We’re just a few weeks into the school year, and we’ve finally conquered the back-to-school first-week nerves (not yet? sending love). Just as we start to think to count down the morning struggles and we begin to think that maybe, just maybe, we can handle the morning routine. The moment we let our guard down, thinking we’ve got this, we start to see a new pattern arising—the after-school meltdown. Maybe for your kindie it’s a total out-of-control meltdown, or for your tween, it’s acting quiet and grumpy. However it looks in your household, it’s likely hard to manage. It’s also a little disheartening, you’re excited to see your kids and hear all about their day, and you get nothing but mumbled grunts in return.
This is normal. It’s manageable, and it’s very, very common. After School restraint Collapse, a term coined only a few years ago. It suddenly resonated with families in a big way. So, what is After School Restraint Collapse?
Let’s take a step back, these days, school is different, and many children, especially our younger ones, have a challenging time managing a school day when all they want to do is play. This is amplified by COVID and even more predominant in children with special needs.
COVID means our children, often as young as 3 & 4 years old, are confined to a desk when inside the classroom. It is very unnatural; kids are meant to move their bodies, explore and learn through play. Yet, as much as we hear how well they’re coping in the classroom, the media often talks about how resilient our kids are for working through these challenging times; we often don’t hear about what happens after class.
You pick your child up from school, and the teacher mentions what a great day they had! Yet, the moment they get in the car or step through the door, they’re miserable or unable to hold it together. You start to wonder why they have a split personality. This is After School Restraint Collapse.
Why does it happen?
You kid has spent all day sitting at a desk, possibly wearing a mask, minding their manners, managing complex relationships, listening carefully. They have been working and thinking hard and primarily restraining their natural kid impulses to yell, jump, spin in circles, and all the other lovely and weird things kids do. It is mentally, physically, and emotionally difficult for kids- even on the best of days.
Holding in tough emotions is hard for anyone, especially kids. By the time they get home, they just simply can’t hold it together anymore. They arrive home into their safe space, where love is unconditional. And they let it all go. The entire days’ worth of stress, emotions, and holding it together comes bursting out. It looks like anger, tears, defiance, and possibly a full-blown meltdown of kicking and screaming. It can happen right into adolescence, although it may appear less of a breakdown and more of quiet, mumbling, and grumpy.
The mental load of kids at school during a pandemic is hard.
The upside, if you’re experiencing ASRC, is that you’ve created a beautiful relationship with your child where they feel comfortable and safe enough where they know you’ll be their soft landing for them.
Tips on how best to deal with ASRC
There may be no way to avoid it entirely, but you may find that as they get more comfortable with the daily school routine, the people in their class, and the work they must do, these breakdowns may start to decrease. We can never take all the stress away from our kids, but we can find ways to make our home an environment that works for them.
1) Don’t label the collapse
It’s just a part of being a kid, validate the feelings they’re having. It’s okay for them to be tired, angry, grumpy, and any other emotion they’re experiencing. Totally normal. Don’t label it or judge. Just let them experience it and help them work through it.
2) Be prepared with food.
They are likely hungry after school, and it’s best to be prepared for this right away. They’ve made many decisions during the day and are probably experiencing some decision fatigue, so asking “what do you want to eat” could be a tipping point. Just have a healthy snack they enjoy ready to go.
4) Do not grill them about their day
Nobody wants to be bombarded with questions to the moment they’re trying to relax. Give them some space, welcome them home with a hug and a smile and allow them to settle, but don’t ask a million questions. They won’t want to answer, and you’re asking may provoke them. Give them some time, and at dinner or later in the evening, ask if they want to talk about their day. Give them a choice about whether they’re like to share or not.
Once they’re ready to talk, if you have a teen who will just answer a mumbled yes or not, try and keep the questions open-ended where they can’t give a quick yes/no or fine,
“who did you hang out with today?”
“What did you do at recess?”
…or something that shows you listened, “Did Max fall asleep again in class?”
And make sure to do active listening, repeat back what you’ve heard naturally, “he did fall asleep! haha” or “Wow, you and Pete really like tag at recess, that’s great.”
5) Follow their lead
Some kids may need to be physical, so play wrestling with siblings or going on a bike ride might be precisely what they need to decompress. Others may need rest. So, a bit of TV time, some quiet table toys, or listening to music will help them unwind. A weighted blanket may help some kids feel more relaxed. Take their lead on what may work for them.
6) Flip it.
Let them be upside down, literally. Yoga is a great wind-down activity for any anxious or stressed kid, especially the downward dog pose, because often, being upside down can make you feel better. In addition, being upside-down helps circulate blood throughout the body and trigger the vestibular system. So if your kid likes to hang upside down off the couch- let them! Kids have an uncanny way of naturally knowing what’s best for their bodies and self-regulating.
The best thing you can do is maintain a calm and understanding attitude, especially during these first few weeks and months back in school. If parents can be prepared, offer stability and empathy, we’ll get through this. Cut the kids some slack if some unwanted behaviors arise. They have, after all, had a challenging, unstable few years, and we must allow them time to adjust.
Above all else, cut yourself some slack too. Remember that restraint collapse is a sign that you’ve created a loving and safe environment, so pat yourself on the back for that 😊
[If your child is experiencing unmanageable behaviors for a prolonged period, it would be worth contacting your healthcare provider for further assistance]