“Why does my child struggle so much/have so many meltdowns when they get home from school?”
When I was a teacher, I would often have children who appeared to be managing really well in school and on the surface seemed happy. But that wasn’t what parents were seeing at home and they would often describe a totally different child to the one I would see at school. So what was happening and why?
As parents you might be noticing a change in your child’s behaviour since starting school, and is particularly challenging straight after school. Parents often describe this as if a ‘switch has been flicked’, and their child can become often unrecognisable and very dysregulated. You might notice:
- anger, towards themselves or others
- a reduced frustration tolerance and increased irritability
- impulsive behaviour
- defiant, demand avoidant or disrespectful behaviour (can include rude language)
- increased meltdowns and emotional outbursts
- overwhelm or refusal in response to ‘simple requests’
It might also present itself as your child being unable to wind down at bedtime and ‘bouncing off the walls’ when they are home from school. Parents often describe their child as being ‘wired’, which can be a sign of dysregulation and overwhelm.
After school can be very challenging for many families and children, and can be more prevalent at the start of the school year (although not confined to that period of time for some children). Children might have a whole day of dysregulation, suppression of feelings and lack of autonomy inside them to let out. The ‘letting out’ and inability to cope with aspects of normal life is known as after-school restraint collapse and in essence is when children are ‘holding it together’ all day and then they release how they truly feel in the presence of those they trust, or in their safe place at home. They emotionally collapse. All humans, children and adults, have a certain capacity for regulation, how much they are able to cope with before it becomes too much. Every individual has a different capacity to manage the demands around them and stimulation from new environments and people.
A child’s capacity to regulate their emotions and cope with the challenges and demands placed upon them at school is often likened to a fizzy drinks bottle. At the start of the day the bottle is empty, but as the day progresses, they get full up with stuff. Children do what they need to do in order to ‘be good at school’ and so the pressure of that builds up - the pressure to 'behave', the pressure to be quiet and listen, the pressure to sit still, the pressure to make friends and be liked, the pressure to answer questions, the pressure to share resources, the pressure to 'hold it together' emotionally. School can be a very different and complex environment to navigate and these pressures build up until the bottle is full. Children spend all day keeping a metaphorical ‘lid on their bottle’, holding it all in, managing to get through the day with no real evidence or external signs that they aren’t coping. But within it can feel like a giant bubble that is about to burst. The contents of the bottle are constantly shaken throughout the day and the emotions build up and up on the inside.
For your child, there are all sorts of expectations, frustrations, disappointments and challenges to manage, and all of this happens without the presence of a loved one and safe adult. This can be incredibly exhausting and that build-up of emotions needs to escape. And then your children get home and they feel safe enough to unleash all the pent-up emotions with someone they trust and love. In the safety of their home, with the person who enables them to feel safe enough to show their true self, they unscrew that lid and the pressure that has been building all day releases. This much needed release is often described as an explosion of feelings. ‘Restraint collapse' can present as meltdowns, aggressive behaviour, screaming, shouting, whining, crying, deliberate defiance or rudeness, picking fights - these are all normal expressions of that pressure being released. In some ways you should see it as a compliment - they feel safe and because they know you'll love them no matter what. They don't have to hold it in inside anymore and it is finally safe to let it all go.
It is really important to remember that these explosions of feelings are not your child being ‘naughty’ or testing boundaries/trying to ‘get their own way’. The after-school restraint collapse is exactly that — a collapse, or meltdown, because your child is so emotionally overwhelmed that they can no longer keep it together. Many children experience tiredness after a day at school, but restraint collapse is more than just usual fatigue. More sensitive, deeply feeling children might experience restraint collapse more frequently or more intensely but it can affect all children. Neurodivergent children, and those who have sensory sensitivities and challenges with processing sensory information might find the school environment very overwhelming and might have a reduced capacity to manage their emotions. At times it might appear as if it has settled, but then present itself again after a challenging day for your child, or if they are very tired or poorly and therefore their capacity to manage their emotions and demands is lowered. This might also be true for children navigating big changes at home whether that be a move of house, parents separating or the loss of a loved one – these will all impact your child’s tolerance of demands and capacity to manage their emotions.
Dr Kimberley Bennett, a mother of two and child psychologist, explains that ‘A lot of these new experiences and challenges in schools are being navigated without you there, which can make many of these things that they usually cope well with, feel a little more tricky. They can’t hold your hand when they feel a little nervous, they can’t have a quick cuddle when they fall and scrape their knee. They may not have the chance to talk to anyone if another child takes their turn. So, throughout the day there is an accumulation of these dysregulating moments, with no small opportunities for co-regulation or emotional release. Our child comes back into the safety of their relationship with us and begins the process of releasing all of these pent-up emotions. The ability to offload these big feelings is actually psychologically healthy. As challenging as their behaviour may be in the moment, parents should welcome their child’s big emotional releases. We want to raise children who are able to move through their feelings, and being a safe space for your child to “collapse” into after school is such an important role in parenting a young child.’
There might be times when your child might also ‘reject’ your support or affection during an emotional collapse, which can be really tough for parents to navigate. Dr Vanessa Lapointe, a parent educator and child psychologist, explains that ‘this especially frustrating and personal form of after-school restraint collapse is totally normal and a sign that your child really does love you a lot. I call it defensive detachment and it is a subconscious thing. They don’t even know they’re doing it but it’s very real. Your child might defensively detach from you by being angry at you, and shoving you away, and may even call you names.’
Children often don’t have the words to tell us what they’re thinking and feeling, but as parents we should try to stay curious about what a child’s behaviour is telling and showing us. All behaviour is communication, and it can help us to figure out what support they need. When you child is experiencing intense emotions, take a deep breath and meet them where they are at. Try to keep speech to a minimum and just allow space for their emotions to flow through them. You might support them by gently naming their feelings ‘I can see that you’re having a hard time and you have some big emotions. You are safe. Now is the time to let them out’. Other children might find that too confronting, and for those children you might just sit near them and let them know that you are there for them when they are ready. When you notice signs that their nervous system might be calming down, offer them a cuddle if they would like one. Give them a choice as some children like to express their emotions with their safe adult close by, whereas others might need physical contact.
Children can sometimes feel ashamed or upset about their outbursts or anger, so it is important to reassure them all feelings are valid, and it isn’t a reflection of who they are. Once they have calmed down and returned to a more regulated place, let them know that they are loved no matter what ‘there is nothing you can do or say that will change my love for you. I love all parts of you’. Help them to see that all feelings are welcome and are a reflection of how they feel in that moment. Fill them with messages of your love and acceptance. This is the foundation of unconditional love and connection.
So, what can you do to support your child through the release of emotions? Firstly, and most importantly is to know that this is something many children experience and is not a reflection of your parenting or your child being ‘naughty’. Try not to take anything they say or do in a moment of emotional collapse personally. Stay calm and empathetic. Children need the person who they love the most in the world to be able to hold their feelings without judgement or misunderstanding.
When working with parents of neurodivergent children we often discuss the spoon theory. Imagine your child has a certain number of spoons available to them and throughout their day they might either lose a spoon or gain a spoon, depending on what depletes them or recharges/restores them. This is hugely influenced by the environment around them, and children will need time to build their spoons back up, so that they are able to manage the next day. Starting the day with a couple of spoons, no spoons, or in spoon deficit, means that even the smallest challenge will trigger and dysregulate them. Spoon theory is applicable to everyone and is very similar to how we often think of a battery. When we have no battery left, or we have run out of spoons, our capacity to cope is zero and your child will have no energy left to manage or regulate themselves. This is when children start to become dysregulated and overwhelmed and it is vital that they have a chance to recharge before the expectations of the next day or next week of school.
Recharging their battery or restoring a child back to a regulated place will look different for every child and it is therefore important that you follow their lead and do what is right for them and your family. Some children might find time in a playground regulating, but for another child this could be hugely dysregulating/challenging and further lead to depletion and overwhelm (physically, emotionally and mentally). Some children might find quiet time at home colouring in regulating, whereas another child might need movement to regulate.
Try to find ways for your child to decompress/regulate at the end of the day, or perhaps even before school. This might look like a bike ride, going for a run, tickling and play fighting, telling jokes, listening to music or simply doing nothing. These regulating activities can become part of a routine which can support both you and your child when navigating the intense emotions. Dr Lapointe says that “We humans love our routines. We love the safety of having a script for exactly how things are going to go. These kinds of scripts provide a boatload of safety during an emotional storm.” If your child has plenty of opportunities to regulate throughout the week, to fill their cup and recharge, you might find that their dysregulation and overwhelm becomes less intense and easier to manage. It is not necessarily possible to stop restraint collapse altogether, because you can’t prevent a child’s day away from you being hard. Our goal as parents should never be to ‘stop healthy expressions of feelings’ but the frequency and intensity of your child’s exhaustion could be supported.
One parent that I was supporting last year, learned through her personal experience with her son’s restraint collapse to steer away from play dates or scheduled activities right after school so that he had time to rest and restore. During our discussions, we discussed ways to reduce over-scheduling their weekends, allowing more free time for her children at home which gave them a greater sense of control and autonomy. Both of which can be very challenging for your child to find in school. We also looked at her son’s sensory profile and targeted things that supported his emotional regulation, and reduced things where possible that were emotionally draining, overwhelming or dysregulating. Sometimes it really does help to just talk things through, and get a different perspective on what things might be triggering your child. I supported another family whose daughter was experiencing intense restraint collapse daily, which continued well into the school year and beyond Reception. Her behaviour at home was becoming unmanageable and very aggressive. With my teacher’s hat on, I was able to support the parent to unpick situations at school that were causing her daughter great distress, confusion and overwhelm. I supported the mother through meetings at school to request additional support at certain times of the day and opportunities for her child to recharge and regulate during the school day. I am passionate about an individual child-centred approach for all children, and support families to feel empowered and better able to advocate for their child’s unique needs.
So how can we support our children with restraint collapse? Kate has given her top tips here.
Kate from NurturedChildhood offers 1:1 parenting and education support and advice to families. She was a primary school teacher, is a parent to an ND child and has a background in child psychology, and has brought all of her experience and expertise together to offer child-centred, nurture-based support for other families.