This week’s question is from Tiffany,
“I’m really struggling with managing my two kids and their after school meltdowns. My nine-year-old has autism and his teachers tell me he does fine in school, but the minute he gets home, it’s just one problem after another, it’s like he’s a different kid. My daughter is six, and also seems to get really worked up after she gets home from school. Maybe it’s because of her brother. I’m not sure. I feel like I’m not doing a very good job managing them during this time. It’s creating a lot of stress for all of us. I just try to get through to the point where we can have dinner and they can go to bed. I don’t get why they can have a good day at school and then come home and it’s like this. Please help.”
In this episode, I will address a phenomenon called school-restraint collapse and the many things you can do about it. After school time can be tricky for everyone, I hear from parents all the time that kids have a great day at school, but the moment they get home, or in the car, it starts the cascade of endless meltdowns and fights. Why do they turn into a hot mess? We talk about how to work through this and more importantly, how to prevent it.
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:00:55
What is After School Restraint Collapse … 00:01:50
An Adult’s Tension-Filled Day vs. Child’s After School Time Period … 00:05:00
Keep Yourself Calm and Regulated … 00:07:45
Don’t Immediately Start Asking How Their Day Went … 00:09:10
Avoid Homework and Other Task Demands Immediately After School … 00:12:47
Give Siblings Space … 00:15:50
Balance Blood Sugar and Hydration Right Away … 17:15
Tips for Needing Extra Decompression Time … 18:50
When to Talk with Your Kids After School & Get Their Input for Troubleshooting … 00:23:09
Episode Wrap up … 00:25:29
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi, everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to tackle the tricky time period after school, when kids get home and sometimes are dysregulated and struggling, and it can leave parents wondering what to do with this kid who apparently had a great day at school and now is kind of falling apart at home. So this specific question comes from Tiffany, who writes, “I’m really struggling with managing my two kids in the after-school time period. My nine-year-old has autism and his teachers tell me he does fine in school, but the minute he gets home, it’s just one problem after another, it’s like he’s a different kid. My daughter is six, and also seems to get really worked up after she gets home from school. Maybe it’s because of her brother. I’m not sure. I feel like I’m not doing a very good job managing them during this time. It’s creating a lot of stress for all of us. I just try to get through to the point where we can have dinner and they can go to bed. I don’t get why they can have a good day at school and then come home and it’s like this. Please help.”
I know so many of you listening can relate, whether you have got kids who are new to the whole school experience, or you have kids who are older and you have been at this a while. The after-school time can be tricky. So let’s talk about in the big picture why this can be a tough time period. It really has to do with the fact that kids have been in the school environment all day long, trying to do their best, be on their best behavior, manage everything coming at them, they are holding it together for all those hours, and then they get home and they need a release and an outlet for sort of all of the pent-up emotion and stress and things that have built up over the day. That goes for kids who are neurotypical, who don’t have any diagnosed challenges as well as, and probably even more so, for kids with diagnosed issues like autism, ADHD, anxiety, all of those kinds of things. So this is a tricky time period for everybody, and it’s not something that’s unique to a certain child or type of child. You are not doing anything inherently wrong as a parent if this is happening with your kids. This is part of parenting and part of what goes on with kids. So there’s an official term that can be used for this, and it’s called after-school restraint collapse. That’s a really formal way of saying that kids have been keeping their emotions, their sensory needs and preferences, their behaviors, their opinions — they have been keeping all of that sort of under wraps all day long, keeping the lid on that to exhibit what is seen as acceptable or good behavior at school. And they get to the point where they can’t do it anymore, and they literally collapse when they get home. So you can feel fancy and throw that term around: after school restraint collapse. That’s what’s going on here. Here’s the good news about that, from the standpoint of: You are seeing this at home, and that means that your child feels like home is the safe space for them to let this out. So that’s sort of like a way I like to reframe that for parents, because often parents get in the mode of thinking, “My child doesn’t like me, my child has issues with me, they behave for other people, they behave and manage themselves in school for their teachers, and they don’t like me, and that’s why they get home and they fall apart.” No, it’s actually the reverse of that, really. Kids will have this sort of collapse after school because they feel like it’s safe to do that at home and you are a safe person for them to do that with. So that’s a good thing. That actually shows that you have a good connection with them. They trust that no matter how they behave, no matter what goes on here, they can let it out, and that you are still going to love them and you are still going to take care of them and you are going to help them through it. So that’s how I want you to think about this. You’re the safe space. Home is a safe space. They can blow off steam. They know they are safe and loved, regardless.
So before we get into some specific strategies, I want you to think about how you feel after a long tension-filled day. Maybe that’s a long day at work where you have got a busy schedule, moving from one thing to the next, don’t have a lot of time to yourself, it’s pretty stressful, you have got a lot going on. Or maybe it’s not going to work somewhere. Maybe you are a parent who doesn’t work outside the home, you are managing everything at home, okay? Think about how you feel after several hours in a row of something that’s somewhat stressful or just being busy, maybe dealing with something that’s difficult. What do you want to do or not want to do the second you get home or get out of that situation? How does it feel to you to feel that way? And then what do you want to do or not do once you are done with the work day or out of the stressful situation? What’s supportive or unsupportive to you? Here’s why I think it’s important to reflect on that for ourselves, because when we do that, suddenly, it gives us more empathy and understanding for what’s happening with our kids after a long school day, right? When I’ve had a long busy day of work at the clinic, the last thing I want to do the second I walk in the door is have someone throw other things at me that I need to get done or have to deal with, things that feel stressful, or even have to have like a conversation. I just want some time to decompress for a minute, right? You probably do too, or you have things that would feel good to you in those moments. So we can take our own personal experience with that, and now apply that to what’s happening with our kids during this time of day. They are feeling that same way. “I just spent six and a half, seven hours in a desk at school doing all these things that people told me to do, some of them were really hard. Also, there were the peer issues to deal with, also, also, also, 17 other things that happened during the school day”, and they are feeling kind of stressed, kind of overwhelmed, kind of like “Phew, that was a lot”, and they are needing to decompress after that. So when we think about it through that lens, it helps us to do things that are going to be more helpful for them during that time. It helps us inherently understand, “Oh, right, what would be really annoying or set me over the edge at that point?” Okay, we don’t want to do those things with our kids, right?
So let’s get into specific strategies here. The first is: Focus on keeping yourself regulated. That means you are going to meet their maybe heightened emotions, their dysregulation, their frenzy, their stress with your calm. You are going to meet their dysregulation with your regulation. Focus on keeping yourself calm and regulated. That’s actually a little bit easier to do in a situation like this, because we can anticipate it. We can anticipate the pattern here that this is probably going to be a tricky, sensitive time for them, especially if that’s a pattern that you see every day with your kid. And when we can anticipate it, it helps us prepare ourselves emotionally to be able to handle that. So keep yourself regulated. And the other piece that you have total control over that’s super important is that you do not take their comments or behavior personally. This is not about you. And when you can view it in that way as “Oh, right. They need to blow off steam, they have had a hard day. There’s a lot pent up in that little body. There’s a lot going on in that teen brain.” When we can look at it that way and take the focus off of it being about us, it allows us to stay more regulated and to support them better.
Okay, tip number two: This is not a time to ask about how the school day went or try to engage in conversation. The number one mistake I see parents make after school. You drive the child home, they hop in the car. The second they get in the car, you start with “Tell me about your day. How was it? How was the test?”, and they are like, “Ugh”. Now, you may have a child who, depending on the day they had, might be real chatty and be fine with that. But if you are having a kid who’s struggling in this tricky after school time, take my advice and do not launch into conversation about school. In fact, it might be wise to not talk at all the entire way home. They hop in the car, and you say “Oh, it’s so good to see you.” And then just be quiet the rest of the way home. Okay? If you have a child who takes the bus or somebody else drops them off, the minute they come in the door, don’t launch into “How was your day? Tell me about it.” No, just “Oh, so good to see you!” And then we are going to ease into a regulating and hopefully decompressing kind of routine. You can ask another time about how school was. Save that for when they are in a more regulated, less stressed kind of space. Your number one goal in this after school time period is decompression and regulation. That’s your number one goal.
Another thing that’s really helpful here is to try to have a low-key environment. This is going to look different depending on the child, but we want to avoid any extra stimulation that could feel overwhelming, anxiety-provoking, uncomfortable to them. Now, if you have a child with a lot of sensory sensitivities, who is easily overwhelmed, who comes home very, very wound up and dysregulated, this low-key environment is super important. Keep things quiet, keep the lights lower, have soothing music, or no sound at all. Talk a little bit or don’t talk at all, depending on what they need to decompress. You want to avoid extra stuff going on. Also, super important: In the vast majority of cases, your best bet is to avoid any homework or task demands during that immediate after school time period. I know that parents often mean well by trying to get the homework out and tackle that right away. Oftentimes, our thought process is, “Let’s just get this over with so we can spend the rest of the night not worrying about it.” But that does not help a kid who spent six to seven hours really keeping everything in, holding it together, is wound up and stressed and needs time to decompress. They get off the bus, walk in the door, you launch right into homework, that is like a recipe for a total meltdown. So don’t do that. You could go through the bag and look at what’s there, if that’s appropriate, given your child’s situation, and then make a plan to do that later. You can give them time to decompress, relax, do some things on their own, and then look at the homework. There isn’t any specific way to do this, other than I highly recommend not tackling it right away. If you know me and my work, and you have heard me talk about homework, I actually highly recommend that most families and kids aren’t doing any homework at all, but that is the topic for a different episode. So, I will just say don’t launch into it right away. Also not with other task demands. The moment your kid comes in the door is not the time to say “I told you to take the trash out before you left this morning and you didn’t, and you need to do that.” You can do that, but it’s probably not going to help you or them during this tricky time period. So save those kinds of tasks, demands, and requests, and requirements for a little while later, when they have decompressed, when they are in a more regulated and calm state where it’s like, “Okay, I’ve shaken off the school day, I’ve got myself back together, got my feet under me, feeling pretty good about things again, okay, now’s the time to look at what needs to get done.”
Tiffany, in her question says that she has two kids, and that they are both kind of getting spun up after school. It’s not going well between them. Boy, I can relate to this, having four kids of my own. I mean, they are older now, but I remember this when they were young. I think the tricky after school time period is a great time to have kids in their own spaces. Highly recommend that, whether you have two kids or ten kids in your home. When nerves are frayed, they have had a long day at school, this is not the time to be trying to engage in group activities, sibling love, and whatever else. Have kids in their own spaces, not forcing or trying to focus on things together. You probably notice, if they are in the car together on the way home, they may be picking fights, arguing, whatever. As soon as they get out of the car, everyone to their own corners. I mean that not literally, although I don’t know, maybe depending on how your house is laid out. But this is a good time for kids to be doing things in their own space. And if kids are nitpicking at each other, fighting, don’t take that personally like, “Oh, my kids hate each other. They are going to grow up not being friends. I’m not doing a good job helping them have a sibling bond.” Nope, it’s just they are all stressed after school and this is not the time for togetherness.
Another really pro-tip during this tricky time is to think about blood sugar regulation. Depending on your child’s schedule during the school day, and maybe when they are allowed to have snacks, when they had lunch, whether they ate their lunch or not, their blood sugar might be real low at this point in the day and that can lead to a lot of increased stress, anxiety, dysregulation, argumentativeness, moodiness, all of that. So you want to pretty quickly give them a good nutrient-dense snack to get that blood sugar back in a good range and fill them up before dinner. Obviously not too much because you are going to have dinner in a little while, but you need to give them something. So maybe that is a piece of fruit and some crackers, maybe that is crackers and cheese, maybe it’s nut butter on some toast, maybe that’s a meat stick, maybe that is whatever it is that you do that are good nutrient-dense snacks. Boy, can they use that at that time, That in and of itself, within 10-15 minutes can help bring kids into a more pleasant regulated state. And hydration, also to think about here. Lots of kids go the entire day without really drinking anything, maybe whatever they have in their lunchbox, but I hear that from kids all the time. So have a nice glass of water ready for them, get them hydrated. That will also help them rebound from a stressful school day.
Some kids really need extra supports for decompression during this time, particularly kids who are autistic, have ADHD, maybe have more significant sensory processing issues, kids with quite a lot of anxiety. These are kids who really benefit from some intentional planning for decompression in this after school time. I’ve had patients that I’ve worked with who the best thing for them is to come into the house and go in their quiet, dark bedroom. Literally, I’ve had kids go in there, lights off, and they will just stay in there for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, depending on how stressful and dysregulating the day was for them. And parents can worry about that, like, “Oh, is that good? Is that okay?” Let them do what they need to do to bring themselves down. Now that is an indication, if your child needs to be in a quiet, totally dark room alone for two hours every day after school, that’s a really good indicator to you that maybe their school situation and environment is not as supportive as it needs to be for them. But if they need that, to get themselves back together, let them do that. Maybe that’s a cozy corner or a calming space in the house where they go to their tent with their weighted blanket or other items that are supportive for them. Maybe it’s outdoor play. If you have a child who really needs regulating movement after school, let them be on the trampoline, let them ride their bike, let them do whatever they need to do, just even being outside, bare feet in the grass, swinging on the swing, whatever it is, let them have that play to decompress. You want to look at what’s soothing and regulating for them and make that available to them right after they get home from school.
Some sensory supports that can be helpful in general for regulation during this time: deep pressure. Again, things like a weighted blanket, maybe giving them a back massage or some tight hugs or massaging their hands, that kind of deep pressure can be soothing and regulating. Heavy work kinds of activities, carrying things that are heavy. Some kids — I’ll have preteens and teens who the best thing for them is to go down in the basement or to their garage and lift some weights, do some of that heavy kind of work after school. Very calming and regulating for them. Swinging can be for some kids. Again, I’ve worked with some kids who they will immediately after school make a beeline for the swing and just be on that swing for anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 minutes just getting that movement that is regulating for their nervous system to kind of get their brain and body back in a more stable, regulated place. So you know your child and what works for them but to not only allow them to access those kinds of sensory supports, but encourage it, and make that the plan for what they do in that immediate after school time. Regulating movement can also be helpful. Things like maybe you go for a walk together or a bike ride. Maybe it’s an obstacle course that you have out on the lawn or driveway or in the basement. Regulating movement. That gives them the opportunity for movement, but in a regulating, structured way, that can be really, really key for some of these kids, especially during that after school time.
Calm music can be helpful. Sometimes parents will set the tone. Kids come in the house and there’s orchestra music playing, or soft, calming kinds of music or whatever it is. If that is helpful and supportive for you and your kids go ahead and do that. Sometimes those strategies are as calming and regulating for us as they are for kids, kind of sets the tone in the home during that time, and sometimes no sound is best. Not having any extra sound going on, because that just adds to the overwhelm. So you know your child, you know yourself. Choose that auditory environment accordingly.
So those are some specific tips and tools that can be helpful. I do think that it is good to talk with kids about this after school time. Not during the time, but on a weekend or at a time when you are together, and you are not stressed, and they are not stressed. Talk about what you are noticing, “Oh, man, this after school time is so tricky for us, isn’t it? We get in arguments, and you and your brother don’t get along, and my patience isn’t good. I start snapping at you, and you seem angry about everything. This is not working for any of us. Let’s talk about that. I want to hear what you notice about that, and I want us to make a plan for what we can do that’s going to be more helpful.” That’s just an example of how to talk about it. Again, you need to keep in mind the age and developmental level of your child; with younger kids or with kids with significant communication difficulties or cognitive impairment, you may not have any kind of a conversation about this, you may just start implementing these strategies. But for kids who can participate in some dialogue about what’s happening, I encourage you to do that. Talk about what you are noticing, ask them what they notice, get their input on what works and doesn’t work for them during that time period. How are they feeling during that time? What do they notice? What could you do that would be helpful to them? Or what activities would be good? So get their input, make a plan, and then put that plan in place. You say, “Okay, great. Let’s try this for the next week, and let’s see what we notice. Let’s see if these ideas help this after school time period to feel better for all of us.” And then you try it. And then you reconnect and say, “Okay, let’s look at our plan. What’s working, what’s not working? What changes can we make to make it even better?”, and it can sort of be this ongoing problem-solving dialogue, which is a really lovely way of including kids in the process, teaching them to be aware of how they are feeling at different times, what’s helpful or not helpful, advocating for their needs, and for you to be responsive to that. So, a nice opportunity to build in some of those skills and some of that relationship building with you and your child as well.
So I hope these ideas and tools are helpful for Tiffany and all the rest of you who are trying to deal with this tricky after school time period that happens to all of us. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for being here and for listening, and I’ll catch you back next time.