Back to School Burnout Blues 

By Libby Bodell, Patient Care Coordinator, WHC

As a mother of four boys, I’ve seen and experienced a lot over the last twenty-four years. One of the things I experienced every single year, but only found the name for in the last year, was “After-School Restraint Collapse”. This is a phenomenon experienced by many, if not most, children and is exactly what it sounds like: After using their capacity for self-regulation and meeting social expectations all day long wears them out, a child loses their tenuous grip on that control and often has a meltdown as soon as they get in the car or walk through the door at home. As we gear up for another school year to begin, here are some helpful things for parents to know.  

  1. This behavior is totally normal. 

Last year a friend of mine posted something to Facebook regarding back-to-school exhaustion and not looking forward to the onslaught of meltdowns and limp noodle kiddos passing out in the most unexpected places (like the middle of the grocery store, or face down on the supper table). So many parents responded with photos of their littles passed out in their car seats, or upside down on the couch with their face on the floor, and inside shopping carts at the store. And then it hit me; my kids have done that every single year when school starts back up. Even teenagers can experience this, although it does get better as they age when they become more capable of regulating their emotions. Children go from a less regulated schedule with time to spare and freedom to have more control over their environment in the summer months, to the rigid schedules of school bells, earlier bedtimes, and a host of behavioral expectations set by both their parents, and their teachers. These changes can be especially difficult for neurodivergent children who experience stress more strongly than others. However, even the most laid back, easy-going kids can experience after-school restraint collapse. Especially at the beginning of the school year.  

  1. Meltdowns are not tantrums.  

When your child is misbehaving, it can often be frustrating for parents. In this case, it is important to recognize the difference between boundary pushing tantrums and true emotional fatigue. Dr. Kristyn Sommer, PhD in Early Cognitive Development states that these two events live on opposite sides of the spectrum from each other. Tantrums are typically a child’s reaction to something happening that they feel was out of their control; something should have gone their way, or they feel they had no control over a certain choice and are pushing back: Screaming “I wanted peanut butter and jelly!!!” and throwing themselves on the floor in a fit of rage because you handed them ham and cheese. Meltdowns are a release of stored emotion, with or without a clearly identifiable trigger; the straw that broke the camel’s back (1). And is likely associated with overwhelming feelings. There can even be physiological responses to a meltdown, these can include, shaking, dizziness and upset stomach (2). In these moments, parents may feel a loss of control as well, not knowing how to help your child. Feeling stressed because your precious angel is completely losing it in the middle of the Target check-out line while you hold 27 items and a flailing kid in your arms is never fun for anyone. During these stressful moments, try to remember to give yourself some grace. Often, misbehavior means an unmet need: to play, to connect or have physical affection, to sleep, to eat. So, take time for a few deep breaths. 

  1.   Ease Into Transitions.  

The time a family has between the end of the school day and bedtime is relatively short. We try to squeeze an awful lot into those few hours in the evening, between athletics or other extra-curriculars, homework, dinner, and quality family time, there’s a lot happening at the end of the day. We tend to race between one activity and the next, with very rapid transitions. This can be hard on everyone involved. Some children do very well with changing gears, while others need a little advanced warning. Planning ahead can ease the strain of transition for everyone involved. Buy snacks for each day the previous weekend, write everyone’s activities on a white board or other calendar in a visible area of the home, and meal prep the weekend before can help parents still get a healthy dinner on the table despite racing between activities and dealing with burned out kiddos. Talk about the events of the day while getting ready for school, or even the night before, and giving advanced notice (even if it’s a 15-minute warning), before heading to an activity or starting chores or homework can make a big difference. Some other helpful tips include, not asking your child how their day was right away; give them time to process and decompress. Welcome them home with a smile and a hug, or high five, and a snack. Take some time to breathe deeply, even if it’s right in front of your child, as this can emulate healthy ways of coping with stress. 

  1. Schedule Downtime to Balance Your Busy Life 

When a child already feels overwhelmed, rushing from one activity or event to the next can result in added stress. Even if your child enjoys their extra-curricular activities, they still need downtime. Keeping ourselves busy all day every day can lead to burn out, for both parent and child. Kim John Payne, M. Ed. states that even the busiest and most social kids need quiet time to relax and regroup. Without it, constant activity can lead to a “cumulative stress reaction”. He  describes this as a constant drip, drip, drip of too much stimulation that children are unable to process or turn off (3). When children are unable to control the gush of information and expectations placed upon them, they look for ways to regain some control of their world. So, give them some control in advance, allow them to chose which social activities they want to engage in, and let them know that it is ok if they feel the need to do “nothing” for a little while. Doing nothing doesn’t mean they have to sit in contemplative thought by themselves, it could be riding their bike, going for a walk, drawing, or coloring, watching a movie as a family, or playing with a friend. A child’s day is highly structured while they are at school, moving from one class or event to the next, often without a true break in between to be able to release some of their pent-up energy (especially for our middle and high schoolers who no longer have recess). When children don’t have enough play time, their stress levels go up, which can lead to both emotional and physical symptoms.  

  1. Stay Connected, Even When You’re Away From Each Other.  

When my boys were little, we read “The Kissing Hand” several nights a week, it was one of their favorite bedtime stories. When they were old enough to head off to school, I would kiss their little palms, “Just like in the book Mom!” I would let them know that even though they couldn’t see me, I would be with them all day long. One of my boys even made me kiss both palms, just in case he washed his kiss off. I have seen other parents gift their children with a small token to keep with them while at school as well, like a worry stone, or a picture, even a special key chain if your child is older. This helps ease separation anxiety, even for our older children. Separation anxiety doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It means your child is connected to you, loves you, and feels close to you. While toddlers may cling to your legs as you drop them off, older children show their anxiety at the prospect of being separated in different ways because they have matured as they got older. Regardless of what stage your child is at, it is healthy for them to miss you when you’re apart. For my third son, he needed an extra hug when he got home in the afternoons, and he would hold my hand during dinner or while watching a movie, because he missed me so much throughout the day; he was 17 before he stopped doing this every single day. And that’s ok. According to Sarah R. Moore, a Certified Master Parenting Trainer and author, specializing in trauma recovery and interpersonal neurobiology, healthy separation anxiety should, to some degree, last forever (how many of us adults call our parents regularly because we miss them (4). These feelings a child has of missing you mean they care.  

  1. Give Yourself Some Grace 

The fact that your little one has a meltdown in your presence and not during school is a good sign. It means they trust you to help them through what’s bothering them; you are their safe place. Remember that we’re all human; even adults can feel overwhelmed by the events of the day and lash out sometimes, so don’t take it personally. Parenting is hard folks, so try not to feel responsible for your child’s after-school restraint collapse. Master Parenting Trainer and author, Sarah R. Moore suggests reminding yourself that you are not the cause, you’re the person to whom they can express themselves. You are their source of security and safety; when you are calm and are there for them, they will begin to feel more secure (5).  

Going back to school each fall can be both exciting, and overwhelming, for both parents and children. But knowing that you are not the only one who experiences stress during this time of year, can help ease some of the guilt and anxiety we all feel as parents on occasion.

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