I recall when my eldest started full school days, and although her teacher said she was doing well
and was happy and well behaved and engaged in her learning, I couldn’t work out how that could be
true – because after school, she was a completely different child.
After picking her up and asking how her day went, what she’d done, she would snap at me, fall apart
into tears, squabble with her sister, and generally exhibit rage, frustration and tiredness. So what
the heck was going on?!
Post-school restraint collapse, that’s what.
After a while (and talking to other parents, plus some frantic Googling) I figured out that due to the
fact my new school aged child was the dream pupil all day, she had to let it all out once she’d
rejoined her safe space – me. The transition from school to home was a massive challenge, she’d
had to play a part all day, abiding by rules, routines, structure, social expectations and learning –
with far too little downtime or playtime. (A topic for another blog; don’t get me started on the lack
of free play in the early school years…!)
Once her school day was over, she was free to take the lid off the shaken pop-bottle of her
emotions, and explode somewhere that she wouldn’t be judged or punished for it. If this is
happening to you after your new school-starter’s school days, you might find this weirdly flattering
in among the frustration and bewilderment; YOU are your child’s safe space! Despite their
outbursts, they feel safe which is exactly why they are exploding all over you.
This collapse is also more likely in children who are highly sensitive or neurodivergent – and is often
especially common in Autistic girls, who are the group most prone to masking at school. Children are
most likely not even aware that they are masking until they get home, and their own feelings are
likely to be confusing to them, so it’s essential that we figure out how to help them to transition
more comfortably, and give them the space and time to decompress in a healthier way.
A few things worked for us.
Firstly, I realised that she was hungry after school. 3 hours between lunch and home time, with lots
of brain work, was too long and she emerged from school with low blood sugar – the typical hangry
child. I started arriving at the gates with a snack for her, which she eagerly consumed, boosted her
blood sugars and gave her the energy needed for the journey home. (Obviously avoid anything so
sugary that they’ll hit another sugar crash in 30 minutes time!)
Secondly, I learned to stop asking questions. The last thing a child needs after a busy, chatty, social
day full of information and expectations, is to be met with a barrage of further questions. I bit my
tongue on my eagerness to find out all about her day, and instead went for a hug and “it’s good to
see you”. Then – quiet. Given the space to process their day, children will divulge information far
more readily than if pressured to do so. When they do – remain impassive; carry on LISTENING. A
simple “mmmhmmm? Oh, really? Ahhh I see…” is an adequate response. Let them offload without
the pressure of questions or judgement.
Thirdly, I made sure that the after-school hours weren’t too busy. No clubs for us; no playdates or
outings – just down time – ideally, involving the outdoors. We would often walk home, taking the
long way through the park, just idling along, picking blackberries and letting nature soothe the day
away. This has paid off – now at 9, she attends Cubs once a week, but she knows her limits – school
recently proposed an after-school dance class for her key stage, but when I asked her if she wanted
to attend she said no – “It’ll be too much for me in the week”. Saying no to activities that take too
much of our energy is a skill that many adults have yet to master, myself included!
Gradually, as time went on and I learned to better recognise the post-restraint-collapse symptoms
and head them off at the pass, they naturally subsided, as she grew older, became more
accustomed to the school day, and was given what she needed after it ended. Now, at 9, she’s able
to tell me if she struggled in the day, and can communicate her needs – just the other day she told
me how “overwhelming” her day had been because of the myriad of things that had gone wrong one
after the other. I listened, she cried, I simply said “That sounds REALLY crappy”. She asked if we
could go out somewhere, anywhere, to distract her. I said no, we couldn’t, sometimes we have to sit
with things being crappy, as that’s just the way it is. I said I’d be going through to chill on my bed and
if she wanted to come and join me, I’d be there waiting for her. After around 5 minutes, she came
through, we lay under a weighted blanket and watched the curtains blowing in the wind and
nattered about nothing in particular. The tantrum abated, the upset eased, and she got what she
really needed – some re-connection time, some time to just be, without any demands on her.
Hopefully, in the long run, by providing her with the time to relax and reflect, I’ll be equipping her
with the tools to handle hard feelings and recognise when she needs down time as an adult.
So if the bewildered, overwhelmed post-school-day parent is you right now, don’t panic. It’s just a
little ‘ol restraint collapse. They don’t hate school. They don’t hate you. It will pass. Arm yourself
with snacks and give yourselves time in your day to decompress. Chances are, it’ll do you good,
A guest blog from Siani Driver from the Worcestershire Mums Network