked at least twice as hard as her schoolmates without ADHD, and needs about twice as much downtime. We set up a small room in the basement for our daughter, outfitted with beanbag chairs, video games, jigsaw puzzles, and a play table. She isolated herself and played quietly when she was stressed.
  • Since moodiness, irritability, anger, and defiance are common in kids who are tired and hungry, don’t force your child to accompany you on errands, which will tire her out even more. If you have to go out, be sure to bring in an ADHD-friendly babysitter.
  • Set aside time for therapeutic physical activity. Raking the leaves, riding a bike, doing martial arts on Wii, swimming, and taking a walk in the park are effective ways to release tension and hyperactivity.
  • Talk with your child’s doctor about giving her an afternoon dose of ADHD medication. Many children benefit from a second dose, which helps them focus and stay calm. Remember, no child likes to feel out of control.

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  • Watch what your child eats. After-school foods rich in protein will help balance a child’s mood better than foods high in simple carbs. Consider an early dinner if she just can’t wait for the family meal.
  • Hire a tutor or a high school student to help with homework. A non-family member is usually a better homework helper than parents, who may quickly butt heads with their child.
  • Be realistic about your expectations and never compare your child to her siblings without ADHD.

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3 Comments & Reviews

  1. I think these are good suggestions for folks that have the luxury of able to afford a sitter to go to the market or a tutor to help with homework. Or can get dinner prepared early so there kid can eat earlier, I barely make it in the door before 6pm on a good day. Don’t know too many people who can. Are there any more realistic suggestions. And homework has to get done before bed so when is there time to let your child play with bean bags?

    Can someone make suggestion for the average working Mom, trying her best to make ends meet and do the best for her ADHD child.

    -I pack my kids a high protein milk for after school.
    -I take figit toys with me to the market and coloring books to restaurants
    -I try to engage my kids in the shopping, like pick out the best looking apples and even math problems.
    -I discuss expections upfront and they know that if their behavior is good they can have something when we are finish. Takes a few reminders and they have been very disappointed on some occasions but with consistency have they get it
    -my kids have brief case coloring sets that we keep in the car

      1. All the years my son was on ADHD meds, the afternoon crash was terrible. And I totally agree with you both, this post is not reality-based. I found that I couldn’t ask my son questions, I couldn’t do anything but pour him into the car and feed him. If I was lucky, I had time to stop ahead of pick-up so I had food in the car. Otherwise, I’d feed him lunch at 4pm when we got home. I’d go back to work and hope he was in a better mental place by the time I got home so we could attempt homework.

        Finally, we had his IEP changed so there was no afternoon homework at all. After exhausting every ounce of focus he had at school, he had nothing left for homework. It’s not ideal but it’s life.

        I find I rarely read these articles anymore because they are out of touch. The topic is relatable but the suggestions aren’t.

        I think we all need to give ourselves and our wonderful ADHD kids more leeway to not fit the mold.

        All your suggestions are great, btw, fidget toys saved my sanity and my car also had a stash of things for store trips.

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