ASK LIZZIE: Why is my child a complete disaster after school?

The Current is proud to welcome new columnist Lizzie Assa, founder of The Workspace for Children, a parenting strategist, play expert and mother of three who lives in Marblehead. Read more about Lizzie at the end of the column.

Dear Lizzie: We’re a couple of weeks into the school year, and my son is a complete disaster area each afternoon when he gets home. Is he learning terrible new habits at school? What the heck is happening? Help! 

Hi reader, 

If you were to glance into houses throughout your neighborhood, I suspect you’d witness a similar situation unfolding in numerous households during the initial weeks of school. You’re not the only one experiencing this, and there’s a specific term for such challenges. It’s called “restraint collapse.”

Before you worry, “restraint collapse” is just a fancy way of saying your child is working so hard all day to learn new rules and routines, process new sensory stimuli and keep it all together, that when they get home, they let it all hang out.

Reader, you are their safe space, and while that might not feel great at the moment, rest assured that your child’s behavior is typical in the first few weeks of school.

That doesn’t mean you just need to sit there and weather the storm. Here are a few simple tips to get through the rough patch. 

  1. Switch your mindset from “OMG, what the heck is happening?” to “This is normal. Many children experience this afternoon restraint collapse, and I have the tools to help my child manage.” A small mindset switch can go a long way when it comes to how you respond to your child in these trying moments. Take deep breaths, secretly eat Oreos in the pantry or silently scream into your pillow if you need to. It’s allowed.
  2. Plan for downtime. If your child is falling apart on you the second they get home, they are telling you something important: “Hey, Ma! I need a minute. I’ve been following directions all day. I’ve been sharing, sitting still and lining up all day. I need a BREAK!” School is exhausting, and your child needs to rest. When you notice a pattern of afternoon meltdowns, scale back on the playdates, errands and enrichment classes. Instead, go home, let your child decompress and regroup. In a few weeks, they’ll be ready for afternoon adventures again. 
  3. Have a snack ready before they get home. If your child is like most, they don’t eat or drink enough while they are at school. For young children, eating at school is more about learning how to sit at the lunch table, how to open packages and who they are sitting next to, more than it is about eating and drinking. Kids tend to nibble a little and spill a lot until they are comfortable with the new routine. Do yourself and your child a favor and have a nutrient-dense snack ready when you pick them up. Try smoothies, pita with hummus or cheese and crackers. Get your child involved and excited by asking them for snack ideas ahead of time. 
  4. Sensory play is your friend. Your child has been carefully following instructions all day, and they don’t need more of the same when they come home. Keep sensory play simple, and don’t try to reinvent the wheel. A bubble bath is the perfect high-impact, low-lift sensory activity. Throw in a few of their favorite toys and turn on an audiobook. Let them soak the afternoon away. Not only will they love it, but it will help them unwind and you’ll have one less thing to worry about at bedtime, which is a win-win! Other simple ideas for sensory-rich play can include letting them “paint” the shower with shaving cream or washing their favorite toys with warm soapy water, a bin and a sponge. Another idea is to play outside in the yard or at the beach. Any kind of child-led outdoor play will help tremendously.

If your child is an angel at school and they fall apart on you when they get home, try not to take it personally. Like most things in parenting, this will pass with time and in a few short weeks, they’ll be ready for action! 

***

Parenting strategist and Marblehead mom Lizzie Assa COURTESY PHOTO

Ask Lizzie will appear in the Current twice a month. Lizzie Assa will be answering questions from readers, so please send yours to AskLizzie@marbleheadnews.org.

Assa has a background in early childhood education and experience working with families and children. She helps parents and caregivers avoid burnout by teaching their children independent play. 

A firm believer in the power of simplicity and consistency in play, Assa is dedicated to promoting these values. Prior to starting The Workspace for Children, Assa received an M.Ed. from the Bank Street College of Education in New York City and taught nursery school in Manhattan. 

She has been featured in various publications such as Parents Magazine, New York Times Parenting, Time and The Wall Street Journal.

Lizzie Assa, parenting strategist
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