by Becky Udman
TJP Parenting Columnist
Here’s this week’s question:
We have two children, ages four and six. They are adorable, sweet, intelligent little girls. Ever since they were very young, bedtime has been a major struggle. We’ve tried sticker charts on some nights, offering them rewards to stay in bed, and just being firm on other nights. Yet it is always a scene before they stay in their rooms and settle down. This is a major source of tension, as they are not getting enough sleep, and we hate ending what, for the most part, is a positive day on such a negative note. We’re worried that this problem has been going on for so long that we might not be able to turn it around. Any ideas?
R & S, Dallas
A: Dear R & S,
Bedtime is often not on the “Top Ten List” of favorite parental activities.
As in all areas of conflict, the first thing that needs to happen is to take away the power struggle.
All of us (adults and children alike) make decisions based on how the outcome affects the quality of our lives. If your children are taking control of bedtime by showing you that they aren’t going to sleep, and you respond by getting angry and frustrated, and the next day, life continues normally, then that isn’t going to cause them to decide to behave differently.
Establishing a positive and consistent bedtime routine means you must be willing to put up with a few nights of the girls’ negative behavior. You must stay calm and require them to live with the outcome of their decisions, giving them positive acknowledgements along the way.
The first step is that you must take control of the time leading up to bedtime. You do this by giving away control through offering them choices. For example, ask them such things as: “Would you like to take your shower now, or do you need ten more minutes?” “Would you like to read with your light on for a few minutes, or should I turn it off now?” “Do you want me to read one or two books to you tonight?”
This takes away the barking orders/drill sergeant type of bedtime atmosphere.
When it’s time to say goodnight, you preface your goodnight with, “I’m glad you had extra time before your shower, and I loved reading those books tonight. Now it’s time for you to stay in your bed.”
In general, the best formula to maintain positive feelings in the home while, at the same time, help children make good decisions is a combination of empathy and consequences. This requires as little talking and discussion as possible. Save the talking for times when things are going well. When you’re involved in a conflict with a child, access talking usually leads to anger, rather than empathy.
Therefore, when your children won’t go to bed, don’t threaten or bribe. Instead, act and speak in an empathetic way, saying something like, “I’m so sorry you’re having a hard time listening and are not staying in your bed.”
This is ALL you should say. Do not slip and make threats such as, “If you come out again, you will not go to the party on Sunday!” or, “If I see you out of your room again, you’re going to be in big trouble!”
Instead, just repeat the empathic one line. Eventually they will go to sleep.
If you can’t control yourself until they settle down, go read or talk on the phone in your room behind closed doors.
The next day, when you’re no longer angry, you can implement Step Two of this technique: follow through with both a consequence and more empathy.
For example: “I know you want to go to that basketball game, but last night was such a late night, with you not going to bed nicely, that I want you to stay home tonight.”
They will then likely cry and scream and say, “I’ll go to bed nicely tonight, I promise!” Then you can lock in more empathy by saying, “I am so happy you will go to bed nicely tonight. I bet tomorrow I’ll feel more comfortable letting you do things after school.”
I’m certain that if the two of you are consistent and follow through with this plan, your daughters will be sleeping on schedule, and you can all go out and celebrate together!
Mrs. Becky Udman is preschool director of Torah Day School of Dallas (TDSD), a facilitator in the Love & Logic parenting method, director of Camp Kesher, and the mother of 13 (six boys and seven girls, ages infant through 20).