“Go to Bed NOW!” Winning the Bedtime Battle with Young Kids and Teens

by James Lehman, MSW
“Go to Bed NOW!” Winning the Bedtime Battle with Young Kids and Teens

As every parent knows, fights over bedtime can be one of the biggest power struggles you’ll have with your child, whether they’re five or fifteen. The truth is, many kids just don’t want to go to bed at night. For most of them, I think it’s because they’re afraid they’re going to miss something. With others, it might be because they’re frightened of the dark, or afraid to go to sleep. And for some kids, they simply want to be in control. Bedtime just becomes another arena in which kids will try to fight with you. If you’ve ruled out fear of the dark, fear of bedwetting, and fear of not waking up, that leaves us with oppositional behavioral issues—the power struggle.

The focus should be on your child learning how to manage himself through meeting his responsibilities and not on your child learning to manage you through power plays.

First of all, as in any power struggle, we don’t want to engage in a fight if we can possibly avoid it. That means that if we implement a new program, we may get a fight at first—and by the way, it might be a very serious or forceful one. My advice is that you try not to personalize it and instead, realize that this is a matter of your child meeting their responsibilities. In other words, the focus should be on your child learning how to manage himself through meeting his responsibilities and not on your child learning to manage you through power plays.

Related: How to take power struggles with your child out of your daily life.

FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN
Realize that the problem-solving skills of younger kids are less evolved; they often have problems with impulsivity and frustration control. If going to bed is frustrating for them, it’s likely that their behavior is going to escalate into an unpleasant situation. So the first rule is, don’t make bedtime unpleasant. Make no mistake, I’m not saying make it pleasant by talking sweet or bribing them. I’m saying don’t make it unpleasant by looking for an argument. Don’t make it into a self-fulfilling prophecy and expect them to fight with you because that’s what they’ve done in the past.

Have Quiet Time before Bedtime

I think as the house winds down before bedtime, there should be quiet time. Any TV or DVDs watched by your child should be screened for mellowness and simplicity. No video games or computer a half hour before bedtime. Ideally, bedtime should be a time of quiet in the house—dad shouldn’t be building a chair in the garage, mom shouldn’t be slamming around in the kitchen, and other siblings should not be screaming and yelling or laughing loudly.

Have Your Child Set Their Own Alarm Clock

When kids begin pre-school or kindergarten, they should get an alarm clock. Teach them how to set themselves at night when they start school. Part of the ritual of getting up is that we set the alarm clock at night when we go to bed. That way, you get your child to take responsibility as soon as they have some place they need to go. This is basic behavioral training, and it’s effective in getting kids into the routine of waking up in the morning. By the way, I would recommend that you get an alarm clock with a subtle ring that doesn’t rattle kids’ nerves in the morning.

Related: Bedtime battles? Take back your parental authority.

Use a Star Chart to Get Kids Focused on Good Nighttime Behavior

For younger children with behavioral issues, I recommend that parents have what is known as a star chart. You can construct this yourself by getting some magnetic stars and dots, a whiteboard and a non-erasable marker. Across the top of the chart, you make a row for every day of the week. Across the bottom, you make lines. On the top line, you write, “Gets ready for bedtime without a fight” “Does bedtime hygiene well” “Goes to his room and gets into bed without an argument.” And in some cases you might want to put, “Shuts off light in half-an-hour.”

So what happens is that if your child goes to the bathroom and follows good hygiene, he gets a star. But let’s say he doesn’t go to his room appropriately. Then he gets a dot. With this system, you have two ways of measuring rewards. It’s a very powerful method to encourage the performance of simple, functional behaviors.

Your child has two ways to get rewarded here: if they get a certain percentage of stars each day, they get a reward that night, and if it’s weekly, they get it that weekend. The reward on the weekend has to be something special with an adult. Like they go have an ice cream cone with dad, or go to a movie with both parents. The daily reward might be some extra video game time or the ability to stay up half-an-hour later. The reason we do it incrementally is that your child almost always has a chance to succeed and can almost always start over. So you won’t have him saying, “I’ve already ruined my day, why should I try?” On a start chart, kids never lose. If they don’t accomplish a certain goal, they don’t lose a star—they just don’t gain one.

Related: Download our free behavior charts!

Use Soft Lights 30 Minutes Prior to Bedtime

Leave on a soft light in the room for half-an-hour before lights out. For younger kids under eleven, reading is a good way to fall asleep. It clears their mind and is soothing. It also gives them some power of choice. “Would you like to read?” and “What would you like to read?” are all built into this idea. Now, if you give that as an option to your kids, the good news is if they don’t get up on time in the morning, that’s the first thing you can take away: It becomes the consequence for not getting up. And not only do they get a dot on their chart, they hear, “You’re going to have your lights out with no reading time until you get up on time for two days.” Be sure to add, “After two days, we’ll try it again.”

A word of advice here: always keep a light at the end of the tunnel for kids. If you make them feel powerless, it will encourage them to engage in power struggles with you.

FOR OLDER KIDS

For adolescents at bedtime—that’s kids aged 12 and up—the scenario is a little different. The problem with teens is that the issue about going to their bedroom will hardly present any problem at all. Many will already be in their bedroom talking on their cell phones and texting their friends. As many parents know, the issue is what they do in their room after bedtime.

By the way, rules around bedtime with older teens are highly dependent on whether or not they get up on time in the morning. If your child can wake up with the alarm, goes to school and is not rude or unpleasant, and he plays video games until midnight, if that doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother me.

Related: How to communicate with your child or teen so they hear what you're saying—and change their behavior.

Take the Electronics out of the Bedroom (Two Ways to Do It):

Here, we’re dealing specifically with the kids who stay up late and don’t get up in the morning, or who are nasty and mean in the morning because they’re tired, who fall asleep in school and can’t produce quality work because they’re sleepy. I have some bad news for parents of these kids: your child should not be allowed to have any electronics in their room at bedtime. You can accomplish this in two ways: you can take the game controls of the video game, their cell phone and the mouse and keyboard out of their room. Or you can simply remove all of the electronic stuff from the room.

It goes without saying that if your child is not complying, the cell phone stays with the parent. Please note what I said: not in the kitchen or in the living room, but in the parent’s hand. I think for adolescents, you never put the stuff back in their room until they’ve proven themselves. If they abuse it, they have to earn it back.

Check in on Your Kids before Lights out

I also recommend that parents check on kids at least once while the light is on before they go to sleep, as well. Of course, it’s important to knock on their door and say, “May I come in?” If your child says yes, then open the door. If they say no, then say, “OK, I’ll be back in 5 minutes.” Checking on your kids, even adolescents, lets them know that you’re concerned about what they’re doing and care about their health and safety.

Free Time before They Sleep

Success with the new bedtime program will depend on your teen’s temperament as well as your conviction that learning how to get up is an important responsibility for your child. Some parents don’t mind waking their kids up five times; others see it as a real manipulation on the part of their child to avoid getting up on time and taking responsibility. Either way, older kids are also welcome to have their lights on for an hour before bedtime, during which time they can read. Again, that’s going to help them wind down, calm down and get them ready to sleep. Some parents allow low music and others don’t. I think that each parent can go through the process of elimination with different variables and see what works best for their family.

Giving Consequences to Teens:

Adolescents are given the same consequences as younger kids: have them lose their hour of reading time if they have problems getting up in the morning. You can also use the same formula that you use with younger kids: “Do it for a few days, and we’ll talk about it.” Older kids may act out and be angry about this. But once again, consistency and perseverance on the part of the parent will really pay off.

A Powerful Tool for Parents: Ask the 4 Questions and End Power Struggles

Here’s a sample conversation you can have with your younger or older child after you’ve explained the new rules of bedtime to them:

You: “What is the new rule?”
Your child: “Lights out.”
You: “How will we know it’s working?”
Your child: “I’ll get up on time.”
You: “What will we do if it doesn’t work?”
Your child: “We’ll try again.”
You: “What will we do if it works?
Your child: “I’ll get lights back on.”

This type of dialogue, which focuses on four elements, is a good way to train kids to really measure something. The four measurements are really 4 simple questions:

1. How will we know it’s working?
2. How will we know it’s not working?
3. What will we do if it’s working?
4. What will we do if it’s not working?

Those are powerful questions, whether you ask them in regard to your child staying up later, using the car, or going to a dance. Imagine that your teen wants to change his or her bedtime to 10 p.m. and it’s currently set at 9:30. Let’s say as a parent, you’re open to the idea and willing to try it. The conversation should go like this:

“OK, here's the deal, Sam. We’ll let you change your bedtime to 10 o’clock at night. How will we know it’s working?” Hopefully your child will answer with, “I’ll get up on time.” If not, you can lead it: “You’ll get up on time. You won’t be rude with other people in the morning, and you won’t fall asleep in school.”

The next question is, “How will we know it’s not working?” And the answer: “You’re not getting up on time, you’re being unpleasant and cranky in the morning, and you’re not doing your assignments in school, because you’re sleepy.”

End the conversation with the last two “what” questions:

“What will we do if it is working? We’ll keep it going – great job.”

“What will we do if it’s not working? We’ll go back to the 9:30 bedtime for awhile until we have a chance to discuss it again.”

Those terms are the elements for any discussion around your child meeting responsibilities or doing new things. It’s a very, very powerful equation for anyone when measuring something, but it’s especially effective for a child or adolescent because it focuses them on the rules and gives you a structure to fall back on if they can’t meet their responsibilities. If your child isn’t able to keep up his or her end of the bargain and they attempt to start a fight, you can always refer them back to the four questions and the agreement you had before the new rule was put into play.

Remember, you can end power struggles by taking the focus off meaningless arguments, and putting it back where it belongs—on responsibility.


Enter your email address to receive our FREE
weekly parenting newsletter.

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

We have six children, ages 2-15, so the ideas presented sound quite good across the board!

Comment By : sejbradley

It was very helpful but my daughter is very rebel, never go to bed on time, its always 11pm 11:30 or even 12pm, i dont know how to help her i tried every profesional help, social worker, couselor etc..etc. She is 15 years old. What should ido next?

Comment By : Vanda Henry

How about letting the child go to bed on their own? Step into the bedroom, tell them you are going to bed. Inform them no matter what time they go to bed, they are still responsible for getting up for school on time in the morning. Leave it at that. They may pass out at 3 am, and they will be exhausted the next day at school! They may do that a time or two, but they will notice how tired they are- and make more of an effort to go to bed earlier. Think about it- as adults we don't have people following us around making sure we eat, making sure we get to bed early, it's all part of our own responsibility! Let the child figure this out for themselves, they aren't dumb- they will! If we stayed up late, went to work exhausted a few times, we would make sure we started to get enough sleep! Kids will also! Just remind them when they are tired, it is because they chose to go to bed late, leave it at that! It is not your responsibility when they are over 8 or 9 years old to hold their hand about this. When they arrive at school the next day exhausted, let the teacher dole out any consequences for their irritability, and make sure the child does them! Inform the teacher a day or so ahead of time that you will be allowing the child to take control of their own bedtime responsibilites, and the teacher will be sure to be aware and ready...this is just part of life. Sometimes they have to learn on their own the consequences of the behavior they choose, instead of them being mad at you for trying to prevent them from learing on their own!!!

Comment By : AMS

How about letting the child go to bed on their own? Step into the bedroom, tell them you are going to bed. Inform them no matter what time they go to bed, they are still responsible for getting up for school on time in the morning. Leave it at that. They may pass out at 3 am, and they will be exhausted the next day at school! They may do that a time or two, but they will notice how tired they are- and make more of an effort to go to bed earlier. Think about it- as adults we don't have people following us around making sure we eat, making sure we get to bed early, it's all part of our own responsibility! Let the child figure this out for themselves, they aren't dumb- they will! If we stayed up late, went to work exhausted a few times, we would make sure we started to get enough sleep! Kids will also! Just remind them when they are tired, it is because they chose to go to bed late, leave it at that! It is not your responsibility when they are over 8 or 9 years old to hold their hand about this. When they arrive at school the next day exhausted, let the teacher dole out any consequences for their irritability, and make sure the child does them! Inform the teacher a day or so ahead of time that you will be allowing the child to take control of their own bedtime responsibilites, and the teacher will be sure to be aware and ready...this is just part of life. Sometimes they have to learn on their own the consequences of the behavior they choose, instead of them being mad at you for trying to prevent them from learing on their own!!!

Comment By : ams

I have a 5 year old that cannot settle down at night to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. We have tried everything - reward charts, threats, laying with him. He just cannot get his little body to settle down - sometimes it takes an hour where he tosses and turns - he is like a live wire. His pediatrician recommended melatonin. We have been giving 1mg to him for 3 months and he is sleeping 11 hours a night. It has totally changed his daytime demeanor and allows him to calm down at night so he can finally fall asleep. Do any of the Doctors reading this have an opinion on melatonin and how long a child can utilize this? Without it, my son really struggles to wind down no matter how quiet, dark or low-key we keep it.

Comment By : Lisa

To Lisa: You may want to try a relaxation tape. I used to use that with my kids. By the time the relaxation tape is over he will be relaxed and asleep. Get one that requires them to do relaxation exercises so he is doing something while he is listening. The one I had was just for kids.

Comment By : Kiwi

I have a 13 yr old who is supposed to be in his room at 9 which is his time to relax before bed time. However it will take several attempts for him to be in his room at this time. Also by the time he is in his room he listens to his radio or shoot basketball (a nerf ball) in his room which keeps him awake longer. He is also ADHD and I don't think his medication is keeping him awake especially since the medication only works for about six hours which he takes early in the morning around 6 AM. I read what James Lehman said about removing the electronics out of the room but this would only result in a battle which eventually would become physical because he is relentess about getting his way. He would hold on to the basketball or radio and if I were to take it away he would blame it on me versus taking responsibility for his actions. Taking away privileges doesn't bother him and as a result he would become more annoying as a result. Now when he does this I do not give in to him at all but I can't figure out why he is relentess about it! Even though he stays up late and sets his alarm he usually ignores it and I have to go in and prompt him to get up which can be a real pain in and of itself. He is also REALLY grouchy in the morning and I would think that this would cause him to go to bed earlier the next night but this doesn't happen. Anyone have any suggestions? Thanks!

Comment By : Annie4637

* Dear Annie4637: I think it is really challenging to set limits for our kids. They need our help with this because they are really not good at setting limits on themselves! Be forewarned that they are not going to like it when we do it for them. As parents, we have to find a way to accept this unhappy fact. Even though your son will give you a rough time about it, I would still go forward with what James Lehman recommends because it is the answer. It’s important to reduce stimulation in the evening. Regardless of how difficult your son will make it for you for a time, I would tell him that having electronics in his room has turned out to be a bad idea for him, that his bedroom needs to be a place to relax and rest. Remind him that you’re not taking these activities away; you’re just requiring him to enjoy these activities at more appropriate times of the day when it does not increase his stimulation at bedtime and interfere with getting to sleep. If you stick to this plan, I think you'll see some improvement in your son's bedtime habits. Good luck, Annie!

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have really learned alot from this article and it has helped me a great deal. Although tonight is the first time I have actually used it it is also the frist night in months that I haven't had to have screaming yelling and arguments for hours trying to get my three year old into bed at night.

Comment By : christy smith

To Lisa, What your pediatrician didn't tell you is that Melatonin is normally produced by the pituitary gland. Chronic supplementation will tell the brain that it no longer needs to produce it and thus will create a need for your body to be constantly artificially supplied. Taking Melatonin is a TEMPORARY solution and should never be used over a long period of time, ESPECIALLY in children. I myself take it for a few months and then go off of it...to allow my body a chance to recover and keep up natural production. For sleep tips, you may also go to this website...some of the best sleeping tips around...http://www.mercola.com/article/sleep.htm. Try 5HTP from a health food store or ask your doctor about L-Tryptophan (much safer than Melatonin even though it requires a prescription...it's just an amino acid), or Magnesium...which needs to be monitored by your doctor. Hope this helps! These are excellent and proven sleep enhancers! Good luck!

Comment By : Christina

My 8 year old is pretty good about getting up in the morning and good about going to bed as long as I lie down with her until she is either asleep or almost asleep. She gets upset if I leave too early. Is it OK to lie down with her for 15 - 20 minutes? If not, how do I explain to her that she needs to put herself to sleep?

Comment By : Lisa

Our 5 year old has problems at bedtime, and right now if she gets out of bed or throws fits then the next night her bedtime is eariler the next night. Then after a few days of this working she can go back to a normal bed time. This works most of the time. But the mornings are HORRIBLE, we have 3 girls to get ready. The baby and 8 yr old are nothing, but the 5 yr old. wont get up, throws fits, wont get dressed, wont get on socks...ect. My husband usually deals with her because I take the 8 yr and baby to school at 720 and she does not have to go to school later, so he has more time to deal with her. It makes a really bad start to our day. Please help!!!!

Comment By : brandy

* Dear ‘brandy’: We often get this question on the Support Line regarding the best consequences for getting out of bed. Many parents give consequences in the way you have suggested—that if there are problems with going to bed on time one night, then it’s an earlier bedtime the next night. This can work with teens that can go to their room earlier and read as a consequence for example, but it’s not a good idea to have a really young child serve a consequence at bedtime and ask them to fall asleep at the same time. It’s too upsetting for them to fall asleep under those conditions. Besides, a bedtime routine is the best way to handle sleeping issues with young children. That means that bedtime is consistent and the activities before bedtime are soothing and all designed to help the child transition from a busy day to a good night’s sleep. This is the time for lullabies and stories and good connections between parent and child. Use other times of day for corrections and discipline. Frequently changes in sleep patterns occur when there is a change in a developmental stage of the child. Sleep issues also occur if the child experiences a lot of anxiety or insecurity during the day. Make sure that your pediatrician is aware of sleep problems so they can rule out any physical causes. In addition to developing soothing bedtime routines, reassure your daughter that you have confidence in her that she can soothe herself to sleep. You will likely need to set gentle limits on her at night time, such as, “I think you’re going to be fine. You already had a glass of water. It’s time to sleep now.” If she gets out of bed, you will help her return. Use as little stimulation as possible so that she is not ‘energized’ in that moment. James Lehman uses the phrase ‘halt over-stimulation’. This means you’re going to remain as calm as you can to not get her upset and you’re going to talk to her as little as possible as you gently guide her back to her room. Assure her that she can do this on her own. Often times getting the right amount of sleep will help the daytimes run more smoothly because your child will be rested and have greater abilities to think and manage her emotions successfully. This is a great question and hopefully we have given you some ideas on how to approach sleep problems. But please, consult with your pediatrician and also feel free to call us on the Support Line for more assistance in your particular situation.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article really provided some good tips for younger children. We've been having battles with our 4 year old and I was considering a reward chart, but the one laid out seems even better. Can't wait to try it!

Comment By : Jenny M

I was just thinking in response to "how about letting the child go to bed on their own?" by ams. I am an adult, I stay up late almost everynight, I am exhausted every day. I tell myself I will go to bed earlier, but the habit of staying up late is so strong that I have not been able to break it myself. I watch my teenage nieces and nephews doing a similar behavior. They love staying up late, they don't care that they are tired and performing at a lower level during the day. They are not wanting or willing to change their behavior. Myself am wanting to but the habit is so strongly ingrained in me from years of doing it. Isn't that what will most likely come of teenagers left to go to bed when they want?

Comment By : Jen

Teens should be allowed to crash and burn themselves. There are other areas where they need your help, and going to bed isn't one of them. If they crash and burn, they'll learn from it. There's being a caring parent then there's being a controlling one. There is a point in time when you need to let your kids/teens figure things out on their own. If you hold their hand till they move out, are they even going to be able to function then? It may do more harm than good.

Comment By : Ryan

We have a 3 1/2 old who we battle with bedtime every night, I know she,s tired she just doesn,t shut down we have done the reward system,taking away stuff, rocking, stickers, sitting outside the door nothing seems to stick, we have two good dys then back to battles any advice?

Comment By : tresa

* To“tresa”:Thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. Bedtime routine can be one of the more challenging parts of the day. It is so hard dealing with a toddler who doesn’t want to go to bed. It can be beneficial to have a structure in place as James outlines in the article. Also, checking in with your child’s pediatrician can be very useful with children this age. Your son’s doctor can help you to understand your child’s needs and determine what techniques are most appropriate for him. Something to keep in mind is that for the most part, the techniques on our website are designed for children who are 5 and older. There are some techniques that might not be appropriate for a child this young. For that reason, it’s important to coordinate your approach with your son’s pediatrician. We wish you luck. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

How about a 5 year old who is deaf? And what causes him to not settle down? Jerking legs, etc.

Comment By : Falcon

* To “Falcon”: Thank you for asking a great question. It can be difficult to know what may be causing a child to have difficulty settling down for bed. Sometimes, kids need a transition to bed time, a set routine that helps them to transition from awake time to sleep time. It may be helpful to establish some structure around bedtime, similar to what James Lehman suggests in his article. You might also consider making an appointment with his pediatrician to rule out any underlying physiological issues that may be going on as well. His doctor would be able to determine if there is any underlying cause to the jerking leg movements you are seeing. We hope this has been helpful and wish you and your family the best. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My 8 1/2 yr old daughter has fought us every night for months. Saying she's scared, but not giving us reasons or things she's scared of. Were sure that it is only a power struggle thing. She will fight tooth and nail to not go to bed.. she often sneaks into her younger sisters bed. We are at our wits end.. we have tried rewards, punishment, nightlights leaving the hall light on.....everything. we take turns laying with her for 5-10 min.every night. But as soon as we are back downstairs. Its the same thing. Fight argue screaming match. I'm not comfortable letting her choose her own bedtime. Or in sleep aids or medicating her. We just want some sanity at 8:30-9:00 every night. I've read many of the comments on this and have tried most. Any suggestions?

Comment By : concerned dad

* To “concerned dad”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story with us. Bedtime is one of the more challenging times of day for many parents. It’s going to be important to think about what you can and can’t control in this situation. You may not be able to make your daughter go to bed but you can control how you respond to her and how you hold her accountable for her choices. As much as possible you want to try to step away from the power struggle that seems to be going on by ignoring the behavior whenever possible. We do recommend using a star chart, as James discusses in the article. This helps to keep the focus on the behavior you want her to have instead of giving undue attention to the unwanted behavior. Consistency is going to play a crucial part. Once you have established an incentive plan it will be important to implement it every day. It can also be helpful to have a structure around bedtime and follow that routine consistently. Here are a couple other articles you might find helpful: Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively and Power Struggles Part I: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?. You might also consider having her seen by her pediatrician or primary care physician. While this behavior may be mostly attention seeking, there could be an underlying issue, such as nightmares or such, that is affecting her going to bed at night. Her doctor may be able to give you some additional tips for addressing the behavior you are seeing. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this challenging behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Rate this article by clicking the stars below.

Rating: 2.8/5 (148 votes cast)

Related keywords:

bedtime, power struggles, go to bed, nighttime

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

We value your opinions and encourage you to add your comments to this discussion. We ask that you refrain from discussing topics of a political or religious nature. Unfortunately, it's not possible for us to respond to every question posted on our website.
If you like "“Go to Bed NOW!” Winning the Bedtime Battle with Young Kids and Teens", you might like these related articles: