After School Meltdowns (And How to Help Them)

Many parents report getting glowing reports from the teacher about how well their child does during the school day, but then get blown away by a sobbing, tornadic mess the minute they walk through the door at the end of the day. How can their child be so angelic all day? How can they instantly turn into the opposite at 3:00? Are you imagining it?
No. This process is real. It's hard on everyone. And it's called Restraint Collapse.
Most of us have probably felt this as adults. You “hold it all in” all day long at work. You refrain from yelling at annoying co-workers. You deal politely with angry customers. You overschedule appointments and don't get to sit down all day. By the time you get home, you are tired, hungry, and grumpy. By the time you get home, you don't have the energy to hold it all in anymore. And you release all of that restrained, pent-up energy on the ones you love most.
The same can be said for children. They too hold it all together during the day and release the energy when they arrive someplace safe: YOU.
This is especially hard for sensory sensitive children. They are bombarded with stimuli all day long. I once read it as likened to a can of soda.
Consider this:
Your sensory child is a can of soda. You wake him up early in the morning. He's tired and not ready to wake up yet: you've just shaken the can of soda.
The tag on his shirt is itchy and the seams on his socks are not JUST RIGHT: Shake, shake!
You see him off to the bus. There it's noisy and kids are bumping into him for over an hour: shake, shake, shake.
He gets sent out to the hallway for not sitting still during math class: Shake.
At lunch, no one sits with him AND his sandwich is too soggy so he doesn't eat anything at all. During recess, kids make fun of him because he sits by himself with his earphones on: SHAKE!
During music class, he is so hungry from skipping lunch that he can't pay attention, disrupts the class, and gets sent to the principal's office. The lights there hurt his eyes, his legs stick to the chair, and the clock ticks SO LOUDLY: SHAKE. SHAKE. SHAKE.
Now he's back on the bus, where the big kids are yelling and it smells funny and it's hot and kids are too close and the seat is uncomfortable and he's so hungry now he feels sick. Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake.
He finally walks in the front door, and you say, “How was your day?”
Guess what? You just opened that can.
Many parents feel like they're imagining this idea, but restraint collapse is actually very common. It's real and it's hard and you are not alone.

Restraint collapse looks different for every child. Some children may have a complete meltdown with yelling, screaming, and throwing things. Others may refuse to listen to directions while others may simply shut down and withdraw. It's important to understand how your child is feeling and help them deal with the feelings and channel their energy into appropriate avenues. The following are some tips for helping with this transition and lessening or even preventing restraint collapse.

1. Refrain from immediately asking how their day was. Instead, offer a snack and let them relax. Greet your child with a smile and hug, and save the questions for later.
2. Eat! Even if you plan to eat dinner fairly soon, offer a healthy snack right away. Hunger can come to the surface in some strange ways, including problem behavior.
3. Don't try to do homework right away. Leave it until after dinner if possible. Try to avoid scheduling activities right after school as well.
4. Encourage physical activity. Take a walk, play catch, or turn on some music and have a dance party. Body Socks are a great way to provide deep pressure while having fun and moving!

5. Take your child's lead. Don't try to structure the time between arriving home and dinner. Leave it open for your child to choose whatever he or she wants to do. Free time can help a child learn to self-regulate their feelings. If they need social interaction, they will seek it out. If they need alone time, they will naturally remove themselves. Watch them for a few days and see what they choose to do. Then you can offer other suggestions later on.
6. Participate in “play therapy”. Break out the blocks or a Sensory Bin and just play! You don't need to have an agenda or hold a conversation. Just be present.
7. If your child wants to withdraw to their room or another safe place, let them. Be sure they have access to music, reading material, or other relaxing items. If your child tends to want to withdraw, you may consider making a small sensory room or corner for them to use. (See our blog about making a sensory closet here)
8. Laugh! Laughter is a great way to release tension and pent up feelings. Tell some jokes or sing a funny song.
9. Keep yourself in check! If you are irritable, it will rub off on your child.
10. RELAX! Use the time right after school as a time to wind down and reconnect with your family after a long day. Forget to-do lists; they'll still be there after dinner!
Even with all these tips in place, sometimes your child may still melt down. Know that it's normal behavior and your child will react better if you can keep a cool head and be supportive. Some tips to try in the middle of a meltdown:
1. Don't try to fix things. Be near and available but don't try to offer advice.
2. Give your child space. You know your child best. Some children prefer to be left completely alone, others want to know you are near. Give them what they need.
3. If your child is so upset, communication is impossible, be sure dangerous items are out of the way and just wait for the storm to pass.
4. Offer hugs or comfort items if your child will let you safely near them. If they allow, try wrapping a weighted blanket around their shoulders and in their lap.
5. Offer self-regulation toys and tools such as a Calm Kit.
6. When your child is done, offer to talk through their feelings. Remember that this behavior is not a reflection of their character. Behavior is always communication. Children are still learning how to regulate BIG feelings in appropriate ways.
7. Keep yourself in check. You will not be able to help calm your child down if you are anxious or upset. If your child is in a safe place, remove yourself from the area for a few minutes so that you can collect yourself and be a reassuring and comforting presence for you child.
You may find that restraint collapse lessens or disappears as your child grows older. This process is most common for children under 12. Children older than 12 still experience these same feelings but they are better able to regulate their feelings. Again, remember that behaviors are NOT a reflection of your child's character or your ability to parent them. Behaviors are simply communication.

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