Why is it so difficult for some children to go to bed…and stay there? We are exhausted at the end of the day, so they must be too, right? Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Bedtime is a transition, and transitions, as you know, can be quite challenging for young children. Bedtime means that children have to stop playing (a terrible thought), prepare themselves to separate from their parents, lie in a somewhat dark room, and try to fall asleep. No wonder bedtime is often fraught with tantrums, oppositional behavior, and an endless supply of delay tactics. How can we support our children through this end-of-day transition in a way that doesn’t leave us frustrated, angry, or disappointed that we ended the day with a huge battle?
First, it may be helpful to think about how many transitions are inherent in your bedtime routine. Let’s look at a typical evening. You finish dinner and the child may have some time to play. After play comes a bath. After bath, we put on pajamas. After pajamas, we brush our teeth. Then, we pick out stories. Once we read stories, the lights are turned off. We may sing a goodnight song. Then, we leave the room. That’s eight distinct transitions! And it repeats every night. No wonder both child and parent are exhausted by the time the child gets into bed. And that doesn’t include the times a child gets up after you leave the room!
One of the best ways to strategize navigating these evening transitions is to find ways to help your child feel “ownership” over the bedtime routine. What does this mean? The more control a child feels during the bedtime transitions, the more likely she is to complete each step without a battle. One effective strategy is to “externalize the parent.” Here’s an example:
Visualize and create a bedtime plan. One family I worked with came up with a fabulous train track, where each “step” is a “station.” (See photo—this was aimed at morning struggles.) The child, who was fascinated with trains, could move his train from station to station as he completed each part of the routine. In this way, the “external parent” (the “chug chart”) informs the child which step (or “station”) comes next. That way, it’s not the parent telling the child what to do next; instead, the chart lays out the order of the routine. The best part is that the parent can ask the child what’s next, rather than tell them what to do.
And what about delay tactics? “I have to go potty,” always works like a charm. “One more hug or kiss,” is successful because what parent can refuse that request? Asking for a drink of water, inventing or obsessing about a new fear (of the dark, of monsters, of ghosts, etc.), or begging for “one more story,” are also popular delay tactics. For these tactics, I often advise parents to pull out the “Golden Ticket,” used for “one extra thing” at bedtime. This is just a piece of gold construction paper, decorated as you see fit, that you can hand to your child at bedtime each night. Again, the power is in their hands! Your child can decide which “extra thing” they want to choose each night (limit: 1). This shows your child that you are willing to give them that one extra request, while also limiting your generosity so your 30-minute bedtime doesn’t become a 3-hour torture session.
Let me know how it goes!
Heidi Emberling, MA