Q: My son is 4 years old and we have continual battles about going to bed. We have tried everything! Do you have any tips for making this routine easier? – Tiffany, Phoenix
A: Bedtime battles are a continual struggle for many families. As children gain their independence, they definitely want to exercise this newfound freedom. There are several ways of making this schedule fun and (mostly) hassle-free.
Establish a visual schedule with times. Even though young children are not able to “tell time,” they respect the clock because they learn that there are times for everything: breakfast, lunch, snack at school, circle time, etc. You are using an outside authority—the clock—to dictate the schedule. This takes a lot of the battle of the wills off the table.
So, for example, “brush teeth” is on the schedule; snap a picture of your child brushing their teeth to put next to the words or have them draw a picture of a toothbrush—then put a time. Have at least three items (brush teeth, put on pajamas, read story), then “lights out.” If/when the child gets out of bed, you can point to the schedule and state, “the schedule shows bedtime at 8 p.m.” Then, remind them that they can, “Lie in their bed quietly and sleep or lie in their bed quietly.” It’s the same thing, but the child gets to exercise a choice, thus honoring their growing need to exercise control over their lives.
Sometimes kids have a hard time going to bed because they have not had enough of “touch-point” time with mom or dad that day. Sometimes just a quality 10 minutes of snuggle/play time when you are fully present can make the separation at bedtime go smoother.
Kids need warnings as well to wind down. Letting them know that the bedtime schedule will begin in 10 minutes gives them a chance to change gears and prepare for the inevitable. You can ask them if they would like to set the timer for 10 minutes and choose what they would like to do before the time ends.
Lastly, adopt a playful attitude. I know this can be very difficult at the end of the day when everyone is tired, but sometimes being silly and playful can lighten the mood. Boundaries are important. Children need to know where they can wiggle around and where there are healthy boundaries to make them feel safe.
If a child has continual issues with going to bed and/or nightmares, further investigation into an underlying issue might need to take place. Sometimes the issue is a simple one such as being afraid of the dark and needing a nightlight. But sometimes there are some deeper issues, like bullying at school, unresolved conflicts, or sadness over a loss, that need to be processed. If the issue of going to bed is resistant to a schedule and firm and loving boundaries, seeking additional help would be advisable.
Lisa Smith, Ph.D has authored 3 books, speaks around the country about Parenting On Purpose and is available for individual consultation. You can check out her website a monsterproofyourchild.com or email her at Lisa@monsterproofyourchild.com.