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  • Hannah Rosalie

Restraint collapse and how to cope...

When my son attended preschool, I was new to parenting. Being away from immediate family, it often felt like I was feeling my way in the dark.

Living in a small village I got to know my neighbours well and on my walk home from preschool, one such neighbour witnessed my son turn from compliant toddler to a hot, sweaty mess of tears in a short minute.

I remember her sympathetic eyes and her proudly telling me (as a mother of four) that she remembered that hour after school so well.

I felt embarrassed, then irritated, then impatient, then disappointed. I looked forward to picking my little boy up, I missed him, I wanted to know all about his day and most of all I wanted to be with the happy, chatty, funny little boy that I'd dropped off at nursery in the morning.

This was new, but I learnt soon after that this emotional dysregulation after nursery and school is very common in children of all ages.

After-school restraint collapse is a term coined by Andrea Loewen Nair.

It takes a lot of energy, emotional regulation, and physical restraint to behave in the expected way all day whilst at preschool, particularly with children who like to please and are generally socially well adjusted.

Even though they've had a great day, a day spent at nursery following requests, navigating relationships, sharing, taking turns and communicating their needs is emotionally exhausting.

When it's time to go home, they are really happy to see you, but there is also a whole load more feelings to come.

They're physically tired and usually hungry and suddenly, being in their safe space, surrounded by unconditional love, it all comes flooding out. Perhaps sparked by something as small as their banana being cut the wrong way!

The emotional outbursts are them ‘letting it out’. The ‘bad behaviour’ and inability to cope with aspects of normal life that parents see is what is termed “restraint collapse”.

What restraint collapse can look like:

  • Tantrums or meltdowns

  • Crying at 'small things'

  • Fighting and arguments between siblings

  • Lack of impulse control or risky behaviour (e.g. near roads)

  • Defiant, demand avoidant or wilful behaviour

  • Overwhelm or refusal in response to 'simple requests'

Restraint collapse can look like a lot of things. It can look like anger, defiance, sadness, or picking fights. It often results in children refusing, or claiming they ‘can’t’ do things that are usually simple for them. 

If a child is exhibiting restraint collapse around you then it means that you are their safe space. They feel able to express their feelings around you. This is a good thing.  You may be the only person/people who they feel safe to let these feelings out around. 

Sometimes this safe place will extend to non resident parents, and grandparents to some extent, and sometimes it won’t. 

Either way, the very best thing you can do it remain calm, loving and kind. Give them space and time to be themselves. Reduce demands and keep requests and sibling interaction to minimum, feed them and perhaps consider moving bedtime a bit earlier.

This is not the time for firm boundaries, discipline or time outs. It's nothing you're doing wrong as a parent, there's nothing wrong with nursery, it's just a normal response as your child learns to regulate their emotions. And this is quite possibly the most important life lesson of all!


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