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

4 Tips for School Breaks That Won’t Break YOU!

Are your kids off from school this week? Mine are! Our elementary schoolers are off this whole week. We had parent-teacher conferences today, and then it’s “Camp Krispin” for the rest of the week!

Anytime our kids are out of routine, we can expect the usual Big Feelings to get even bigger. I find that too much “together time” lends itself to increased sibling strife. Whining, attention-seeking behaviors, and general neediness increases with each passing day, and for good reason: kids thrive in structure and predictability. While “going with the flow” might work for you, I can almost guarantee you that it does not work for your kids.

Over the years, I’ve learned what I need to do ahead of time to ensure that school breaks don’t break me. There are four things that I start thinking about and planning the week beforehand to foster a flourishing family environment and help my kids (and me!) have a great break.

#1: I’ll say it again: KIDS THRIVE IN STRUCTURE AND PREDICTABILITY.

Having a Vacation Routine is paramount! Keep routines as normal as possible during breaks. If your kids have a morning routine on school days (and they absolutely should!), keep it as consistent as possible. Getting dressed, eating breakfast, and having some place to be are very helpful in maintaining a sense of structure and consistency.

In our house, routines are a big part of our lives. Thanks to Positive Parenting Solutions, I’ve learned how essential Morning and Bedtime Routines are, and we maintain ours whether or not school is in session.

As for our Vacation Routine, the day always has the following components: meals at normal times, the kids have to be dressed before breakfast, there is some kind of outdoor activity, there is some sort of indoor creative activity (often it’s painting or some other art/craft), there is some sort of afternoon snack, and there is a movie.

I recommend actually writing the plan for the day down and posting it for your kids! If you don’t do that, at the very least, tell them what to expect for the day, with the understanding that things might shift a bit. We emphasize that this is “THE PLAN” for the day, not “THE PROMISE.” The plan might change, but here’s what we’re aiming for. I promise you, it makes a huge difference when the kids know ahead of time what’s coming at them.

Which brings me to…

#2. HAVE SOME PLACE TO GO EVERY DAY.

I know it sounds like a lot of work. I love the idea of lounging in my pajamas all morning, sipping coffee and listening to podcasts. But that doesn’t work for my kids. When we do that, they begin to ramp up and then spiral down into super unpleasantness. Have some place to go by 10:00 AM every day. A playground, the zoo, a walk in the neighborhood, a movie, a museum, a hike, whatever — it doesn’t have to cost anything and it doesn’t have to be fancy or far from home. For us, a picnic and playground are part of our normal routine. It gets the kids up, out, and moving, which is so good for all of us!

#3: PLAN ACTIVITIES.

Sometimes my kids can “just go play.” But often, they can’t. I find that it is very helpful to have activities planned that will keep them creatively engaged throughout the day. Usually, I can dip in and out of the room when they are doing these things—I have to get them started and often have to pop in to help out, but these are things I can also be doing other things (cooking, cleaning, editing, etc.) simultaneously. Some of the activities I have planned for this week include:

  • Painting (I got these easels and these canvases from Amazon and will have a Painting Party at some point this week. Bonus is that these paintings will then become Christmas gifts for grandparents!)
  • Collage-making (I’ve been saving National Geographic Kids, Sunset, and other magazines for them to cut and paste. Bonus: this is great for our kids who need extra OT help with fine motor skills—woot!)
  • Sculpting. This one’s messy, so gird up your loins. But I bought clay like this at Michaels and the kids LOVE making things with it. Once it dries you can easily vacuum up the pieces.
  • Indoor Hide and Seek. This is what I bust out when everyone starts to really grate on each other’s nerves. When the bickering starts to peak, I launch a game of hide and seek. It is a sure-fire winner every time.
  • Board Games. Uno (OK, I know that’s a card game), Race for the Treasure, Outfoxed, Sequence for Kids, Settlers of Catan, and BINGO are some of our favorites.
  • LEGOs. I’ve become savvy to the fact that I can’t say, “Go play with LEGOs” and expect results. However, if I set up a LEGO party on the dining room table, with bins easily accessible and front and center, two of my kids will sit and build for at least an hour or more. I have most of our household’s LEGOs in plastic drawers on wheels. I can easily wheel them out and then wheel them back into the boys’ bedroom (where they live most of the time) when they’re finished.
  • Playdates! I find it really helpful to plan to meet up with other kids or even to host an additional child for a few hours to break up the monotony of siblings being together 24/7.

For the record, sometimes I plan all these things, and the kids start playing something totally independently (Spy Academy, Zombie Apocalypse, School, and Family are their favorite made-up games). But it is absolutely essential for me to have a plan in case they are struggling to play well together. Again, being off routine and having too much together time are often a recipe for our kids to struggle.

In fact, I can predict that around 3:00 each day, my kids will start to struggle. (They don’t call it “The Witching Hour” for nothing!) They will be getting tired, they will have been together all day, and they will be grating on one another’s last nerve. That’s when I have the most structured activity, like painting, or give them a movie while I make dinner.

And last but not least is…

#4 SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.

If you have more than one child, it’s going get loud! It’s going to get crazy! Everyone is going to need to practice their deep breathing and mindfulness and trips to the Calming Corner—ESPECIALLY US PARENTS! This is when it is more important than ever that we set our intentions for the day and take time to pray and welcome help from on high. Our ability to model patience and restraint when the volume is turned up and the tantrums are turned on will play a huge part in how the kids handle their dysregulated moments. Being proactive with structure and anticipating (and planning for) the harder parts of the day will make all the difference.

This is how I handle school breaks and vacation days. How about you? What helps your family flourish when you’re off your usual routine?

Top Photo by Allen Taylor on Unsplash. Bottom Photo from my Instagram Feed.

Amazon links are affiliate links. If you purchase any of these items through these links, I will receive a commission. I only recommend products I completely stand by and use myself!