“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 content: Are You Caught in a Tug-of-War with Your Child? “Don’t Test Me!”

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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.

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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.

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.

Related content:
Power Struggles: Are You at War with a Defiant Child?

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, 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.

Comments (9)
  • rpsabq
    At age 4, i finally realized that it was I who had taught my child about bedtime. Bedtime was about a fight, control and a chance for my child to express his will. This happened every night at 8:30 on the dot. My kid was ready forMore it every time. One night I said, I'm done. This kid can go to bed whenever he wants to. The fights were no longer worth it. One thing I did not budge on was school. We were going to be at preschool at 8:00 no matter what and he wanted and understood that. All I can say is it worked. Kids will go to bed when they want to and I can tell you he now goes to bed himself every night between 9 and 9:30 (not the 8:30 time I previously held as law). One of the worst things you can do in parenting is what is suggested in this article: parental rewards. You want to lock yourself and your family in a straight jacket, start a "rewards" system where most of the good things that you do for your kid is by the pressure of a rewards system not to mention what happens when you forget a "reward." There are no "rewards" in life for doing the right thing. The true reward is internal and comes with giving children the power to decide how they feel and the power to change how they feel. The reward of my child going to bed when he wants to? He's learned that if he doesn't want to be tired the next day, to go to bed at a good time and not that if he goes to be at the time I prescribe he gets to go to the movies on Friday night. My kid is now 15 and never not one time ever have we fought about going to fucking bed.
  • Mookie
    What if your teen refuses to go to bed/ lights out at the set time?
  • Leslie

    Hi, I enjoyed the article but I was left with a question I'm hoping you can answer.

    Our 7 yr old daughter will go through the bedtime routine and then "flip her power switch" to full on. She gets silly, disruptful to her younger sister's sleep, disrespectful and then just out of control with her body and choices. We have a long, quiet bedtime routine...but as soon as the lights go out it's as if she can't handle calming her mind and body long enough to fall asleep. This is the pattern since 1 1/2. We've used charts with some success, but not full success...any further tools you can suggest?

    Thanks very much

  • Amy

    Daughter has had abnormal sleep habits since she was born. She never had a predictable sleep schedule the way her brother, my nieces and nephews, stepchildren have. Now she is 13.

    She missed the bus last week for the 8th (or 9th?) time this year. Normally the consequence is a 6 mi bike ride to school and 6 mi home but it was below freezing so instead I drove her and grounded her. No iphone, go anywhere mom goes (no staying home alone) and school, hard 10p lights out at night. Even with the hard 10p lights out, she sets her alarmclock in the hallway so she has to get up to turn it off, she still falls asleep and misses the school bus. By the time her alarm goes off at 7:15a, her siblings alarms have gone off at 5:30a, 6:00a and 6:15a. We are all up and about - the house is "on". She only caught the bus today because I went to her room 10 min before her bus time and found her asleep. I know I should let her fail but missing the bus today was not an option due to my job and the weather is hovering just above freezing (unusual in the far South).

    This problem with waking and tardiness has been consistent her whole life. She will be done with school in 4 years and I have major concerns about her lack of progress in this very basic life skill. At what point does she need to see a doctor for evaluation? We have avoided it because we wanted to let her brain balance itself out naturally with good lifestyle habits. Her father is still not supportive of having her seen by a medical professional and I tend to err on the side of "wait and see" for medical issues myself.

    • Chris
      10pm bedtime in high school? That's just not realistic. As a teenager I never went to bed before 1am. Sometimes I was late for school and sometimes I fell asleep in class. This is unbelievably common for teens and it's actually biological. I encourage parents to take a lookMore at the biology behind the natural sleep shift that occurs during adolescence. There's a lot of research showing that high school should start much later to accommodate this shift. I grew up to be a responsible adult who is typically the first one to arrive for my commitments. But I'm still a night owl. It's just how I'm wired. Somethings you can't change. Sometimes it's better to just work with what you have. Maybe your daughter needs a different school that better fits her internal clock.
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Hi, Amy. I understand your concern. Any time you feel there may be an underlying issue affecting outward behavior and choices, it's a good idea to make an appointment with the doctor to discuss those concerns. The doctor would be able to rule out possible causes, which will give youMore a clearer picture of what's going on. Thank you for checking it.
  • Tired and Frustrated parent looking for answers
    Disappointing there is very limited practical advice here. Also should we be using behaviour charts as I thought this promoted a sense of 'I'm not a good person if I don't get a reward'?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      Thank you for your questions. From our experience, using behavior charts can be a very effective way to promote change. By providing positive reinforcement and paying attention to your child’s appropriate behavior, you are increasing the chances that these actions will occur again in the future. IfMore your child doesn’t make an appropriate choice (such as arguing with you instead of following a bedtime routine), try to give that as little attention as possible and your child simply has the natural consequence of not earning the incentive for that night. For more information on using behavior charts effectively, and for free downloadable templates, you can go HERE. Please be sure to let us know if you have additional questions. Take care.
  • GeetanjaliKumar
    I really liked the idea that a child is having his or her alarm clock so that they can get up on time themselves.To take away all the electronics from their bedroom is also very important before sleeping.We should have a soothing environment before sleeping.
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