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  • Writer's pictureCara Gruhala

After School Restraint Collapse

For most in this area, the 2023-2024 school year has begun. Parents, students, and educators are working on getting back into routines. Very likely we are all TIRED.

Imagine this: it's the end of the day, the halls are empty, and you are ready to welcome your child home from their day. They walk through the door and toss their backpack in the middle of the floor, and start rifling through the pantry. You ask how their day was. Nothing. You ask what they ate for lunch. A grunt. You ask them to pick up the backpack from the floor and the pantry door slams. "Leave me alone! You never let me do anything!" they yell, and stomp off. It gets worse from there and you're left frustrated and confused. Then repeat day after day until the first holiday. This is the story for so many parents, and no, your kid hasn't morphed into a monster. They're likely experiencing something called After School Restraint Collapse. This isn't an officially recognized psychological diagnosis, but it is a common pheonomenon.

First, consider the lack of choices that children, even up through the teen years, have in any given day. They may not have a choice in transportation to and from school, may not have a choice of where to sit in the room, may be asked to minimize movements or fidgeting during certain parts of the day, likely do not have much of a choice in activity or topic, may not have choice of who they sit by at lunch or what they eat, they may have some structure placed on the types of play or areas that can be played in at recess, they may have limited options in how to handle not feeling well or experiencing discomfort, they may feel hungry without the ability to snack during certain parts of the day. Add in some of the social challenges that can be a normal part of childhood and adolescence, along with factors like people pleasing, high personal standards, expectations of parents and teachers on performance, neurodivergence, giftedness, differing sensory needs, introversion/extroversion, and a whole host of other things and you've got a recipe for burnout. Most adults wouldn't function well with this many choices removed from our day.

So what do we end up with? In truth, for many kids who have healthy attachment with their primary caregivers, we see the mask fall off. We see the effects of achieving, and socializing, sensory overwhelm, and holding it in fall away. I always remind people that this often shows that the child trusts their caregiver enough to let them see this side, and shows that the child trusts us enough to be imperfect and non-verbally ask for coregulation. Coregulation is in essence sharing the nervous system with another human. Your child's dysregulated, overwhelmed nervous system asks for witness and holding from your calm, regulated adult system, to regain balance. They're also often asking for confirmation that they're still loveable even when they don't have it all together.

What do we do? Several things can help.

  • Leave room to decompress. Try not to pepper them with questions about their day or require much of them for at least 20-30 minutes. Some kids will need longer.

  • Refuel. Make sure they have access to snacks and hydration. Try to make sure that snacks contain at least two if not three of the macronutrient groups (fat, carbs, protein).

  • Time for play (in nature if possible). Leave room for unstructured play. Go outside if temperatures or medical conditions don't prevent this. I definitely believe that some structured activity can benefit kids in many ways, but consider if your family's schedule is leaving time for imaginary play, creativity, make believe, and unstructured movement. Play with your kids even if for 10-15 minutes! Even better, let them direct the play within reason, by picking the activity and directing your actions. Future blog post on this coming soon!

  • Help your kids to know what's coming by creating a family calendar, talking through plans or expectations in advance and allowing time for their questions, or creating a visual schedule of various parts of their day or week. Be sure to highlight unstructured time where they have more choices and freedom. Communicate schedule changes ahead of time whenever possible.

  • Validate emotions. You don't have to validate actions if you disagree, but feelings are never wrong. "You're feeling really tired and hungry", "You're feeling annoyed","You're mad about that." You don't even have to get it right! They will often correct you if need be, and that's giving them opportunity to practice connecting with and communicating their emotions. You can hold a boundary about actions here if need be. "You're feeling really mad. I can't let you throw that at your sibling." Notice how the two statements were separated here? More on limit setting in a future post!

  • Save the checking in for later. One of my favorite ways of doing this is an activity called Rose, Thorn, Leaf. At dinner, after dinner, during bedtime routine, or in another time after your child has had time to decompress, each member of the family shares from their day the rose (best part), thorn (most difficult part), and leaf (something they've identified they would like to grow in or wish they could redo). It's great for kids to hear these things (in developmentally appropriate ways) about parent's days too because they hear about our methods of handling adversity and get a window into our lives.

Here's to a successful 2023-24 school year for all, and remember to measure success by your own ruler.

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