When my child comes home from school it is like a switch has been flicked, he is angry and aggressive. He becomes frustrated easily and lashes out at me and his sister. He struggles to even play without becoming really angry or upset. He is almost unrecognizable and I don't know what to do.
I want to talk about why the period after school can look and feel so tricky for many families, especially at the start of the school year, following school holidays, or, as a result of stress and change.
Many children will come home from school dysregulated. Throw themselves on the floor, tantrum or melt down, yell at their siblings, scream at their parents. Their ‘Behavior” may have been perfect all day only for things to completely fall apart when they get home. It can be exhausting to parent through this season. Allow me to shed some light and offer some support.
Why does this happen?
Well, humans have a certain capacity for regulation, how much they are able to cope with while adhering to social expectations with regards their behavior. So, children might “hold it all together” during the school day, only to emotionally “collapse” as soon as they get home. This “collapse” after school happens when children have been stuffing all their frustrations, upsets and challenges throughout the day. Unable to hold it together any longer, we may see a huge outpouring of these feelings that are too big for them to carry.
Why are they stuffing their feelings?
Well, partly those social expectations of what is and what is not appropriate, and partly because, perhaps for the first time, they are navigating challenges without you there, which can make those things they can usually cope pretty well with, feel a little trickier. They can’t hold your hand when they feel a little nervous, they can’t have a quick cuddle when they fall and scrape their knee. They may not have the chance to talk to anyone if another child takes their turn. So, throughout the day there is an accumulation of these dysregulating moments, with no small opportunities for co-regulation or emotional release. Our child comes back into the safety of their relationship with us and begins the process of releasing all of these pent-up emotions. The ability to offload these big feelings is actually psychologically healthy. As challenging as their behavior may be in the moment, parents should welcome our child’s big emotional releases. We want to raise children who are able to move through their feelings, and being a safe space for your child to “collapse” into after school is such an important role in parenting a young child. We want to give our child the message of
“I can hold all of this for you!”
Is restraint collapse more common in some children than others?
Every child will experience the world differently, for all sorts of reasons. If a child is neurodivergent, they may have difficulties with sensory processing, they may find the classroom too loud, too busy, too overstimulating. They may face more challenges navigating the social dynamics of a classroom environment. For some children their temperament may mean they are more likely to feel things very deeply and experience their feelings more intensely. So, Restraint Collapse behaviors are common in children who are neurodivergent and they also occur in children who are neurotypical.
How can I support my child?
An analogy I use with parents is thinking of their child as having a phone battery. Everything that your child does either depletes them or recharges them.
If you are concerned about restraint collapse then it is likely that your child is finding school very depleting.
It is helpful to remember that a child who finds something depleting will need an opportunity to recharge. That might look different to different families but things we can consider are:
Creating opportunities for your child to truly “rest” in play. For me, that means play that is child-led, open-ended, creative, and joyful. Free of expectations, interruptions, or unnecessary rules.
Be mindful of the overall expectations being placed on your child across a week. For many children, quieter afternoons and weekends will be necessary in order for them to recharge after school. We might want to consider reducing other commitments (birthday parties, extracurricular activities etc.) until such time as our child seems more settled and has greater capacity to enjoy additional things.
Thinking about the separation
For many little ones, the separation itself will be challenging, even if they enjoy everything about daycare or school. Learning to be apart from their special grown up takes heroic effort for some children. Some parents will notice "defensive detachment" when they pick their child up from school. These little ones might experience relief at being reunited with their loved one, but they might also feel angry that you left them in the first place. Parents might observe attacking energy from their child or a child who temporarily "detaches" from the relationship in an attempt to defend themselves from the hurt of being separated again in the future. There are things we can do to support little ones from whom being separate is tricky.
Be available, at other times, for increased physical and emotional closeness with your child. During these transitions, expect your child to need to be with you and to be close to you more than is usual for them. For some little ones this can look like increased night wakings, preference to sleep with their grown-up nearby, or an increased need for cuddles. As a parent, it can be helpful to reduce unnecessary additional separations our child may be facing also, and again, this brings us back to “over-scheduling.” For some children, we need to shift the focus away from classes and extra-curricular activities that also involve separations. I never recommend separation-based discipline strategies (like Time-out), but, for me, moving away from such approaches is particularly important when little ones are facing other separations. In order to reduce separation-alarm we want to increase connection (yes, even when our child’s “behavior” is arguably at it’s most challenging).
We can also support our child to feel connected to us even while apart from us. These strategies are called “bridging strategies.” Some of my favorites include:
Always orient your child to the next point of connection. For me that sounds like “I will see you right after storytime!”
Remind them… “Grown-ups ALWAYS come back!”
Send love with them by filling up a teddy with "mummy hugs”
Send your child to nursery with a photo or small photobook of their family. I like to slip a photo into
If you would like to learn more, all the tools and information you need to make the transition into school, preschool, or childcare can be found here.