Family, Kids & Relationships

Are you overwhelmed by kids’ challenging behavior immediately after school? Here’s how to handle it

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When your kids get home from school, do they immediately start having behavioral problems? Whether they whine a lot, have intense tantrums, seem unwilling or unable to follow basic parts of the routine (like putting away their shoes), overreact to everything, or behave in hurtful ways — there may be a perfectly natural explanation for these outbursts.

There’s even a name for this behavioral pattern: restraint collapse. Andrea Loewen Nair, a psychotherapist and former teacher, came up with the term after observing that her kids would “utterly fall apart” when they came home. The idea is that when kids, especially young kids, hold it together all day at school, they often come home and let out all of their impulses and emotions at once — which can make after-school an extra stressful time of day for families.

Parents may lament why they can’t just enjoy their precious time with little ones after a long day apart. But if you’re dealing with frequent restraint collapse, you’re going to have to lean into it first to support your kiddo, rather than just hope that the challenging behavior will go away.

Consider school from your child’s perspective

Parents often underestimate the energy it takes kids to get through each school day. At school, there are many expectations placed on developing children. They have to follow a set of rules, listen and process instructions from various adults, challenge themselves to try new things, learn social norms in a large group setting, concentrate on tasks while filtering out distractions, and much more.

All of these demands can be a lot for young brains to manage, and they need to let off steam somehow. This “collapse” usually happens at home because they feel so much more comfortable with their immediate family members than they do with teachers and school staff. This dynamic can be true even for kids who generally love school and their teachers, and seem to have adjusted well to the school year.

Seeing your child give a friendly goodbye to their teacher, only to start screaming at you as soon as they’re out of earshot, can come across as shocking, hurtful, and humiliating to parents. But remember, it actually means that they consider you their safe place. Kids know that you love them unconditionally, and that’s why they work hard to show their “best” self to the world but aren’t afraid to show you their “worst” self.

Psychologist John Duffy adds that kids’ differing behavioral “personas” at school versus at home can be a sign of healthy development: “It’s normal to act out: to try and test the limits and boundaries of your young life. Kids are less comfortable testing limits at school, which is a structured, less familiar environment. They hold in a lot of feelings and unleash them when they get home.”

Anticipate and plan for behavioral challenges

Once you know what restraint collapse is, and why it’s happening, you can begin to expect it, and prepare for it both logistically and emotionally.

On the way to picking your child up from school or daycare, you can take a moment to remind yourself that you’ll need extra empathy and patience in preparation for the firehose of big emotions that is about to come your way. As Loewen Nair puts it, “We need to fortify. Because how easy is it for a child to come home, melt down, and then it just turns into a shouting match?”

Offer your child an enthusiastic greeting and show your love, but don’t start piling on the questions or requests just yet. Allow kids some space to vent, or cry, or stomp, or mope. Have a crunchy snack, calming tactile toy, sensory bin, or favorite song at the ready, so that kids will have options to help take the edge off.

But mostly, try to just listen, model calm and patient behavior, ask how you can help, and don’t try to rush them into the next set of strict expectations. They may need to rest their brains, let out frustration, or fill up with a loving feeling — so whether that means cuddling with you first thing (yes, even before washing their hands) or having a tumultuous pillow fight with their dolls, try to find a reasonable way to let it happen.

Talk it out with your child

During other (calmer) times of the day or week, show kids that you get it — that they have a lot of difficult demands at school and that they regularly power through some impressive challenges! You can tell them, “I know that you must work so hard to listen to your teachers and classmates, and that you try new activities every single day! Your brain gets quite the workout!” And you can share something that you remember feeling hard about school as a young kid.

You can also point out to kids what you’ve observed — that all of these school-day demands can lead them to feel extra tired and hungry, or want to scream and shout, when they get out of school. Tell them that it’s totally understandable they would feel like this. Try to think of an example from your own life of an especially demanding situation, and what you felt like immediately afterward.

When they’re ready, you can begin to brainstorm together what might help them cope with the difficult after-school feelings. Have them create a bin of soft toys or calming activities and put it by the door, or get their help making a playlist of favorite songs that they can zone out to on the way home.

Gather your support team

It can help to just vent to another parent about the after-school meltdowns, and have each other as support. You’ll feel much less alone if you text your parent friend before pick-up time just to say, “I’m ready for a MESSY afternoon. We’ve got this! Let’s check in again in a few hours.”

But if the after-school behavioral challenges are not improving at all as the school year goes on (but school itself seems to be going great), you may want to consider adding some of the positive structure, routines, or strategies that seem to work well at school to your home life. For example, having a special cubby with their name on it might make them feel proud and excited about putting away their own things at school — so you could have them help set up a designated, labeled space by the door at home too.

Express to your child’s teachers that you are impressed with how they make everything so developmentally appropriate, and share some of the at-home behavioral challenges with them. You can ask if they have any tips for creating a smoother transition to home. It may also be a good idea to ask if your kid has been struggling with anything at school that could be leading to extra difficult emotions at home.

If after-school tantrums are so extreme and long-lasting that they’re taking a toll on the family, consider whether another behavioral or mental health issue could be at play. Sometimes children with challenges such as anxiety, learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism can have an even harder time keeping up with expectations at school — thus making their at-home explosions all the more intense. You can always discuss your concerns with a pediatrician or school psychologist.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.