Does it feel like your child saves their worst behavior for you? Are they described as “an angel” at school but the minute they get home they fly off the handle?
Do you feel like your child hates you and that is why they treat you the worst?
Unfortunately many parents feel this way, but not everything is as it seems.
At school, daycare, grandma’s house, etc. your child is often on their best behavior and practicing self control throughout the day. By the time they get home, to their “safe space”, they are exhausted and their self control has run out. They’ve been holding it together all day, and when they get home they need to let it all out and decompress, just like adults do.
However when adults decompress after a long day, we often do it with a glass of wine or some takeout. For children, who are still learning how to understand and regulate their own emotions, and who often have more intense emotions than adults, they often decompress by throwing a tantrum or physically acting out.
The term for this is “after school restraint collapse”, which was coined by parenting educator and counselor Andrea Loewen Nair.
Although this may make you feel like a bad parent because your kid only behaves badly around you, it is actually a sign that you are doing something right and your child feels safe to be vulnerable around you.
Your child knows that no matter how they behave around you, you will always love them. They know that they can fall apart and you will always be there to pick up the pieces.
In cases of divorce for example, children often have one parent who they feel safer with than the other. This parent is typically doing the majority of the parenting. The other parent who maybe doesn’t see the child as often or is not as emotionally available to them as the other parent is, doesn’t see the meltdowns and emotional overload.
In a child’s mind, they think not being as close to dad is their fault and that they can control it by being on their best behavior. The child fears pushing the already distant parent even further away, so they save the breakdowns for the parent or guardian who they know will never abandon them.
This behavior is especially normal for kids who recently started daycare or school and are still learning how to decompress after a long day. There are a few things you can do to help them learn how to unwind and therefore reduce the after school meltdowns and tantrums.
Here are some things you can do to help your child regulate their behavior and decompress after school:
1. Assess the basics
First, make sure your child’s basic needs are met. They are probably hungry and tired after school, so one simple way to help is to give them a snack or let them have a nap. Some children have pent up energy from holding it together all day and would benefit from physical activity like playing outside or going for a walk, while others may feel exhausted and need to restore their energy by listening to music, drawing, cuddling, reading, or napping.
2. Help them recognize their emotions
It is extremely important to help your child develop their Emotional Intelligence at an early age. Instead of making them feel wrong for having strong emotions, let them know that it is normal and okay, and that it is important to allow yourself to feel your emotions rather than trying to ignore or bury them.
Help them recognize which emotions they are feeling and let them have time to process and manage those emotions and let them pass. Getting frustrated at them for feeling a certain way will probably only make matters worse.
If they had a rough day, empathize with them and remind them that even adults have bad days and they are allowed to be upset. Ask them what you could do to make them feel better and dedicate your full attention to it.
3. Don’t forget to take care of yourself
While it is crucial to ensure that your child is dealing with their emotions in healthy ways, it is equally important that you take care of yourself. When your child is having a meltdown after school, remember that they feel safe to show you their emotions and they know you love them unconditionally. Try not to take it personally and know that kids are learning how to deal with their emotions and they may not have the right tools to assist them yet.
Also remember that all of us need a “safe space” to unwind after a long day, and while you are working to provide that space for your child, be sure to do it for yourself as well.
Whether it is participating in activities with your child, like going for a walk to unwind, or watching your favorite show once they go to bed, do what makes you feel relaxed and revitalized so you are in a good place to deal with the tantrums tomorrow will inevitably bring. After all, if you are in a good place mentally, you are better equipped to help your child manage their emotions and improve their mental health.