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Restraint Collapse – What It Is and How to Navigate It

Can you picture having a job that requires you to wake up early, with a boss who has strict rules and controls every aspect of your day including how you behave and even when you are allowed to eat? You would be left feeling consistently overwhelmed, discouraged, and frustrated as you try to complete the daunting list of tasks and series of meetings asked of you. You may feel stifled by this control, feeling like you are capable of so much more if only you were allowed to express yourself or have your ideas truly heard.

These exhausting pressures to continually perform and comply impact our children as well at school.  They navigate the demands of the school day which include learning new and challenging content, listening, obeying, getting along with others, sharing, transitioning between activities and classes, following expectations and rules, and adhering to the strict schedule set for them.

As humans, we all have a limited capacity of self-control, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint that we can exercise before we are maxed out. Children developmentally do not have all of the tools required to understand and regulate emotions – so this pressure building up throughout the day can lead to an explosion, also known as “restraint collapse”.

Even well-adjusted adults can struggle to verbalize why they are feeling emotionally drained and exhausted at the end of the day. Words fail us when we hit that point. For children, this may look like crying, anger, aggression, irritability, screaming, defiance, and/or other behavioral responses that communicate their desperate need for connection and emotional release. While knowing that this explosion means that children feel safe and secure enough to have meltdowns in our homes and with us, it can also be a challenge remembering this when our child is out of control and making us feel helpless.

So what can we do when we see restraint collapse happening?

  • Allow them freedom to express these big emotions in big ways- communicate that you love and will support them unconditionally. Take time to reflect, when they are calm, about what support they need and any limits necessary to ensure safety for themselves.
  • Model what it looks like to communicate openly about your own feelings, experiences, and coping strategies, helping them to understand their experiences and build necessary skills.
  • Promote a transition time between school and home, allowing children space to relax, take a “brain break”, and have unstructured time for themselves.
  • Know that this is HARD- for everyone involved. Allow yourself and your child some grace as you learn to work through this together. Explore your own emotional experiences as a parent, taking time for self-care and your own emotional releases.
  • Ultimately, just love them. Remind them that they are cared for and connected, even when you are apart. Some great books to illustrate this include The Kissing Hand and The Invisible String. Even when the day is tough, supportive connections remain.


Brianna White, LMSW, CTP, has a passion for normalizing conversations about mental health and improving access to mental health resources and services that promote wellbeing in individuals and communities. Brianna currently works as a therapist with Tanager’s school based therapy program, proudly serving Benton Community Schools.

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