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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About James Lehman, MSW
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.