“Why is my child well-behaved at school, but difficult and moody when they get home?” Your child’s teacher has nothing but excellent reviews for your child. She says your kid is great at school, but that’s not what you experience once the school day ends. In fact, you’re experiencing the opposite. Your child is difficult—they’re moody, whiney, and even having meltdowns when they get home.
This phenomenon, called after-school restraint collapse, is common and can affect children of all ages, especially those age 12 and younger.
Why after-school restraint collapse happens
After-school restraint collapse is an emotional release. Children have to show self-control all day long, obey rules, listen to their teacher’s direction, sit quietly, and are not disruptive in class. Understandably, they may have pent up emotional and physical energy that they need to release. Once the child gets to a safe place, they release the true emotions they’ve been holding all day long—a bubble of pent up energy bursts. Some kids become whiney or weepy, while others might scream or throw things. Older kids might act rude or disrespectful to you and others.
After school restraint collapse is a meltdown, not a tantrum. It’s important to understand that meltdowns differ from tantrums:
- Tantrum: a child’s reaction when something happens that they feel was out of their control. Often tantrums are caused when the child does not get what they want or is told “no.” During a tantrum, the child is distrable. Sometimes ignoring the child, or punishment, like a short minute timeout, is necessary.
- Meltdown: the release of stored emotion, often caused by fatigue, overstimulation, fear, anxiety, or stress. During a meltdown, the child is not distractible. Comfort and a safe environment is the most important thing, punishment is not recommended.
While after-school restraint collapse can affect all kids, it is most common among sensitive and intense kids, and kids struggling with learning or socialization. Factors like fatigue, hunger, overstimulation, and sickness can also lead to after-school restraint collapse.
It is most common around times when kids are adjusting to changes to their environment or schedule, like back-to-school after the summer break. As the kid starts to get acclimated to their schedule and routine, after-school restraint collapse may occur less often.
How to help your kid
If your kid does experience after-school collapse, try not to take it personally. It is not your fault, in fact, your child feels safe releasing their pent up emotion with you. It’s important to validate your kid's behavior and make room for the meltdown to occur—allow your child to release the emotions they’ve been holding.
If your kid is in the middle of a meltdown, try to avoid addressing the behavior in the middle. Wait for your child to completely calm down before talking to them about it. Even then, your kid might not be able to identify exactly why the meltdown occurred. Don’t dwell on the meltdown behavior, but do remind your child that you are there for them, and that taking deep breaths can help.
Helping your kid decompress at the end of the school day can also help. For some kids, this may look like physical activity like dancing, riding a bike or walking the dog. For others, it may look like listening to music, or simply going into their room or a quiet place to decompress on their own terms.. Finding a decompression activity that works for your kid can become a routine that your kid can count on to turn to when they are experiencing an emotional storm.
Preventing after-school restraint collapse
When your kid gets home, try to avoid talking about school or homework right away. Instead, opt for a light, stress-free greeting. Try to avoid question overload about their day. Your child likely needs a “brain break after school” so give them some time and space to decompress.
After school, many kids are hungry (even if they don’t say so). When your child gets home from school, offer water and a healthy snack like vegetables, fruit, or cheese. If your kid has an after school activity, try to ensure they’re having a healthy, nutritious snack beforehand. It’s important that your kid has the opportunity to rehydrate and replenish.
Staying connected to your child during the day can help as well. You can put a note in their lunchbox or folder or a picture of you and them in their backpack. These gestures will help remind your kid that you are always there for them.
Don’t take it personally!
It can be very upsetting and stressful to watch your child have a meltdown, especially when you feel like you’ve done your best to prevent it. Just remember, you did not cause the restraint collapse, and it is normal for your child to release their emotions after a long day. What matters most is that even when it's hard, you continue to foster a safe, supportive, and empathetic environment for your child.