Why kids melt down when they come home from school — and why experts say it's a 'good sign'

Experts explain "restraint collapse."

The key to helping your child during an after-school meltdown is empathy, according to experts. (Getty Images)
The key to helping your child during an after-school meltdown is empathy, according to experts. (Getty Images)

If you've witnessed your kids fall apart right after you pick them up from school or as soon as they walk through the front door, you’re not alone. It’s sometimes called restraint collapse or, more commonly, a meltdown.

But it’s not just any meltdown. “It’s particular to coming home from school or a structured environment,” Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells Yahoo Life.

It’s also not to be confused with a tantrum. “Tantrums are used to get their way or are a response to a command or requirement,” says Beresin. “If you’re in the supermarket and there’s no way you’re getting Cap’n Crunch,” for example.

This type of after-school meltdown can happen when “kids are just emotionally overwhelmed by it all,” Christina O’Halloran, a clinical coordinator and licensed clinical social worker at Stanford Children’s Health developmental behavioral pediatrics, tells Yahoo Life. And, as Beresin notes: “This is so common.”

Along with crying or whining, younger kids may display “anger and aggression, throwing things, screaming, oppositional behavior,” says Beresin, while “sometimes it’s the opposite — shutting down.”

Defiance is “very common,” notes Beresin. “They’ll refuse to do their homework or not answer to you,” he says. “More often with older kids it’s shutting you out, going up to their room and slamming their door and refusing to tell you why they’re upset.”

Why do after-school meltdowns happen?

“It’s not really uncommon for kids to be ‘angels’ and incredibly well-behaved at school,” says Beresin, and then melt down the minute they come home.

Here’s why: “At school, there’s a high degree of structure, routine and pressure to act ‘good,’” explains Beresin. “For many, it takes immense energy to hold it all together. It’s exhausting to keep it all together, to balance social, emotional, attentional behavior in a school environment. It’s highly demanding… But when they come to a ‘safe space’ with loved ones, they simply lose it. They melt down.”

For some — if not many — kids, sitting still in class and having to pay attention for several hours is challenging, especially for children with learning disabilities or ADHD, notes O’Halloran. “But there’s lots of other kids who are just tired,” she points out.

Beresin notes that many kids are also over-scheduled with after-school programs, which can contribute to these meltdowns. “Kids need a brain break,” he says, “and need time to chill out and calm their emotions. Look at how over-scheduled they are. You may need to cut out activities.”

Why these meltdowns can be a good sign

Although it may not feel like it in the moment, your child having an after-school meltdown in front of you is actually a “great” sign, says O’Halloran, because it shows “they’re feeling really safe with their parents.”

Beresin agrees, saying, “It’s a good sign. It’s so incredibly different to tolerate from the parent’s emotional side. But it means they can let their hair down. They can trust you. They’re able to feel safe enough to let things go.”

How to handle meltdowns in the moment — and prevent future ones

The good news? Experts say there are ways you can help your child not only get through but also lessen after-school meltdowns, making it easier on them — and you.

Check your own emotions

When a child is upset, it’s easy for parents to get caught up in the emotions of a meltdown and escalate the situation, but modeling calm is key. “If I calm myself down, then my child will mirror that,” O’Halloran says.

Also, punishing kids for having strong emotions — “There’s a real reaction to say, ‘Stop it right now or you’re going to get a time out,’” says Beresin — or diving into solutions and asking your child probing questions about why they’re upset when they’re still in the throes of a meltdown isn’t effective or productive.

“You’re not going to find out by asking them, interrogating them when they’re in the middle of a meltdown,” says Beresin. “It only makes it worse if you intervene when they're not ready. Fasten your seatbelt. Ride it out.”

Beresin adds that “when they’re in control and calmed down,” that’s the time to have a conversation and find out more about why they’re having a hard time.

Instead, adds Beresin, “let them vent and validate their feelings. I don’t care if their teacher isn’t an old mean witch — just listen and validate their feelings. You can correct the facts later on.”

Show empathy and create connection

Above all, when a child is having a melt down, show empathy, by saying something like, "Wow, I really love you and I can see you’re having a tough time. Do you need some space or do you want to do something fun?" suggests Beresin.

For younger children, they often simply “want hugs and attention despite the behavior,” Beresin says. Regardless of your kid’s age, “these kids want to connect,” says Beresin. “They want to be in control. They just don’t have the ability.”

Parents can connect with their child and help them relax through calming activities, such as by reading a book (with or without them, depending on their age and preference) or creating some art together, such as drawing pictures or playing with Play-Doh. “Some love having their hair stroked or having their stuffed animal,” says Beresin. “Some kids need to play with a pet. Some kids really need to get out and run around, ride a bike, take a walk, or throw pillows” playfully with a parent.

Keep in mind that “some kids really need to simply be alone and have some time in a space, such as within eye shot of you, or they need to go to their room and chill out,” he says.

Beresin adds: “Every parent needs a toolbox and every kid is different.”

Give them healthy snacks

When it comes to meltdowns, “sometimes we also just look at the basics,” says O’Halloran. That’s because in some cases, after-school meltdowns may simply be fueled by hunger. “They may not realize they’re hungry or thirsty,” she says.

Beresin suggests offering a snack that’s “soothing and calming,” even if it’s an indulgence like milk and cookies or some ice cream — “something that’s nice to eat and is a sign of comfort and gives them some energy,” he says.

Reframe the behavior

“Parents need to take care of themselves first,” says Beresin. “That means reframing what seems like bad behavior as a good sign,” reminding yourself that they trust you to “actually reveal their true selves.” Along with reframing your child’s behavior, try not to take the meltdowns personally, suggests Beresin. “It’s not your fault,” he says. “It’s not their fault.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, with many parents finding themselves triggered by their child’s meltdown. “We have our own emotional reaction,” says Beresin. “We have to learn to control our own emotions as parents.” He says that parents can become “more empathetic when they're in emotional control,” and “anything we can do to keep ourselves calm and more in control whether it’s meditation, yoga, listening to music or taking a time out” can help us calmly be there for our children.

Make sure they’re getting enough sleep

A lack of sleep can also bring on meltdowns since when you’re tired — whether you're a child or an adult — it can become more challenging to manage your mood. “Anyone is going to be irritable if they’re not sleeping well,” O’Halloran says. She recommends parents ask themselves: How many hours are they sleeping? Are they sleeping through the night?

If your child isn’t getting enough sleep at night, Beresin recommends moving up bedtime a bit early and doing a calming activity before bed, such as reading for 15 minutes.

Be present

When you pick up your child from school or when they come home, make sure you're really present with them, suggests O’Halloran. “Make eye contact with them and give them a big hug and really connect with them and say, ‘I’m so happy to see you,” she says.

Spending time connecting with your child “doesn't take as much time as you think,” says O’Halloran. “A lot of parents think, ‘I don't have a lot of time.’ But when we talk about quality time it can be a minute. ‘Tell me about that Lego that you built. I love how you used all the different colors of bricks.’ That’s about bonding.”

Or it can simply be expressing that you’re glad to be around them, such as saying: “‘I’m so happy to see you’ and give them a hug,” suggests O’Halloran. “‘We’re going to have fun when I finish working.’ It can be just a few minutes — it doesn’t have to be half an hour.”

Model the behavior

Parents who role model how they handle their own challenging moments help teach their kids strategies to cope. “‘Oh I've had a long hard day. I'm really tired. I'm going to go outside and walk around the block. Does anybody want to come with me?’” suggests O’Halloran. “‘Oh that was a hard phone call, I’m going to sit on the couch and take some nice deep, slow breaths or listen to music.’”

O’Halloran says that “a lot of times parents really have to teach children how to calm themselves.” That includes “labeling the emotion your child is having” and explaining that “it’s okay to have that feeling but it’s never okay to punch your brother” or throw things if your child is acting out during a meltdown.

Kids need parents to guide them and “help them cope with pent up feelings and emotions,” says Beresin, adding: “We want our kids to learn these techniques so they can use them themselves, so they have their own toolbox.”

This article was originally published on March 8, 2022 and has been republished.