Kindergarten was a big transition for Hugo, from his 3-hour day of free-play in an outdoor yard, to a 6-hour structured day, mostly inside. And yet, when I picked him up in the afternoon, his teachers would often tell me how well-behaved, thoughtful and kind he was during the day.
He would run into my arms for a big hug and then want to play for a bit with his friends. I was happy to talk to other parents. However, the scene would quickly fall apart. My kind and well-behaved child lost all impulse control - physical and verbal. It often resulted in me carrying him to the car, while he kicked and clawed at me, all the while screaming hurtful words at his friends. It was awful.
The scene did not feel like a beautiful endorsement of Peaceful Parenting. I had to admit that he could not hang out after school. The easiest solution was for me to drive by, wave to the teacher and have him jump in the car, so he could fall apart in the safety and privacy of our own home, without hurting his friendships. It was in MY presence that he was no longer able to keep his big kid boots and would fall apart.
Relief came when I learned I was not alone. Big, messy, emotional releases after school are not only common and normal - they have a name.
After School Restraint Collapse
Let me tell you more and what we as parents can do to help our children.
Whether in daycare, preschool, grammar school, or even middle school, kids work REALLY hard to keep their big kid boots on all day, while they are away from us. It takes a LOT of energy to sit still so long, when every cell in their body wants to move. It takes energy to listen and follow directions and learn new routines. It takes a lot of energy to learn and practice new skills.
During the day, as feelings come up that children don’t want anyone else to see, they stuff them down into their emotional backpacks. Let’s think about what might happen that would make a child feel the need to stuff some feelings:
Frustration learning something new – whether it is using scissors, learning to read, a new sport, an instrument or math
Worry about needing to go to the bathroom
Lunch time – sitting next to their friend
Making new friends
Being rejected by friends
Falling and skinning their knee
Hearing a classmate be scolded
Getting in some kind of “trouble” themselves
This list could go on and on.
A lot of kids don’t eat much during school. Sometimes, it is because they are a little bit nervous, so they don’t feel hungry. Sometimes, it is because they feel like they don’t have time to eat, because their body tells them they HAVE to play and there isn’t enough time to do both. Six hours – or even more if they stay for after school programs, makes for a long day.
By the time we are there to greet them, their cup is more than empty and their blood sugar low. A great combination - for disaster. Everyone around them is pretty much in the same condition. They are little emotional time bombs waiting to go off – begging for more time together! When they see us, their big kid boots fall off and messy emotions fly out of overstuffed backpacks. If they are older and no longer have full-blown meltdowns, they treat us horribly – or retreat into themselves for a while.
You might be asking - If our love is the soothing balm, then why do they act out when we arrive? It seems like they would run to us with relief and be happy, right? Well, there is one other part of this equation. Psychologists call it Defensive Detachment. In adult terms - It happens when we are worried about someone being late. We don’t know where they are. We worry and worry and worry – and when they show up, BAM - we get MAD! It is a self-protective mechanism. For children - we are not there during the day when they miss and need us. When they finally see us, they are flooded by all of these big feelings. It is easier to be mad than face the feelings of fear and sadness that are always hiding underneath. Aggression comes from fear - when they begin to release buried fear, newly developing impulse control goes out the window.
So, what can we do? The first step is happening right now as you read this article. Awareness. Just being aware and knowing there is a reason for their unseemly behavior gives us more emotional generosity. That is step one, but luckily, there is more.
Preventative Maintenance is always a good place to start. We all get busy with the start of a new school year. Make sure Your cup is full of love, so you have it to give. Then, be sure to make time for extra snuggles, cuddles and Special Time. Fill them up with your love. Wake them with kisses. Get up early enough to read a book together. If they ask you to help them get dressed or tie their shoes and you know they are able to do it on their own – indulge them. What they are really asking for is extra connection. The 45 seconds you spend helping them in the morning, might be what allows them to hold it together during the day.
Find a way into their day. Put a little note in their lunchbox or pocket. Fill their sleeves and collars with kisses. Give yourselves matching marker tattoos or paint one fingernail the same color. Put a family photo in their backpack. If they are old enough that a love note is embarrassing – write a joke or a message with an inside joke that will give them a little chuckle. I used to take a bite of my husband’s sandwich – another idea for tweens and teens to think about you and smile during their day.
Make pick-up Quick. If they see you and slowly or very quickly, begin to unravel – help them get out of the situation quickly. Help them save face.
Meet them where they are – with a snack! They can eat a piece of fruit or some nuts in the car. When you get home or to a park, they might finish their lunch. Chances are they need something to get their blood sugar up. No need to expect them to be cheery and forthcoming about the details of their day. Let them decompress and talk later.
Don’t take it personally. Even with tweens and teens. Remember, that all behavior is their way of expressing a core need. Their behavior is in front of you and not to you. If they try to pick a fight or think everything is dumb or stupid. Don’t take the bait. Address the underlying feeling, instead of the behavior. Try saying, Long day, huh? I am right here for you.
Get them moving. They need some time to run and have free play. Riding a bike, climbing trees, swimming, skateboarding, gymnastics, soccer, dancing, jumping rope - something to get their bodies moving.
When you get home, get them laughing. Do some fun roughhousing games and follow the giggles. This will help release the top layer of anxiety from their emotional backpack. That might be all they need. So, laugh when you can and cry when you have to...
Be ready to Welcome Emotions. They might need you to set a limit with Empathy, so they have something to push against a big cry. Tears release the sadness and fear they stuffed away all day. The length and intensity of their emotional release is telling you how hard it really was. After a good cry in your loving presence, they will feel so much better. Ready for you to refill their cup and start all over again! Welcome ALL Emotions and set limits with empathy on behavior. No, it is not all right for them to hit, kick and say hurtful things. Tell them they can be as mad or sad as they need to be - and that hitting HURTS! Help them make repairs when needed. Model using the Pause Button by breathing, saying mantras and staying calm yourself.
Homework Hint: If they have homework to do, I recommend having a snack and then doing homework - followed by as much play and movement as possible.
What about screen time? It is better to avoid screens until after they have decompressed for a while. Ideally, limit screens as much as possible to weekends only. They need physical activity and connection. As we adults know, screens are addictive. When watching them, we (kids included) zone out and feelings of the day get buried. While we are guiding how to set up lifelong practices - let's teach them to process emotions first and then enjoy a favorite show. Of course, we need to think about how we model our own end of the day restraint collapse too!
Remember, it is because they are able to let it all out at home, that they can keep those big kid boots on at school. This is a transitional period that will most likely taper off within a month or two as they get used to the new routines and longer days. If they are younger, it might last longer or come and go all year long. As with all phases and stages of childhood, it won’t last forever. That said, we all have bad days and days when we are fighting a cold or coming down with something. When you sense your child’s backpack is bursting at the seams, you now have some tools to welcome and help them release their big feelings. It is rare for adults to come home and tell each other how little things needled them during the day and not to take their mood personally. It is even rarer for children. Their way is to either fall apart or ask you to play.
So, next time their teacher tells you how well-behaved your child is, smile with relief that all of your hard work of Welcoming Emotions and increasing connection is paying off and allowing them to keep those big kid boots on at school!
Looking back, my messy kindergarten scene was a beautiful endorsement for Peaceful Parenting. Peaceful Parenting is NOT Perfect Parenting. There are no Perfect parents nor Perfect kids. Kids will always be kids. Our job is to practice seeing their behavior as a call for help and to bring the calm as we provide the scaffolding that allows them to grow.
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**An emotional backpack is a visual for stuffing feelings into the subconscious and out of conscious control.