The Meaning Behind After-School Meltdowns
She’s an angel at school! She works well with other children and handles transitions very smoothly. She follows directions wonderfully and is so happy all day! She is a joy to have in class!
When you hear you child’s teacher speak these words, do you wonder if she has the right kid? Could she have your child confused with someone else? How could she possibly be describing someone who struggles with conflict resolution and self-expression at home? How could she possibly be talking about a child who cannot tolerate any transition at home (even though they are the same transitions day after day)? How could she possibly be talking about a child who ignores your questions and is sluggish to follow directions? Does she not see the agonizing meltdowns? The struggle to explain what she needs? The instant jump from irritated to completely overwhelmed? The yelling? The crying?
Are we really talking about the same child, and if so, why is there a vast separation between my “school child” and my “home child?” Why is there some kind of monster unleashed every time we walk through the front door?
If any of this sounds familiar to you, your child might be suffering from something called After-School Restraint Collapse, a term coined by Canadian psychologist and parenting educator Andrea Nair. I know the term sounds a little technical and scary, but don’t worry - It's normal. And common. And something you can help your child work through.
The idea behind this is that your child is working REALLY hard all day to do everything that is expected of them in the classroom. They are working hard to follow directions. To problem solve with school work and friends. To be included and accepted. To learn and understand new concepts. And to do it all with grace and good manners. Your child is being a little kid (with really big feelings) and holding things together throughout the day.
Then, when they get home from school...
It. ALL. COMES. OUT.
Everything comes crashing down. The weight of the day is lifted, the emotions that were being suppressed are suddenly freed, the sensors for what is acceptable behavior and what is not are abandoned. Essentially, all of the hard, confusing, overwhelming, and yucky parts of the day come spiraling out.
And it’s “I CAN’T GET MY SHOES OFF MYSELF!” or “I WANT TO WATCH A MOVIE BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WATCH!” or “I’M STARVING BUT I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO EAT!” But, really it’s not about the shoes or the movie or the food. “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.” It’s something deeper, and you can help.
Being the parent who deals with these emotional outbursts and meltdowns can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Is there a better word for exhausting?? Depleting. Taxing. Consuming.
But there are some pretty simple things you can do to help your tiny person cope with big feelings at home. According to Nair, you can try out these strategies to help your child through this transition:
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 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.”
Nair’s other tips are important as well. Your child might just need a quiet space to relax alone. Or maybe they want to cuddle with you on the couch. Whether it’s watching a movie, doing some art, or reading books, let your child unwind and relax. If your child thrives on a busy schedule, sign up for after-school activities. But if they are overwhelmed by being on the go and need the down time, find a few days a week you can hang at home. Let your child lead you to the things they need to do to rest and recover.
All of these behaviors are frustrating and complicated and messy, but it’s actually a good thing. A really good thing. It means your child has a safe place they can come to. A safe place where they can vent and unload. A safe place where they can just be themselves (without judgment). And you created that space for them.
Sometimes, things can be much more problematic and Nair’s tips for coping simply don’t work -especially for kids with Sensory Processing Disorder or Autism. At Orange County Speech Services, our qualified therapists work with kids regularly on these types of transition difficulties and sensory overload meltdowns. Some kids struggle more than others with the after-school meltdowns, but it’s particularly difficult for those with special needs.
If your child is having trouble with transitions and after-school meltdowns, please contact our office for support. We understand, and we can help. (714) 916-0641