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Ending The Witching Hour

This is Lisa Brinkley's dream: She, her husband, and her three kids sit down to a home-cooked dinner and calmly discuss their day.

This is Lisa Brinkley's reality: It's suppertime and her two oldest kids, who are normally quite well-behaved, won't stop chasing each other around their Poughkeepsie, NY, home. When she finally gets them to come to the table, Nicole, 6, refuses to put more than her knee on her chair, and Travis, 4, follows her lead. That is, of course, before they disappear under the furniture altogether. Then Samantha, her 1 1/2-year-old, starts to wail and Brinkley feels like crying herself. "What gets me is that I don't have discipline problems with them for the rest of the day," she says. "But every evening around five o'clock they start to lose it, and so do I."

Welcome to the witching hour, that time in the early evening when kids  -- and parents  -- all across America seem to fall under a spell that causes mass meltdown, or at least the sort of stress that makes staying late at work start to look mighty good.

What precipitates this terrifying transformation? There are many causes, some of them physical. "The end of the day is naturally a time of low physical energy," says Debbie Webb Blackburn, Ph.D., a Richmond, VA, clinical child psychologist and mother of three. "The trouble is that you can't rest because there's too much to be done. Someone needs help with homework, someone else needs a diaper changed, someone else is whining that his sister stole his toy. Meanwhile, you're trying to remember if you added that last ingredient to the dish you're cooking  -- and then a telemarketer calls."

All this tumult is too much for the average baby, who has already maxed out on stimulation by this hour and responds with hypercrankiness and crying. And it's a difficult time for toddlers and preschoolers as well. "Kids are making the transition from daycare or school back to home," explains Blackburn. "If you work, you've been apart all day, so there's a big rush of emotion when they see you  -- they need your attention right now. If you don't provide it, they only get more clingy. Suddenly, they're pulling on your arm while you're carrying a hot pot."

The witching hour isn't limited to households in which both parents work. "I thought I'd escape it when I started working part-time," says Blackburn. "But I go through it even on days when I'm home."

So what's a sanity-seeking parent to do? First, keep in mind that this craziness is actually normal, says William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. "When my wife and I started calling this time the arsenic hour, we started to feel better about it," says this father of two and the author of The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World. "It reminded us that it's predictable and no one's fault, just like when your infant wakes up in the middle of the night. You moan about it, but you realize that it's just a part of raising children." That said, there are strategies to make this time of day less witchy. Here, how some parents break the spell:

Nancy Kalish writes often about child development and family dynamics for a variety of national magazines.

Make Your Own Transition First

Working parents tend to race home at the end of the day and arrive already frazzled from their commute. But if you take care of your own needs before you have to switch into Daddy or Mommy mode, you'll be in better shape to handle what's ahead. "As soon as I open the door at six-thirty, my sons glue themselves to my lap," says Jan Harper, a New York City journalist. "So I walk home from work. It takes longer, but it clears my head. I also drink a bottle of water along the way. My hands are too full of kids to hold a glass when I get home."

If you commute by car, park and spend five minutes unwinding, either in your driveway or down the block, before you enter the fray, suggests Blackburn. She always changes out of her work clothes and into jeans and a T-shirt as soon as she comes home. "Those are my play clothes. They signal to me and my kids that I'm home and ready to be here."

Then, Reconnect

"Many parents launch into meal preparation or another task as soon as they get home. But what your child is hungriest for is your attention," says Blackburn. "If you don't give him a good dose, he'll become more demanding. Once he's reconnected with you, however, he'll let go of your leg and get interested in something else." She advises parents spend 10 minutes snuggling with their kids on the couch upon arrival (an interlude that everyone will enjoy).

If there's a chore you feel must be done right away, include your kids. As Emily Paulsen, of Milanville, PA, has discovered, it may take more time that way, but at least it's family time. "We involve Eli, our 2-year-old, in feeding the pets," Paulsen says. "He puts kibble in the dish one piece at a time, but I try not to get too antsy. It's not wasted time if we're happy and enjoying each other."

Take the Edge Off

Chances are, a lot of your family's early evening crankiness is fueled by hunger. The choices: Either move the meal up or give them a snack. Don't worry about spoiling their appetite; give children the same foods they would be eating at dinner, like tomatoes or cheese. And have a snack yourself, to cut down on your crankiness.

Letting your child snack can have some unexpected advantages. "Eli had a hard time waiting until dinner so I started to let him nibble on what I was preparing," says Paulsen. "That's how I get him to eat more vegetables. He makes a game of eating them as I get the rest of dinner ready."

Don't Rely on TV

A little Barney before dinner may seem like a harmless way to occupy your child, but save it as an emergency measure, suggests Blackburn. "If you make a habit of using television to tranquilize her, it sends the message that she can't entertain herself or manage her own behavior," she says.

Instead, try a few low-tech activities. Have a special box of art supplies or toys on hand that your child plays with only at this hour. Or set her up with a picture book at the kitchen table, so you can keep a passive eye on each other.

Divide and Conquer

If you and your partner are both home, another strategy is to have one prepare dinner while the other cares for the kids  -- as far from the kitchen as possible. "It lets me make supper in peace while our kids get my husband's full attention. Then we can all sit down to dinner together," explains Stephanie Mullen, a mother of a 1- and 3-year-old in Blauvelt, NY. "We make sure to switch off, so the kids and I can play the next night."

Often, however, it's best not to divvy up duties if it's only for the sake of equality. "My husband and I tried taking turns doing the cooking, but it didn't work," says Leonie Karkoviata, of Mandeville, LA, the mom of a 21-month-old. "Because of his schedule, Ted couldn't get dinner on the table until seven-thirty  -- exactly the baby's bedtime. So now I do most of the cooking during the week, and keep frozen pizza on hand for days when I just don't feel like it."

Pare Down Dinner

"Trying to concentrate on your kids and cook a complicated dish is a recipe for disaster," says Blackburn. Her solution: "Once a month, I prepare 30 dinners in one day. The rest of the time, all I have to do is defrost." If that seems unrealistic, take the easy way once in a while and order in, or serve sandwiches.

"My mother felt it was a cop-out to serve boil-in-the-bag creamed spinach, but I loved those meals," recalls Marian Chabansky, an Encinitas, CA, mother of two girls, ages 5 and 8. "All I can say is, thank goodness for frozen vegetables because it means I can spend more time with my girls."

Another idea: Team up with a neighbor who has a child the same age to make dinner together once a week. It's half the work with double the adults to supervise.

Let Them "Help"

"If my husband isn't home and I have to make dinner, I let Matilda help cook," says Stephanie Mullen of her 3-year-old. "I give her a salad spinner with a few pieces of lettuce and let her spin away. She thinks she's helping Mommy and it buys me a few minutes to actually make a salad myself."

"When I'm running around the kitchen, my 3-year-old son Jacob feels like I'm blowing him off  -- and he's right," says Suzi Prokell, of Richardson, TX. "So he pulls up a stool and hands me the ingredients. I narrate what we're doing: 'Now I'm peeling the onion. Now I'm chopping it.' He's part of the action."

Prokell also enlists Jacob's assistance in entertaining his brother, 1-year-old Ryan, who's at his fussiest at this hour. "The key to keeping the baby happy while we cook is to keep changing his environment," she says. "In the kitchen, we have every kind of bouncy seat, swing, and crib gym on the market, and Jacob distracts the baby when he gets fidgety. Jacob feels like he's helping out  -- and he is."

In fact, assigning your children regular jobs is a good way to get them calmed down and ready to eat. "Kids as young as 3 years old can help set the table while older ones can pour drinks and carry food," says Blackburn. "It helps them make the transition to dinnertime." And it reduces your drudgery.

Keep Your Cool

Of course, as with much of parenting, the real secret to surviving the witching hour is to stay calm in the face of chaos  -- no easy task. "By five o'clock, my kids are sometimes crying their eyes out for no reason at all," says Derina Burrough, the Peoria, AZ, mom of Tyler, 5, and Gabriel, 2. "If I stop what I'm doing and give them my complete attention for five minutes, I can usually calm them down." And what if it doesn't work? Out comes her secret weapon: "If they continue to cry, I just whisper the word cookie. Then, they immediately stop to ask, 'What did you say, mommy?' I reply that I just wanted to know if they'd like a cookie after dinner. It does it every time."

Hang In There

As difficult as the witching hour may be, your child's cranky twin hasn't really taken his place forever  -- or even for the rest of the evening. By the time supper is over, he should be back to his normal, less demanding self. Again, the natural rhythms of the day are at work, slowing your child down in preparation for sleep, says William Doherty, Ph.D. You can help him along with a routine that includes bathing, reading, and other calming activities. Then you can put him to bed and breathe a weary sigh of relief. For when the witching hour is finally over, it's over  -- at least until tomorrow night.