As soon as my sons walk through the door after school, they throw down their backpacks, toss their shoes and socks in a pile, and collapse on the couch. One of my sons cannot be spoken to. I’ve learned that the hard way. I used to try to engage with him – you know, asking him seemingly innocent questions like “How was your day?”
Let’s just say, it didn’t end well.
When he was little, he had after school meltdowns that were so loud and explosive at times, I was afraid the neighbors would call the police. They were about the littlest things … or nothing at all. One time I bought him a bagel at the deli – one that he had requested – and as soon as I presented it to him, he lay on the floor crying for no discernible reason.
I thought it was because there was something wrong with the bagel. Or that he’d changed his mind. But it was none of that. I still have no idea why he was crying.
Over the years, his after school meltdowns totally baffled me. His teachers told me he was an angel at school – always obedient, a good friend, a good student. He liked school. So why was some kind of monster unleashed when he got home?
It turns out he was probably suffering from something called After-School Restraint Collapse, a term coined by Canadian psychologist and parenting educator Andrea Nair. In a viral post that originally appeared on Yummy Mummy Club, Nair says that After-School Restraint Collapse is actually common, normal, and something that you can help your child through.
The idea behind it is that when kids are at school, many of them are working really hard to hold their shit together. You know, trying to listen to instructions that they might not really want to follow. Trying to share, be a good friend, be accepted by their peers. Trying to sit still all day and do endless work they may have little interest in. And just being a little kid with BIG feelings and trying really freaking hard not to let all those feelings get the better of them.
Then, when they get home, IT. ALL. COMES. OUT.
If you think about it, it’s not just little kids who can be total wrecks when they come home after a long day. Grown-ups experience this too. We are just (usually) mature enough to keep it together.
“You conduct, orchestrate, produce, think, smile, keep things in your inside brain that you wish you could say out loud, then walk in your front door only to turn into a snarly, crabby person,” says Nair. “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.”
That’s for damn sure.
And what happens when you walk into the door? Well, all that pent up stuff just comes pouring right out, doesn’t it?
“After we’ve don’t [sic] 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,” says Nair.
That’s where you get the kid who lies on the floor for 20 minutes crying about a goddamn bagel.
Only it’s not about a bagel. It’s about having had been stuck in a classroom for 6 whole hours with a million feelings swarming around in your little heart and having nowhere to put them … and then coming home and just needing to have a good cry.
Of course, it doesn’t always look simply like a kid having a “good cry.” Having kids who melt down after school on a regular basis can be really distressing for all involved. It can be a downright nightmare at times.
But there are things you can do to help your kid through it — or even prevent the meltdowns from happening in the first place. Nair says that there are seven things you can do to help: 1.) Reconnect positively; 2.) Create space; 3.) Feed them; 4.) Reduce household clutter and noise; 5.) Stay connected throughout the day; 6.) Provide decompression time; and 7.) Have fun.
I can say without a doubt that “feed them” is perhaps the biggest one, and that the first thing you should do as soon as your kid walks through the door is shove a plate of healthy food (or whatever they will eat) in their face, no questions asked. Kids are HANGRY after school, and young kids often don’t eat that much lunch during the school day.
Feeding your kids immediately can solve 75% of after school breakdowns, in my experience.
But Nair’s other points are really important too. If you’ve got a meltdown-prone kiddo, try not to schedule too many after-school activities for them. Some kids just need to come home and decompress, and that’s okay. Homework can wait too. Let them sit in a quiet room, playing, doing jumping jacks, or watching YouTube (let’s be honest: that’s what most of our kids do to relax after school).
If they will take your “positive reconnection,” that’s fine too. But if they want nothing to do with you for a bit after school, don’t take it personally. Say to yourself, “Oh, my kid is just experiencing After-School Restraint Collapse. It’s fine.”
Seriously, don’t be hard on yourself if your kid is like this. Although not all kids experience this in an extreme way, some more sensitive kids really do.
There is a positive way to look at it all too: your home is their safe space. If they can come home and “let it all out,” pat yourself on the back for offering them a place to do that. Try to nurture them through their feelings as much as possible.
Of course, if things really seem out of control – if the symptoms can’t be dealt with using some of the proactive steps that Nair mentions, for example – then by all means, seek counseling for you and your child. There are some child therapists out there who can really help. Your school’s counselor might be a great place to start too.
But know, too, that this sort of thing is very common. And the good news is that as kids mature, the meltdowns do diminish. I’ve been there, and it’s true.
So hang in there. Give your kids space to vent, accept your kids’ feelings (all of them!), and FEED THEM. Seriously. As soon as they walk in the damn door.