Your child's teachers insist they are as lovely as can be during the school day—but that's not what you're experiencing when 3 o'clock rolls around. But kids don't have split personalities, they're just experiencing something called “after-school restraint collapse."
And, according to experts, it's both totally common and totally something we can help our children overcome.
What is after-school restraint collapse?
The symptoms of after-school restraint collapse are likely familiar to parents of young children: “When they come home from school they will regress emotionally," says psychotherapist Nancy Brooks. “They will act younger than their age and whine, cry, throw tantrums, act needy, moody and generally have a meltdown. They will look and behave as if they are exhausted."
Stacy Haynes, CEO and counseling psychologist at Little Hands Family Services, explains it's only natural for kids to release their emotional, mental and physical energy as soon as the school day ends. After all, they had to show a lot of self-control during school hours, and some form of release is warranted.
After-school restraint collapse is common in kids under 12, adds Brooks, and (thankfully) lessens as children develop more emotional resiliency.
For mamas who have been missing their little one all day, being pushed away can sting a bit, but according to Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, a registered psychologist, this especially frustrating and personal form of after-school restraint collapse is totally normal and actually a sign that your child really does love you a lot.
"I call it defensive detachment," Dr. Lapointe, the author of "Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up," tells Motherly.
"It's a subconscious thing. They don't even know they're doing it but it's very real," says Dr. Lapointe.
Any parent who has been through it knows how real it feels. As Lapointe explains, it can be trying.
"They defensively detach from you by being angry at you, and shoving you away, and may call you names," she says, adding that while it's often loud, intense and inconvenient, parents should try looking at these displays of defensive detachment as a gift. Our children don't have the words to tell us what they're thinking and feeling, but this behavior can help us figure out what they need.
According to Lapointe, parents might want to think about how they feel after temporarily losing sight of their child in a public space, like a grocery store. When a parent is reunited with their child after a separation they were not in control of, they often hug them, kiss them, hold them, but then, that relief can turn into frustration and anger.
When your child is having defensive detachment meltdowns after daycare or school, that's how they're feeling: Relieved to see you, but frustrated at having been separated and over their lack of control. Lapointe says asking a child to suppress those feelings is as pointless as trying to hold a beach ball underwater: "It's going to come back up."
Instead of suppressing a display of defensive detachment, Lapointe recommends giving kids room to be loud and intense when they need to be.
5 ways you can help ease the after-school transition
1. Fill up their emotional cup before the separation
Dr. Lapointe's advice to parents dealing with meltdowns in the afternoon or evening is to start your defense against defensive detachment meltdowns in the morning.
"Try and set your alarm for maybe 15 minutes earlier every day, so that you have a bit of time to actually connect with your child and really fill up their connection cup before you send them out the door to school," she explains.
Spending this extra time together in the morning can help ease the child into the separation of the school day while feeling more strongly attached to their parent.
2. Let them know you're connected even when you're not together
Dr. Lapointe often recommends the children's book "The Kissing Hand" (about a young raccoon leaving his mother to start school in the forest) and "The Invisible String" (about a mother who tells her children they are connected by an invisible string) to parents whose children are having a hard time with separations.
"They're both stories about how, even when we're not together, parent and child, we're still together through our hearts, and that you can never break that connection," says Dr. Lapointe, who recommends parents incorporate some of the lessons from these popular books into their morning routines and rituals.
A child may feel more connected if they have their own "kissing hand" or "invisible string" at school with them.
3. Send a piece of you with them to school
An invisible string is great, but sometimes kids need something even more tangible to remind them of mom and dad, says Dr. Lapointe, who recommends simple notes in the lunch bag, or a small picture of the family that the child can carry with them.
"I had one little boy whose parents laminated a photo of them loving on him, and then they attached it to a lanyard spritzed with his Daddy's cologne and he wore it under his shirt," Dr. Lapointe recalls. "When he needed to he could just peek under his shirt at the picture, and that's how he held them close."
Lapointe and her son had their own similar ritual with heart-shaped keychains. "And I carried the little kid heart around with me, and my son carried the mama heart around with him to school and in his backpack," she explains.
4. Help them let it out
Sometimes, all the quality time in the morning and all the loving reminders from home can't totally prevent a child's day away from you from being hard. If you sense a defensive detachment meltdown is coming on after pick up, Dr. Lapointe says it's best to take control of it by inviting it.
"You step in front of the meltdown by saying things like, 'You're having a really hard go today, Bud. I get that. And if you've got some shouts in you, now's the time to let em' out.' And so you kind of just will it into existence, so much so that your child actually, on a subconscious level, believes that you're in control of the meltdown."
According to Dr. Lapointe, a child who is on the edge of losing control themselves is relieved when they realize someone else is in control. By taking a proactive approach and literally asking for the meltdown to happen, parents can speak to their children while their child can still understand them. If we wait until they're freaking out to take control, we can't, says Lapointe.
"You can't be in charge of a child, or be in control of a child, who is no longer in control of themselves," she explains, adding that once they've lost control and are operating strictly from the emotional part of their brain, "they're not able to think or problem-solve. If we're gonna say things to them like, 'remember to use your words,' we just sound like foreign aliens, that doesn't make any sense in that moment."
So before your child loses the ability to hear you, let them know that you hear them. You hear that they need to release their emotions in a loud, intense and inconvenient way, and you're okay with it. Pull the car over or clear a space in the living room and just let those loud, flailing emotions come out.
"There would be no shaming, no blaming, no consequences, no punishing of any kind," Dr. Lapointe explains.
5. Once at home, take things slow
At the end of the school day, most of us parents are eager to ask all about the day. But that may be the last thing a child needs for a while, says Haynes.
“Give children time to get a snack and relax their minds," she explains.
“Offer your child a physical activity directly after school. Sports, yoga or walking are great releases that help to balance the mind and body."
Homework can also wait and will probably be done better as a result of a brain break.
Parents should be aware of how we act when we get home, as our kids are likely to model our behavior. If we're irritable as soon as we walk in the house our kids will likely follow suit. (After-work restraint collapse is real, too!)
“I often use my car ride home to decompress from the day and to allow myself to be 'fresh' for my family when I walk through the door," says Haynes, who says meditation and yoga can help parents unwind. You can even do this together with your kids.
As the school year goes on, Brooks says you can expect after-school restraint collapse to ease up a bit—both because of our children's increasing maturity and their adjustment to the new schedule. She says if it's still happening two or three months into the school year, parents should seek guidance from a pediatrician or a child therapist.
A note from Motherly
If you're dealing with defensive detachment meltdowns right now, remember that even if your child isn't showing it, they do love you, mama. More than they can say.
A version of this story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated.