Ways to tame the witching hour

How you and your children's caregiver can create a more peaceful evening

You get home from work after a long day, eager to unwind with your kids, but instead of a cheerful "Hi, Mommy!" you get whining, complaining and irrational tears. You thought your kids left their "witching hours" behind when they outgrew their bassinets, but in many families, toddlers and kids seem to be at their worst in the evening.

Thomas Phelan, PhD, author of the 1-2-3 Parenting Magic books and programs, isn't surprised. Everyone is tired and hungry, he says, and if the day happened to be stressful, "there can be a displacement or transfer of negative emotions from one situation to another," he says. And he's not just talking about the kids. If you didn't get enough sleep or had a bad day at work, you'll have less patience when your kids push your buttons — especially if you're rushed to get dinner on the table. "Plus, everybody in the world shows their worst behavior at home."

The good news is that it's possible to tame your family's witchy behavior with a few smart strategies.

1. Plan meals ahead of time. A big portion of the stress equation comes from nightly pressure to think about what to make for dinner. According to Aviva Goldfarb, founder of The Scramble, a subscription-based meal planning service, spending a chunk of time each week (Saturday afternoon, Monday after kids go to bed) creating a weekly meal plan will make weeknights much less harried. "If you take the thinking out of the equation and you already have all the ingredients for dinner and an easy, family-friendly recipe, then that time of day can go so much more smoothly," she says.

2. Change your expectations. Maybe you've bought a new kid's book and planned a little story hour when you get home, but your toddler just won't sit still. Whining ensues. And your idea gets insulted left and right. Unfortunately, you'll just make things worse if you plow ahead with your plan. "You have to leave room for things not to be perfect and find pleasure in the lack of perfection," says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D., Care.com's parenting expert. She suggests relaxing and following your child's lead if your plans go awry. "There can be something tremendously powerful in giving up our scripted plans for the day to just be where our kids are at," says Ludwig. If their "lead" leads straight to the TV, set a screen-time quote for each day and stick to it, says Phelan.

3. Stick to a routine. "Kids respond very well to regular schedules," says Ludwig. "It helps kids to feel safe and know what to expect." You could spend the first 20 minutes every evening cuddling with a snack and a book, then set up a craft activity while you make dinner. Or, if they're old enough to have homework, designate standing time for it so it doesn't become a daily battle. Whatever your plan, keep it as consistent as possible and see if you notice a difference.

4. Let your nanny handle dinner. If you still need help with the dinnertime rush, Ludwig suggests asking your nanny to help. "Look for ways to simplify your life so you're not stressed, miserable and making everyone else miserable," she says. Your nanny could do prep work, like chopping vegetables or making rice, while the kids are napping, or even make an entire meal that can be heated up later. You may even want her to feed the kids dinner before you get home; then you can have fun with your children and sit down to a more relaxing dinner after they go to bed. Just make sure you negotiate these duties with her if they weren't part of her original job description.

5. Divide and conquer.In some families, witching hour woes are made worse when sibling rivalry comes into play. If this is when your kids go at each other the most, Phelan suggests splitting them up a few times a week. "Maybe one parent and one child eat dinner at home, and the other ones go out to eat," he says. "Then switch the next time." He says it's even OK to eat at different tables when you all go out to the same restaurant. "One-on-one time with kids is how they really bond with you," says Phelan. "Kids cherish it because they've got you to themselves. It may sound sacrilegious, but I guarantee that you'll have a better time."

6. Exercise. If stress runs high in your household at this time of day, exercise may be the answer. "One of the best things families could do is exercise together," says Phelan. "Nature intended us to move when we're stressed out." So rather than everyone retreating to their screens — TVs, computers, smartphones — try a quick bike ride or just some horsing around in the yard to burn off some of that frenzied energy. Need inside activities? Host a scavenger hunt, challenge a wheelbarrow race, make forts and knock them down (yes, make your living room a total mess – it's worth it). If dinner needs to be made, trade duties with your spouse every few days so you both get some exercise and active play with the kids. Or, do these games on leftover night.