with Dr. Kristyn Sommer, PhD
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- What After School Restraint Collapse Is
- The Factors that Contribute to After School Meltdowns
- The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns
- How to Support Your Child Through After School Restraint Collapse
- The Importance of Supporting Yourself During Stressful Times
Whether you have heard the phrase “after school restraint collapse” or not, if you’ve experienced it, you know exactly what it is—when your child starts melting down as soon as you pick them up from school. If your child behaves wonderfully at school but falls apart when they see you, it can be frustrating for everyone.
So what causes those after school meltdowns? Dr. Kristyn Sommer leverages her PhD in Early Cognitive Development and shares her insights on why after school restraint collapse happens, and what you can do to minimize it.
My School Behavior Surprise
My middle son is the most high-spirited of my crew. With that spirit comes some difficulties—big feelings, trouble controlling his body, and impulsive behavior. He needs plenty of redirection at home.
So when he started junior kindergarten this year, we expected to see some trouble transitioning.
Sure enough, every day after school, the moment he crosses the threshold into the house, he throws himself on the floor, wiggling and flopping around like a fish.
But imagine my surprise when we sat down for a conference with his teacher, only to hear, “Oh he’s absolutely wonderful! One of the most perfectly-behaved students we have!”
My first thought was, “Is this the same child we’re talking about?” Fortunately, I knew exactly what was happening—after school restraint collapse.
I get plenty of DMs about this, so I know that other moms out there are experiencing the same thing. And I couldn’t think of anybody better to talk with about this topic than evidence-based expert Dr. Kristyn.
What After School Restraint Collapse Is
Dr. Kristyn shared with us that everyone has a certain self-regulation capacity—how much we can handle controlling ourselves and adhering to social norms.
After school restraint collapse happens when children use up their capacity for self-regulation during the school day. They are working hard to follow the social expectations there. By the end of the day, they have no more self-control left. They’re tired, they’re hungry, and they’re emotionally exhausted from regulating their behavior.
So when they see someone safe, someone who they can let down their guard with, they stop masking their behavior, often melting down and losing control completely.
In a way, adults go through this too. Dr. Kristyn says to think of self-regulation like the rungs of a Grimm’s rainbow. As you go through the day, little things can start to get to you. You receive a bad review at work, or you run late somewhere important—each experience removes one of the rungs, until they are all gone. Finally, you come home and snap at your spouse because you’re at the end of your rope.
Dr. Kristyn says that not only is this behavior normal and healthy (after all, we don’t want children holding in all of those feelings forever), but it means that they do have a strong, secure bond with you—you are their safe place.
The Factors that Contribute to After School Meltdowns
I was eager to talk with Dr. Kristyn about why only one of my sons melts down after school. We suspect that he is neurodivergent and has ADHD, so I wanted to know if that was a potential cause and what other factors come into play.
She said that neurodivergence is likely a trigger for after school restraint collapse. Neurodivergent kids experience more stressors during the day—it’s harder for them to fit into a world that isn’t designed for their brain.
But there are other factors as well. Temperament is part of it—some children are naturally more chill and relaxed. They don’t have the same internal pressure build or find it as difficult to regulate.
Other factors include being tired, hungry, or even experiencing a heightened emotional state. Some children will have these meltdowns when they’re sick, which puts a drain on their regulation capacity.
Not all kids experience it, and not all kids that do experience it all the time.
Dr. Kristyn was also quick to point out that if your child doesn’t experience it, it doesn’t mean that they don’t view you as their safe space. They simply might not be prone to the same pressures and stressors in their brains.
The Difference Between Tantrums and Meltdowns
It’s important to realize that when your child exhibits after school restraint collapse, they aren’t throwing a tantrum.
As Dr. Kristyn points out, tantrums and meltdowns are not inherently the same—they’re two ends of a spectrum. Tantrums come from not being able to communicate a feeling properly.
Both tantrums and meltdowns come from an emotion and an inability to understand and communicate that emotion.
But meltdowns are more extreme—they are more like panic attacks, which can be very hard to control. The nervous system is worked up, triggering a physiological response, including shaking, dizziness, and nausea. After school restraint collapse falls toward the meltdown end of the spectrum—not the tantrum end.
So if your little one crumbles when you suggest they do their homework right after school, it might not be that they don’t want to do the homework. Instead, it could be that they have needs that haven’t been met while they were at school—the need to play, run, wiggle, or even connect with you after being away.
How to Support Your Child Through After School Restraint Collapse
It can be tempting to try to bulldoze through after school restraint collapse. You might feel like you know they’re capable of control since they do it all day at school. But Dr. Kristyn explains that isn’t the case. During meltdowns, their brains are truly experiencing something beyond control.
That’s also why you can’t put a stop to the after school meltdowns entirely. But you can mitigate them by offering support in several ways:
Offer connection right away. Your child could be going through defensive detachment caused by frustration from being away from you all day. Make sure you smile and hug your child to let them know you missed them too. Commit to some uninterrupted time together after school, even if it’s just for five minutes.
Avoid questions. Questions can be very overstimulating after a long school day. It forces them to make another decision when they are experiencing stress. (Think of the way you feel after a long day—you don’t want to decide on dinner or make any choices. You just want to relax. Your child feels the same way.)
Prepare a snack. Choose something in advance that you know they enjoy, so you don’t put them in a position of making decisions.
Establish a routine. Children find routines very calming and comforting. Create an after school routine that works for you and your child—for example, eat a snack, take a bike ride, then read a book together. A predictable routine eases the stress they might be experiencing.
Help them disengage from “thinking brain.” Moving your child from thinking mode to observing mode also helps ease after school restraint collapse. You can do this through mindfulness or music. Model deep breathing or observing nature.
Get moving. Set up some physical activity to help release pent-up energy. Go for a walk or a swim, or set up a dance party.
Leave homework for later. Try to put homework off for at least an hour, after their needs have been met. Once that happens, they will be more ready to tackle it.
The Importance of Supporting Yourself During Stressful Times
After school restraint collapse can be very frustrating for parents. Often, you are ending your day and experiencing a lowered self-regulation capacity yourself.
Evenings can be a very difficult time for everyone. There are a lot of quick transitions and you’re trying to get everything done in very little time. It’s easy to lose your cool.
Try to prepare yourself to receive your child in advance. Take a walk alone if you can, or do a quick breathing exercise or meditation. Put yourself in a positive headspace so that you can navigate the transition better.
Most importantly, remember to go easy on yourself as well. Just as your child will have days where they melt down, no matter how well you support them, you will have days where you slip up and snap. As long as you apologize effectively and repair, you can maintain the strong bond you have with your child.
Our free Masterclass will walk you through the 3-step method to repair after you lose your cool! Register now to learn how to strengthen bonds even when you make mistakes.
Dr. Kristyn Sommer is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with a PhD in Early Cognitive Development and a mum to a 2-year-old. In addition to her day job as a researcher, Dr. Sommer is a content creator on TikTok who shares evidence based parenting insights from her decade of training in psychology and cognitive, social and emotional development. Dr. Sommer is a passionate science communicator who believes that parenting shouldn’t be paywalled and endeavours to bring compassion, understanding and empathy to all conversations with parents.
- Dr. Kristyn’s TikTok Rainbow Video: Toddler brain vs. Mum brain
- Dr. Kristyn’s Podcast: Parenting Unpacked
- The Toddler Game
- Taste Safe Sensory Recipes
- Happy as a Mother Wellness Center
- The Three-Step Method for Repairing With You Child After You Lose Your Cool Masterclass