Back To School
What Is Restraint Collapse?
Why kids hold it together at school and then fall apart at home.
At pick-up on the second day of school, my 7-year-old son greeted me with a loud wail. When I hugged him, he returned the gesture with the force of a tackle, then wilted in my arms. As I shuffled us beyond the school gates to walk home, a symphony of whining began. He was hungry, he was thirsty, he was tired, he was bored.
This slice of parenting hell, which I have no doubt is familiar to many of you, has a name: after-school restraint collapse. Kids hold it together all day at school and then unleash a torrent of feelings when they get home. Psychotherapist and former teacher Andrea Loewen Nair coined the term in 2016 after noticing her children would “utterly fall apart” after walking through the door.
Why kids fall apart when they get home from school
To understand what is happening, Loewen Nair suggests thinking about your child’s day as if it were your own. How do you feel “when you force yourself to do everything you need to do, even though it's stuff you don't want to do or stuff that’s boring or tedious?” she asks. Then add all the things kids are told not to do: Don’t play with this or don’t touch that or don’t talk right now. It’s no wonder every urge, emotion, and feeling they have been holding in unfurls.
Sound familiar? Adults experience restraint collapse, too. It could happen after work, after kid bedtime, after school drop-off. Coping may look different — hello, late-night doom-scrolling! — but the need to release or regroup is the same.
The pandemic, unsurprisingly, has made restraint collapse worse, especially for kids, experts say. Beyond the usual adjustment to routine that happens after summer break, there is the difficult transition out of isolation, Loewen Nair notes. Some children may also feel more worried or anxious about failure, particularly if they dealt with the challenges of online learning.
It's helpful as a parent to say, ‘Wow, my child really is figuring this out.’
A classroom setting places enormous demands on our kids, says psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., aka “Dr. Becky,” founder of Good Inside and author of a book of the same name. As a mom, it was a humbling reminder. Beyond learning the alphabet or how to read, students are honing their social and emotional skills, like figuring out which new classmate could be a friend. They are also regulating their frustrations, sorting out how to share a block with 20 other kids.
All of this happens in a new environment, which compounds the big feelings. “These multifaceted demands are occurring somewhere they don’t yet feel comfortable with the adults, where they don’t yet feel comfortable in the building,” Kennedy says.
The emotional release at the end of the day is actually super healthy, Kennedy says. It’s a sign our kids are learning to cope and determine where — and how — to release their feelings. Kennedy helped curb my frustration with my own preschooler, whom I was frequently told “had a great day!” at pick-up only to spend the car ride home shouting at me about snacks. “I know it still doesn't feel great, but it's helpful as a parent to say, ‘Wow, my child really is figuring this out,’” Kennedy says. “And it actually says something that my child feels safe with me, that they’re coming home and feel free to show me these parts of them.”
Don’t fight the collapse — embrace it
I think that’s the place to start when talking about managing after-school restraint collapse. Remember: It’s a compliment! The outburst means you are their safe space.
Then schedule life accordingly. After school is probably not the time to go to the grocery store or even a play date. “Plan for the meltdown,” Kennedy says. Don’t think of it as reinforcing bad behavior, but rather giving your kid the space and love that they need.
My personal trick is to kick off the after-school time with an enthusiastic greeting. I want my kids to know I’m really happy to see them, so I pair a big smile with a huge over-the-arm wave (which has not yet become embarrassing! I’m sure one day it will!). I feed them as quickly as possible, too. My children tend to be ravenous at pick-up time and nobody can do anything when they are that hungry.
You don't want to blow on the tornado; you want to let it fizzle out.
As someone who desperately wants to know what their kids do all day, I have to fight the urge to ask them about it directly. Instead, I have found that if I share a little bit of what I was up to, they offer little glimpses into what they did.
But mostly, you need to let them let it out. For my kids, ages 3, 5, and 7, it comes in the form of big emotions. They alternate between a fit of giggles, a stream of tears, and a burst of shouts. Now that I know what to look for, I can see it all come out. The best thing I can do is listen and empathize. As their complaints and cries erupt, I acknowledge what they are saying with “I hear you” statements (“I hear you are frustrated by that assignment”) and affirm their feelings with “I know” (“I know you didn’t want recess to end”). If your child shares something sensational, avoid big reactions, Loewen Nair advises. Instead of “Oh my God!” try “How did that feel?” she suggests.
“You don't want to blow on the tornado; you want to let it fizzle out.”
Restraint collapse is hard on parents, too
When it all gets to be a bit much as a parent — and I almost always reach that point — take a deep breath and remember what your child has just been through. “There are probably so many moments they were waiting to explode and they held it together to do their job at school,” Kennedy says. That re-framing may help you look at your child with appreciation or even amazement, she adds.
Another strategy is to get ahead of the after-school restraint collapse by talking about it before it happens. Take the morning time to acknowledge what school entails, Kennedy says. She offers a sample script: “You go from one period to the next. You’re learning math. You’re learning reading. You’re playing with new kids. Wow. I just want to let you know, I know that’s hard. Not normal hard, huge hard. And just wanted to make sure that you heard that from me.” (I did this with my kids and — wow — their little faces just melted with appreciation.)
You can also ask them what would help them feel better at pick-up time, like a specific snack or their favorite song in the car. “The ideas don’t matter as much as the fact that you're respecting your child enough to have this conversation,” Kennedy says.
Also, plan for yourself. Before you head out to pick up your kid, do for yourself what you do for them. “We need to fortify,” Loewen Nair says. “Because how easy is it for a child to come home, melt down, and then it just turns into a shouting match?” She suggests having a snack and going for a walk; the goal for the latter is to stop thinking and start observing. Look at the flowers, notice the clouds. Kennedy recommends listening to your favorite song or texting a friend for a pep talk: “Hey, you ready for the collapse? I'm ready for the collapse.”
And ready or not, here it comes.
Andrea Loewen Nair, pscyhologist and parenting educator, and author of several books, including Taming Tantrums: A Connect Four Approach To Raising Cooperative Toddlers
Dr. Becky Kennedy, psychologist and parenting coach, founder of Good Inside and author of Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be
Elizabeth Holmes is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Town & Country, Vanity Fair, and InStyle. Her first book, HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style, debuted on the New York Times best-seller list in November 2020. Her biweekly newsletter, “So Many Thoughts,” covers everything from royal style and politics to parenting. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children.