“Nerve-cited” was the word my thirteen-year-old used to describe how he was feeling as he set off on an adventure without me or his Dad. This is a fantastic expression to capture the intensity that comes when we are part nervous, scared, and excited! Going into a new school year coming off of a long period riddled with uncertainty, isolation, change, disappointment, and obstacles due to the pandemic, is likely to have our children feeling nerve-cited times a hundred.
Parents, please be forewarned that this heightened state, in combination with the regular crash that happens after a day of making themselves follow rules (often when they don’t want to), being “good,” and completing tasks that might feel tedious or challenging might lead our children experiencing an after-school restraint collapse like we’ve not seen before. Let’s get ready to catch them when this happens.
You might have heard the term “after-school restraint collapse” before. I coined it way back in 2016 to put words to the state our children often arrive home in after a day of school in September. It’s where children who have been at daycare or school all day and described by their teachers as “great kids” walk in the door at home and turn into spiky, poison-spitting monsters. Given that the original article was shared half a million times when it first came out and multiple parenting publishers have been posting similar information every year since, we know this is a real thing, and we need to give it our attention and care.
This restraint collapse state is the point where our self-regulation gets all used up. I describe it this way: if someone’s ability to handle things is like a container, it’s the point where that container keeps getting filled past the brim and spills out everywhere. And once that happens, often the container collapses and just falls apart. Don’t think “tantrum” — it’s a melt-down.
Not much has changed in the past six years since I first wrote that article in terms of paying attention to unmet needs and what happened throughout the day because our children (and partners) are often DONE when they walk in the door. Rational thought, emotional intelligence, and just putting a sentence together to communicate has gone out the window. But this year, the pandemic's compounding factors will add some layers to make this even more complicated.
This year our children are going to school nerve-cited, but the older ones are also unsure of how their learning measures up to those around them in their new class. AND they are heading to school packing hopes and expectations for having a better year – a better teacher, meeting new friends, and having more fun. If there is a hint that these hopes are dashed on the first day or first week, the restrain collapse crash might be quite intense.
I suggest that the goal of the first few weeks back to school this year is to focus on showing up for our kids in a supportive way at the end of the day. We have our own obstacles, adversity, and challenges, too, but we’re going to have to find a way to manage those to a point where we can be there for our kids in a regulated way. We’re going to need to be the regulation they might not have.
Make re-entry positive.
The first thing you say is a game changer — make it supportive. I know we often want to know how the day went, have to get information out or need to ask questions like, “does dance start at 6 or 6:30 today?!” Plus, we’re sure they have stuff to do and we want to help them remember it but rapid-firing a list of jobs or questions is likely to make their state worse. Find a way to convey that you are glad to see them after being away from each other all day. If you’re honestly not super happy about having them back, find a neutral posture or facial expression to at least convey that they are safe at home.
Right when they walk in the door, give them space to do an activity of their choice to decompress. I recommend using screen time as a last resort because that won’t allow them processing time. They really need human (or pet!) connection and to rest.
Use a Helpful Getting Home Routine.
Walking or biking home is a great way to work off the steam of the day. I have a cargo bike so my children can ride on the back of it in the Captain’s chair. I hand them a snack and off we go. If you have to drive, let your child be the DJ to pick some songs and remember to hold questions for later. You’d be surprised what they start talking about without any prompts.
Listen. Validate. Name the feelings.
When it looks like your child is ready to talk, give them space to spew out everything they need to say. Steer away from judgment words like, “wow – that’s terrible,” putting the attention back to how they are feeling. Try something like: “I’m guessing you had some big feelings when that happened. Were you feeling angry or embarrassed… or something else?” I love Brene Brown’s Atlas of the Heart book for coaching on how to find the word to match how you are feeling and I also made some feelings flashcards (using adorable grizzly bear photos) for that same purpose. I Feel Like A Bear Flashcards
Replenish with food and drinks.
Without saying anything, set out some fresh finger foods and something to drink. You’d be surprised how much cut up fruit and vegetables get consumed when children forget they are healthy. I suggest not saying anything because we want to pull out any battle of wills about food – you’re just quietly setting something out and they can choose if they eat it or not.
Try some at-school connection.
Is there a way your child can feel connected with you while they are away at daycare or school? Younger children often like getting notes or little objects from home in their lunches, and my teenagers seem OK when I send them a text. Again, I steer away from asking “How’s your day going” and instead send them a picture of our dog doing something weird.
Have fun. Play.
I mentioned this in my original article: “Laughter releases the same tension as tears.” -Dr Laura Markham. How does your child like to have fun or play? Can you squeeze that in during the dinner-making time? My children are used to me dancing like nobody’s watching when everyone’s home and I see them grinning when I do it.
I like the term, “astronaut planning,” which I adopted after reading Chris Hadfield’s books. When we make a plan for the potential storms ahead, we can reach for something from that plan rather than succumbing to all the big feelings in the moment.
I don’t know about you, but I find it VERY hard to stay calm when my child is in a screaming heap on the floor, and remembering these tips can help put us in a supportive task-mode instead of reaction-mode. Ultimately, that is what our children need most during the first few weeks of school – to feel we are there for them.