No, You’re Not a Demon Child

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!!!

Photo by Marco Albuquerque on Unsplash

5 Ways to Help Your Foster Youth Succeed in School

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Tomorrow is the first day of the new school year for students in Seattle.

For kids in foster care, school can either be a really safe, positive, and supportive space, or it can be yet another source of trauma and shame—or perhaps a mixture of both. Some children have to change schools each time they have a new placement. Some children are stigmatized for being in foster care. Some children lose days and weeks of education because of placement changes during the school year. Some children are so burdened with PTSD, depression, and anxiety that they find learning extremely difficult.

If you are a foster parent who has a child heading back to school, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Give them what they need to succeed. Take them back to school supply shopping armed with the list from their school. Let them pick out their notebooks and folders and backpacks. Make sure they have high-quality supplies. Don’t get them the cheap backpack that will fall apart or the cheap pencils that don’t write well. Make sure they have a space to study at home, and set a system in place to motivate them—perhaps a half hour with a favorite video game once homework is done. Make sure they have nice school clothes that they had a hand in picking out.

Find out what extracurriculars are available to them at school and make sure they know they have your support if they want to join. Things like after school drama club or sports can be exactly what a child in care needs to find a healthy sense of community and self esteem. If they need to get to school early or be picked up later in order to participate, find a way to make it happen for them. Give them every opportunity to have the full school experience!

Coach them on getting enough sleep and eating well. This doesn’t happen overnight, but it is so important. Perhaps for older kids this means letting them know that the internet will be off from 10 PM to 7 AM so they are not online into the wee hours of the night. For younger kids, this means having a set and steady routine.

Be in touch with their teachers and try to stay ahead of academic challenges they are facing. If your child is behind, talk with their teachers and social worker about what supports are available. In Washington, we have access to educational support for kids in foster care through Treehouse and other organizations that support youth in care. Take advantage of whatever is available. If your child is resistant to the support, those folks can often help come up with ways to motivate them. (This might be new to you as a foster parent, but it is not their first rodeo! Rely on their expertise!)

Let your child know you are with them and for them. Words of affirmation combined with thoughtful and intentional actions will go a long way! Try to speak supportive things to them throughout the week. Don’t just focus on how they’re doing in school… ask how they’re feeling about school. One way I love to do this is to share “Roses and Thorns” at dinnertime. What were the best parts of your day (roses) and what were the worst (thorns)? For ideas on how to connect with your kids in conversation, check out The Family Dinner Project for some ideas.

To hear more thoughts for foster parents on helping your foster children succeed in school, check out last week’s podcast! I chatted with Ernest Henderson, Jr., who is Associate Director of Eastern Washington Education Programs at Treehouse. Ernest is not only an education advocate for youth in foster care—he is also a former foster youth AND a former foster parent. He really knows his stuff and had some great insight to share!

“Back to School” with Ernest Henderson, Jr. (Podcast)

It’s back to school time, and for youth in foster care, that can either be a really good thing or a really, really hard thing (or a bit of both.)

Today I’m speaking with Ernest Henderson, Associate Director of Eastern Washington Education Programs at Treehouse.

Ernest not only brings the professional insights of someone who devotes his career to helping foster youth succeed in school, but he also brings a background of being a former foster youth and a former foster parent. In this episode we discuss some of the ways a foster parent can support their child in school, how to navigate communicating with your child’s teachers and school personnel, and tips for preparing your foster youth to succeed in a new school. We also touched on positive discipline for youth in foster care and ways to empower and encourage our kids.

Ernest mentioned a few things for foster parents to learn more about, including the Every Student Succeeds Act, and I’ve included several helpful links in the show notes for this episode—so be sure to check those out.

I really appreciated what Ernest had to share, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!