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What is restraint collapse?

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Ever have a long day at work or at home with the kiddos and your partner walks in and you just want to vent and/or cry? You kept it together for 8-10 hours and now your “person” is here and you want to let loose? That is restraint collapse.

What is restraint collapse in kids?

Kids commonly do this when they start group childcare or school (especially for the first time). They are on their “best” behavior in a group setting—listening, following directions from a new person, and trying to do all the things—and when they see you they just want to cry. Some children may hit, yell, or scream. They also may have restraint collapse because of the overstimulation of the day. Listening to their teacher and the noises of the day can make some children feel more vulnerable and overstimulated and they have a meltdown when they come home–to their safe space.

Is restraint collapse more common in some kids vs. others?

Restraint collapse can be more common in children who are generally more sensitive and are bigger feelers. We all have different temperaments. This can last a couple days to a few months, but it should improve. Restraint collapse is more than a tantrum. A tantrum is usually defined as a child crying, whining, or pleading to get something they want or that was taken away. Restraint collapse is essentially a meltdown or a moment of dysregulation. I like to call it emotional discharge. They’re letting out all those feelings they didn’t feel comfortable letting out during the day with new people. 

Tips to reduce the chance of restraint collapse 

  • Normalize if this happens and normalize if it doesn’t. Every kid is different. It can be more likely in children going to full-day school after being at home with their caregiver. But, not every child experiences this. 
  • Talk about what they’re looking forward to in their routine AFTER childcare or school. Maybe it’s something special for dinner, or maybe it’s time with you, or maybe it’s outdoor play. Whatever it is they’re excited about, try to follow through with it. Routine and expectation can help them. When children feel their routine is disrupted, they are more likely to meltdown. 
  • Try to give more connection in the morning even if it’s just for 5 minutes. We are often in a rush to get our kid(s) on their way. Slow down and walk with them. Notice the flowers or trees. This may mean leaving a bit earlier but it can help to reduce the chance of collapse later in the day from missing you. 
  • For children prone to restraint collapse, try not to over-schedule their evenings while they are still adjusting to school. For example, jumping them from school to piano or to soccer practice can’t give them time to decompress before going to more structured activities again. 
  • If your child is prone, send a picture of you or the family to school so it brings them some familiarity. A security item is also okay with the permission of the school. 

When it’s times to pick them up:

  • Try to give them physical affection or a hug when you pick them up to show the physical connection and “I see you moment.” Ideally, it’s best to do this as soon as you see them whether this is at school/childcare or at home before they meltdown.
  • Try to provide 1:1 on time in evening: I know in a busy evening it can be hard, but I can tell you from personal experience that getting down to their level for 5-10 minutes can mean they adjust to the next activity more smoothly. 
  • If your evening schedule and weather allows, try to allow nature play: Go for a walk, a bike ride, a scooter ride, to the park, or do an early bath-time. Water and nature have a way of relaxing our body and regulating our big emotions. 

What to do during a meltdown:

  • Some kids will experience such extreme restraint collapse where they will throw or push you away. If you can’t give them a hug, just sit with them in the same room and say phrases like “You had a very long day” and “I see you trying to adjust” and “I am here for you.” And then. Be quiet. HOLD SPACE. Holding space means we just give them their moment and don’t leave the room. It shows them that you’re not scared or irritated by their big feelings and are allowing them to feel. If they get physical or violent, hold the boundaries there to protect you and others. 
  • Try to avoid screens during a meltdown. Their brains are currently dysregulated and I don’t ever recommend using a device during periods of dysregulation as this can make them more upset when the screen turns off. Once they calm down, screen-time is perfectly reasonable if it’s what you and the family do every evening. 

What to do after

  • Once they calm down, speak about what happened during the bedtime routine. This is more helpful for kids who are more verbal, but remember verbalizing also helps us calm ourselves, too, after big feelings.  
  • Always let your child know that you love them for whatever feelings they have. Restraint collapse can be overwhelming for you too and sometimes I know adults may get frustrated and it’s okay to admit this. But, always remind them that you love them for all of their emotions. 
  • If this happens often, see the schedule at childcare or school. For younger toddlers, we’d want to see when their nap was (maybe they didn’t nap and are tired in the evening, so you may want to put them to bed 30 min or 60 min early). If they didn’t eat an afternoon snack, it may be beneficial to have one on hand if dinner will be a while. 

Check out the PedsDocTalk Toddler Courses! The Toddlers & Tantrums covers toddler development and behaviors, it includes videos, practical printables, and scripts. PLUS The Complete Roadmap to Toddler Development offers language development and playtime strategies.

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Dr. Mona Admin

Hi there!

I’m a Board Certified Pediatrician, IBCLC, and a mom of two.

I know the ups and downs of becoming a mom and raising kids.

I help moms ditch the worry and second-guessing so you can find more joy in motherhood.


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