Recognizing Restraint Collapse

Today on YouTube, I am sharing about a concept that every parent will deal with at some point in time, whether they know it or not. It’s called “restraint collapse,” and it is the source of many struggles for foster youth and foster parents alike.

Counselor and parenting educator Andrea Loewen Nair first coined the concept of “after-school restraint collapse.” Nair writes,

It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people. We push ourselves to not be snarly, crabby people where doing so might have seriously negative consequences like losing our jobs, getting sent to the principal’s office, or missing sandbox time. How many times during the day do you wish you could just tell someone off or walk away and cry in the bathroom? But we don’t – we do what we need to in order to “be good” or keep the peace. After we’ve don’t that all day, we get to the point where we just don’t have the energy to keep this restraint, and it feels like a big bubble that needs to burst.

“7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their After-School Restraint Collapse,” Andrea Loewen Nair

While Nair offers this concept in relation to the after-school meltdowns many parents deal with, I think the phrase “restraint collapse” and the way she describes what is going on is a perfect way to understand what is happening in many children in foster care. They have to hold it together in a new home with a new family. They often have to hold it together in a new school setting (most of the school-aged foster youth in my home had to change schools mid-school-year). They have to hold it together during family visitation, sitting in a small visitation center or public space for hours at a time so they can see their parents and other family members. Eventually, as Nair says, they get to the point where they just don’t have the energy to keep this restraint, and it feels like a big bubble that needs to burst.

A common phrase in the foster care world is “the end of the honeymoon period.” In fact, I used it in this post before revising my perspective for this post. When a child is first placed in a foster home, things look fine for a bit. The child is on his or her best behavior, as are the foster parents. But after a time—perhaps a few days, perhaps a week, even a bit longer—everyone settles in, starts to feel a bit comfortable, and stops trying so hard not to rock the boat. Kids begin to test boundaries or just let their big feelings out, parents grow irritable and impatient, and pretty soon, a volcano erupts.

A better term for this phenomena is “restraint collapse,” or perhaps, “new placement restraint collapse.” While “the end of the honeymoon period” is very foster-parent centric (it sure doesn’t feel like a honeymoon to the child!), “restraint collapse” is much more accurate and validates what is actually happening to the child: they have tried as hard as they can for as long as they can, but they cannot hold it together any longer.

Of course, a new placement is not the only time that a child will experience restraint collapse. In fact, that is the point of my latest video. Restraint collapse, while common for many children from stable backgrounds and secure attachments, is all the more common for children who have experienced a history of trauma, disrupted attachment, and transition.

In my experience, recognizing restraint collapse for what it is goes a long way in helping parents respond with compassion, rather than frustration, when the wheels come off. It also helps us spot our own vulnerabilities and deal with our triggers before we reach our own collapse.

While it is impossible to completely predict and circumvent circumstances that lead to restraint collapse, awareness is half the battle. Once we are aware, we can take steps to predict and plan for those challenging moments. In addition to the video below, I also produced “5 Tips for Anticipating & Responding to Restraint Collapse.” This video is available on Patreon.

Top Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

Bottom Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

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