Back in November, I shared a post on Facebook about a phenomena known as “restraint collapse,” or “after-school restraint collapse.” This refers to the common experience many parents report of their children doing very well at school, but when they get home, the wheels come off. One reader’s comment summarized it well:
I did this my entire childhood. I remember my mom telling my pediatrician “she’s so good with anyone else but as soon as it’s just me and her she goes off”. Wish my mom was around for us to talk about this. It’s kinda comforting to know it’s a normal thing and I wasn’t just a demon child haha.
Her comment broke my heart, not least of all because her mom is not around anymore to discuss things with, but also because she has likely spent years believing that she was uniquely “bad.” One of my motivating factors for writing this blog and the other resources I create is to educate and inform parents and foster parents/caregivers so we can support our kids and help them find emotional wholeness and vibrant mental health.
If you, too, experience after-school meltdowns, or if you get home from church and your children seem to have been possessed by demons somewhere between “Jesus Loves Me” and that week’s Memory Verse, you’re not alone.
And they’re not possessed.
It’s called “restraint collapse,” and it’s a very real thing. Pay attention. I thought of it as a behavior problem for too long, and my irritation and frustration only added fuel to the emotional fire. One of the big “A-ha!” moments for me was recognizing how much children thrive in structure, and how lack of structure can leave them feeling insecure and unsafe. Think about it: they are going from a (presumably) highly-structured environment to a non-structured environment, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Add a bit of mental exhaustion from trying to pay attention all day and meeting the expectations placed on them, and conditions are perfect for meltdowns.
Once I saw it for what it was, I was able to take some proactive steps to help my kids regulate their emotions through the transition back home. Here’s what we do:
1) After-school snack, pronto! Not cookies and milk, either (well, sometimes cookies and milk, if I’m honest, but not usually). Yogurt, cheese sticks, protein balls, pepperoni sticks, mixed nuts and crackers, fruit (apple slices, bananas, grapes are favorites). And water! If you have after-school activities, have snacks in the car on the way. The kids haven’t eaten in hours. Feed & hydrate them! And I find it helpful to have a snack ready as soon as we get home. Lately, a piece of cheddar cheese and apple slices is my go-to. Not enough to ruin their appetite for dinner, but something to satisfy for the meantime.
2) Debrief. Sit with them as they munch. Ask good questions (not yes or no questions). “What was one thing that made you happy today? One thing that made you sad? What was on the lunch menu? Who did you sit with at lunch? Was recess inside or outside? What did you do during recess?” I will share that my children are usually talking over one another at this point, competing for my attention and affection. This little scenario can get loud and heated very quickly, so I try to be intentional about directing my questions and making sure everyone feels heard. Sometimes I have to work hard to keep my demeanor positive (I don’t always succeed—nothing triggers me more than my kids fighting with each other—but when I’m mindful of it, it helps a lot.)
3) Get them moving. Some kids need “down time” after school. I don’t know what that’s like. My kids need to MOVE and SCREAM. We often stay on the school playground or head to another playground after school. Alternately, we come home and, after snack, I tell the kids they have fifteen minutes to play outside before it’s time to start homework (or, for the little ones, twenty minutes of looking at books.) I use my timer and, again, stick to a structure.
4) Find a way for each child to feel seen and heard. When I pick my younger kids up from school, there are four children in my van, and they are all talking at the same time! When we get home, during snacks or after snacks, I give each child some individual attention. Hugs and eye-contact are key. It’s not as hard as it sounds! 🤪 But it does take planning.
5) Meal plan and fix make-ahead meals so you’re not trying to make dinner while the kids are losing their minds. You know the drill. #witchinghour
6) When all else fails, let them watch a show. Honestly, I almost never do this after school, because it’s too hard to pull my children away from the TV once they’re locked and loaded. If homework needs to happen, it must happen before screens. But that said, PBS Kids has some great options that are around 22 minutes each. Sometimes kids just need to chill out after working so hard at school. Let them!
Let me be clear: what I am suggesting here is not coddling our kids and never letting them exercise their own emotional self-control. I am not painting a picture of bringing children home from school and then coddling them in order to avoid them having to manage themselves. What I am getting at here is that we need to recognize what’s happening and set our kids up for success. Younger children don’t always know what they need. With a bit of effort, we can help. Sometimes I don’t do all of the above, but when I do, things go much more smoothly after school.
Hope you find this helpful!!!