When your head hits the pillow at night, do you quietly drift off to sleep with no problem? If you do, you are the envy of many of us who have quite another experience which is to contend with the deluge of thoughts and emotions that swirl around and keep us awake for some time. The day's stresses, unresolved problems, plans for the next day, or even mentally working over a budget can seem to press against us just at that time when we need to relax and restore ourselves before the next day is upon us. Does it come as any surprise that some children find themselves in a similar situation when bedtime comes? Only for kids it is a different experience because they can't begin to think through their struggles. Rather they get an emotional discomfort, which they attempt to discharge through acting out. They get out of bed, ask for a drink of water, go to the bathroom, complain that they had to stop playing too soon, say they aren't sleepy yet, and if all this fails, cry or throw a tantrum until they successfully get someone's attention. They simply are not ready to pack it in. For some, this turns into a nightly bedtime struggle that plagues tired and overworked parents, and keeps everyone from getting the rest they need. So how can parents successfully turn this around and make it a peaceful end to the day that leaves everyone satisfied and happy?
We have found that one of the most effective strategies for dealing with bedtime struggles is to establish a regular routine that begins around 45 minutes before you plan to leave your child's room for the last time of the night. The purpose of the routine is to begin a winding down process, and to foster a sense of connection and closeness that reestablishes the bond between you and your child that may have been tested by the stresses of the day. Many children struggle at bedtime because they have lost that connection over the day (or even over the week), and leaving the parents at bedtime exacerbates that feeling of separation. We suggest the following routine to help deal directly with this problem.
Approximately 45 minutes prior to the appointed time, announce bedtime will be at such and such a time (this should be the same time each night with the exception of weekends). Point to the hands on a clock to demonstrate. If your child is older and can tell time, that works even better. Let them use their own clock to monitor the time. During the next fifteen minutes finish all television programs, play, or other activities, and put toys away. Begin the process for preparing for bed such as changing into pajamas, brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, etc. Move to the child's bedroom and proceed with your special ritual. This may be telling or reading a story, or simply talking about the day. Jane Nelson (Positive Parenting) suggests that you ask your child to describe the happiest thing that happened to them that day, and then the saddest thing. (You can also word this as the "best" and "worst.") This gives you a chance to find out what's on your child's mind, and gives her a chance to discharge any negative emotions that are bothering her. It also strengthens the bond between you. When finished, you might allow your child to spend another ten to fifteen minutes looking at a book before drifting off to sleep. You can call this her "quiet time." Make it clear that she is not to get up again, and you will not come back to her room again for any reason other than to put her back in bed. If she comes out, pick her up and put her back in bed. Do this as many times as is necessary until she stays there. Most kids will not need to go through this many times before they realize they are in bed for the night. Refrain from becoming angry or frustrated yourself, and act firmly and neutrally.
You may find that at first you have a good deal of difficulty in trying to establish your routine. Remember that children sometimes do not make transitions easily, and this would be particularly true for children who have previously been successful in extending their bedtime through acting out behaviors. The idea is to stick to the routine until your child accepts it, and in fact begins to look forward to it. If you find, however, that you continue to have bedtime struggles after trying this for several weeks or so, then you need consider whether or not your child has enough time with you outside of bedtime. As implied above, children who have too little positive contact with parents are often those that have chronic bedtime struggles. They are simply letting you know that they need more attention from you. Try extending your playtime during other parts of the day, and on the weekends. Not only will bedtime become a more pleasant experience, but you may find that your child is easier to handle all the way around. Sweet dreams!