Managing That Meltdown Hour

Many mothers feel the late afternoon and early evening hours to be the most challenging time for themselves, their children and partners. It makes sense: at that hour, hunger, weariness, and restlessness are common reactions to end-of-workday expectations and transitions. From infants to the elderly, sundown is a time when mental health is less predictable than other times of day. Some call it the witching hour, and as I say to my clients, there is a reason they call it “happy hour.”

But instead of trying to fight through biochemistry and social norms during this time of day, I suggest a different approach. I call it Energy Alignment and it looks like this:

Eliminating the dinner hour routine.

By eliminate I mean, stop trying to make it look like it “should” look, and instead allow it to play out based on how it works best for you and your family.  Many dinnertime customs originated when an adult could focus all day on preparing an evening meal. Life no longer looks like this, because parents cope with different stressors in conjunction with income-earning work, as well as more intentional childcare demands. But before I talk about how to retool your dinner hour, let me explain how your energy levels impact your whole day.

Energy Levels and Mood

Have you noticed your mood brighten when your schedule is less strict, such as on weekends or during vacation? It’s not just the physical and mental rest you’re getting that creates this sensation. Experiencing fewer time-based demands allows you to better tune-in to the state of your body and mind, and make choices accordingly.

Choosing tasks that complement your energy levels instead of opposing them allows for a more natural, in-flow, and enjoyable day.

When you listen to your body and your intuition, this happens organically. Decision-making about “what to do next” becomes more about what your body and mind are prepared to do, instead of an externally imposed work process.

For example, many people would choose to take a nap instead of endure a stressful commute at 4pm. Who wouldn’t want to take a few minutes to yourself instead of wrangle cranky children before dinner time? But our culture has engineered ways to use our best energy, generally in the morning, for the workplace or school. We are left with the “tired” time for home and personal tasks.

So how do you handle this challenge, day after day, when parenting?

First, understand that you have a finite amount of energy to work with each day. Although you may feel more energetic on some days, it is likely that there is an ebb and flow to your energy pattern throughout the day depending on many variables, including your health, stress levels, the seasons, and situation.

I recommend taking note of your energy levels for a week, and charting them. When do you feel the most fresh? When do you feel you can focus best? When do you feel in the flow of the day? When do you need a neuroreflective pause? When does hunger or weariness cause you to stop what you’re doing? When do you feel you are ready for sleep?


Often, people have their highest energy levels in the morning, several hours after waking. However, this is typically when you’re expected to be at work or school, ready to produce. (It is also generally when young children are most attentive and engageable.)

Many cultural demands exist during these fresh hours, though. Of course everything and everyone wants you then — at your best.

However, it is within these fresh hours that doing activities which enrich your life will have the most impact. For example, conversing with your partner when you both feel mentally energized is much better suited to this fresh morning time, than at the end of the day.

I recommend using your high-energy hours to accomplish tasks which add value to life. Consider taking this time for important discussions, reading, exercise, or tasks that require lots of physicality. Another good use of this time is completing tasks that will require high energy later. Become mindful of how you spend these good hours, and protect them.

Afternoon and Evening

By late afternoon, your body and mind are both becoming tired, and you need restorative time. A siesta break is an excellent example of a good use of this time, as it gives people unstructured space to eat and rest.

However, late afternoon/early evening hours in our culture are marked by stress. Traffic, commutes, childcare pickups, grocery shopping, meal preparation, homework, and debriefing the day with your people are all expectations for families then. It can be a time of moodiness, restlessness, irritability, and hunger. As you can see, at a time when energy is lowest, we are required to do tiring tasks – tasks that would be much better suited to a different time of day.

What Can We Do?

Aside from a huge cultural shift (which I’d like to see), how can Energy Alignment work for you? Try these tips:

-Notice your energy peaks and valleys to understand what your unique energy patterns look like. Charting them gives you data useful when planning activities.

-Take time off work or hire a sitter in the mornings (or when you have your best energy) when possible. Then, schedule activities that enrich your life, such as connecting with your partner, learning something new, meditation, or exercise.

-Note children’s energy patterns. Sometimes it works best to feed them a full meal when they are most depleted, instead of waiting for dinner time.

-Instead of date night, schedule a brunch morning (if morning is your good time) to infuse your relationship with your most alert and positive interactions.

-Plan your day around your energy: physical and life-enriching tasks in the morning. Slower-paced tasks in the afternoon. Rest in the evenings.

Now, for the meltdown hour solution:

-Anticipate the sundown slowdown in yourself and children. If you know it’s coming, you can be well-prepared to handle it.

-Prepare meals ahead of time when you have your good energy, and make them simple to serve.

-Save discipline and heavy talks for a different time.

-Allow people to self-select activities as opposed to structuring this time of day.

Your family’s schedule may look different from others. Experiment with what works best for you. Sometimes a small tweak in the routine can have big impact on your mental health.

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1 Comment

  1. This is so spot on! Thank you for the ideas!

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