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.
“Children experience this in various ways. Some children have a complete meltdown that involves temper tantrums [or] refusal of parent directions while others just withdraw or are quiet for awhile after school," says Stacy Haynes, CEO and counseling psychologist at Little Hands Family Services.
Haynes 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 the school day.This year in particular, after-school restraint collapse is to be expected in school-age kids. Children heading to in-person school this year will be adjusting to lots of differences. Kids tackling the challenge of fully-remote school will be missing friends and adjusting to more screen time. Kids in hybrid school or learning pods will need to adapt to learning in a brand-new way. Whatever school looks like for your child this year, the likelihood is that it won't be a familiar, trusted, safe routine—and they may need to let off some serious steam after school hours are over. After-school restraint collapse is extremely common in kids under 12, says psychotherapist Nancy Brooks, and (thankfully) lessens as children develop more emotional resiliency. Until then, 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 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."
How you can help ease the after-school transitionAt 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. Until then, have hope: Going back to school is a transition for everyone in the family!
This article was originally published in 2017; it has been updated.