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After school restraint collapse: a survival guide

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After school restraint collapse: a survival guide

slap smacking crying child
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Ever wondered what happens in school? You send your smartly dressed little angel into school in the morning, and they return a wild child who seems to overreact to everything! After school restraint collapse has become much more widely discussed than when we first wrote this article. It describes how young children placed in a demanding environment often collapse into tantrums or meltdowns as soon as they’re with familiar people. You can find out more about the causes in our article: Understanding after school restraint collapse.

A pile of books with an apple on top, a pot of pencils in the foreground all in front of a blackboard

School expectations

School is a place of rules, spoken and unspoken. It is full of strangers, unfamiliarity, and of being on ‘best behaviour.’ Children are expected to

School places SO MANY expectations on children; to a lesser extent so do nursery and preschool.

School places SO MANY expectations on children; to a lesser extent so do nursery and preschool. By the time they come back to you, your child has usually reached their capacity, if not passed beyond it! 

They tend to become explosive, whether with angry tantrums, meltdowns, or crying. Suppressing their emotions and trying to control their impulses all day at school is exhausting. Children may mask their struggles all day. At home in their safe place with their safe people they can release their pent up emotions. And boy do they! 

crying child after school restraint collapse

Restraint collapse results in meltdowns when asked to change out of their uniform; tears if their sandwich is the wrong shape. So much anger, frustration and upset.

Experiencing restraint collapse

What we need to remember is, for them, the sandwich is the tip of a huge iceberg. It is at that point that the lid flips. They just can’t contain any more of their emotions.

Restraint collapse happens when, having relaxed a little, everything they have been suppressing all day comes tumbling out. They have been without you all day. They were jostled in a line, had to sit when they wanted to stand. Perhaps, they were outside when they wanted to be inside, or inside when they wanted to be outside. They had to listen, but they didn’t understand; they had to focus and take on new information. Finally, now, they’re done. This is after school restraint collapse.

It isn’t really about the sandwich. You could have shaped the sandwich into a scale model of a triceratops and it would still have been wrong. They need to let it out. Young children don’t have the capacity to tell you what is wrong. They don’t have the capacity to “just calm down”. They are emotionally overwhelmed, in a state of meltdown, and they need your help to regulate.

So, what can we do?

child eating with a spoon: tasting

We can meet their basic needs

The other thing we can do is meet their basic physical needs! Sounds simple but think how hard you find being patient when you are hangry and need a pee!

If possible encouraging them to eat, drink and go to the toilet raises the flashpoint that triggers the emotional explosions. Meeting their basic needs gives you a little more leeway. You may have a few extra moments to intervene and head off another tantrum or meltdown. Meeting their basic needs creates a space for talking, hugging, and other ways to help them manage their feelings before they’re overwhelmed. 

child hugging dad, not clingy, reconnecting

We can be there for them

Calm: developing emotional regulation

We can hug them, we can name their emotions and offer emotional containment. ‘I can hear how angry you are’, ‘I can tell how sad you are.’ We can tell them we love them, we can stay calm and be there.

Naming and talking about emotions helps children develop their emotional vocabulary. In time they will start to use words to describe how they feel before they reach meltdown.

It helps build their neocortex; the part of the brain that deals with rational thoughts, and interprets and reflects upon our emotions. Responding calmly to our children during after school restraint collapse is important. Even though they’re struggling now, it helps them get better at managing their emotions.

Managing our own triggers

On the other hand, when we shout and scream back at our child during a meltdown, they also feel rejected. They see that they’re not loved when they express such big emotions. Instead of learning to self-regulate and avoid meltdowns they learn to fear their emotions. In addition to school they try to suppress their emotions at home.

Supporting our children as calmly as we can,; offering them unconditional acceptance; loving them when they feel most unlovable; these are some of our hardest jobs as parents. 

Their tantrums tend to trigger us, and our feelings of failure or shame. Often this is because we were shamed for our emotions and our struggles as children. Their distress can make us feel some really uncomfortable things. 

We aren’t perfect.  When we don’t handle these tempests with zen-like calm, we apologise. That’s another valuable life skill to model to our children. Regain calm and try again next time.

Suppressing emotions: a dangerous game

Responding with anger or shame increases our children’s fear around emotions. Some children never learn to process their emotions or deal calmly with them. They can’t recognise their emotions and what they communicate; or verbalise their feelings and cooperate with others to change the situation to meet everyone’s needs. Instead, they bury their emotions.

This means, like the overwhelmed child in after school restraint collapse, they continue to burst out in uncontrolled angry rages when they can no longer hold their emotions in. This can persist even into adulthood. Restraint collapse doesn’t go away. Adults experience it after a hard day at work. 

An adult who hasn’t learned to regulate their anger is a much more frightening prospect than a small child meltdown.

Child in a cushion fort on the sofa: avoiding meltdowns, tantrums and after school restraint collapse

Work out what works for them

Decompression and demand free time

My oldest child needed around an hour after school to curl up in a blanket fort, or on the sofa. He needed a big snack. We did a small snack on the walk home from school and a big snack at home. He needed to zone out. He might watch TV or play on a tablet. An hour with no demands, no chat, nor any questions about his day.

Ideally, he’d do this with me sitting next to him, snuggled up. Often I could leave after ten minutes or so if needs be.

Running around

This may not work for your child. Especially, for older children, where sitting still is a bigger part of their day. For them running around may be key. Going for a walk, visiting the park, or playing in the garden may work well.


If this can be with you to build in some quality time together this can help hugely with reconnecting. It gives you something to laugh about with them, and to reflect on as a positive at the end of the day.

Be ready for bedtime

I don’t just mean fantasising about the cuppa and chocolate bar, although I know that feeling. 

Space to process

It doesn’t matter how many times you ask your child about their day earlier on. It is at bedtime, as they start to relax, that the worries come out. Bedtime is often when kids are often best able to talk about how they feel. This can be incredibly frustrating for tired parents who need to relax. However, it’s really important to hold that space for them to open up.

Allow time to listen

If it takes a long time to talk over their feelings and experiences each night, factor that into bedtime. Facilitate it by going upstairs 15 minutes earlier. Listen to what they are saying, empathise with them, name emotions. 

It doesn’t need to be a big discussion. Sometimes feeling heard will be enough for them to relax and fall asleep. 

Resolving issues

Sometimes it will throw up issues that do need to be addressed at another time. That might mean having a more in-depth conversation about expectations at school. Or you may need to speak to the school to let them know of your concerns and what your child is struggling with. It may help them to be aware and they should be able to support them with any issues. Let your child know that you’ll help them with their problem the next morning. 

Building your relationship

Try to be patient with them. As parents we want our children to come to us with their worries. Discouraging them from talking about their concerns risks them feeling unable to talk to us in the future. Lying next to them whilst they recount the day can be a lovely moment, too. 

And what about you? How can you help yourself cope?

Meet your own needs too

Eating, drinking, and going to the toilet allows us to have more patience, but think beyond that too. We can better deal with the many and varied emotions of our kids when we get the time to do some things that make us feel better about ourselves. 

In an emergency you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. As parents we have more capacity to deal sensitively with our children when we make self-care part of our life. For me this means walking or running and getting time completely alone. When this hasn’t happened for a while my ability to cope is hugely reduced. 

Work with your partner, family, or friends to make sure you (all) get the time you need to meet your own needs. You matter too.

Ensure you're well supported

It is hard to deal with our children’s emotions sensitively. We often feel like we are failing when they aren’t happy or “well behaved”. It is made more difficult when lots of mainstream parenting approaches encourage bribing or shaming children out of showing their emotions.

You need to be well supported. Find a group of people you can tell when you’re struggling. People you trust not to tell you you’re doing it wrong. Friends who can say “I hear you” or “I know that feeling” without judging are incredibly valuable. 

And look, they are doing for you, exactly what you are doing for your child. They’re giving you a safe space to express yourself, without trying to distract you or change your approach. Allowing you to feel your feelings and express them and deal with them. These friends are worth their weight in gold!

self-care tired parent with messy hair no baby sleep

Self-care sucks, right?

Self-care conjures images of bubble baths and spa days. This blog is about challenging the guilt about caring for ourselves, and finding meaningful ways to meet your needs as a parent.

Looking for more support?

Our ToddlerCalm workshops might be what you are looking for. Read about our courses and workshops and find a consultant near you, or online.

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Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Calmer relationships, Calming & nurturing toddlers, Child discipline, Child learning & development, Child mental health, Children, Parents & families, Toddler discipline, Toddlers
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