by Scott Sinclair Brown
Of all the daily arguments in our home, the bedtime battles bother me the most. On one evening several years ago, after at least 30 minutes of my usual prodding, cajoling and downright barking, our then-8-year-old son looked up at me from his pillow and said: “The problem is, Dad, you don’t understand kids. Kids don’t like to go to bed.”
He was right. My research on conflict between parents and children reveals that most families argue about bedtime. In fact, after conflict about chores and sibling rivalry, arguments about bedtime are the most frequent family squabbles. A 1999 CNN/Time poll found that 48 percent of families argue regularly about bedtime, and my own surveys of parents and children show that 85 percent argue about bedtime at least once a month.
Understanding Bedtime Meltdowns
Psychologists have known for years that conflict between parents and children goes through cycles: arguments are more frequent just before lunch, naptime, dinner and bedtime. Those who supervise the care of many children every day in childcare centers around the country know that young children in particular are more prone to conflict and emotional meltdowns just before naptime.
But kids aren’t just “being difficult.” We now know that stress hormones peak during these times during the day, when children are tired or their blood sugar levels are low. These stress hormones affect children’s coping abilities, just as they affect our own.
Late in the evening, both parents and children are running low on patience and capacity to cope. Our own stress hormones accumulate during the day, and whether we know it or not, our tone is more likely to be brittle and our behavior less patient than at other times. As the day runs down and bedtime looms, we notice the chores left undone and the socks on the floor. This is the “witching hour,” when we find ourselves arguing about homework, baths, teeth-brushing and bed.
I remain both a victim and a culprit. When it’s time for our kids to get to bed, I’m tired myself. Often, I’m remembering the five tasks I wanted to finish that day. Whether I snap or flare at the children has more to do with my mood than with their cooperation: On good days I may be laughing at their antics; on bad days, I’m likely to be sour. On sour days, I don’t handle conflict well and bedtime is more often full of tension than lullabies.
5 Ways to Ease Bedtime Hassles
1. Deal with your own stress and emotions before you begin the bedtime routine. I handle my children more effectively if I have calmed my nerves and settled my mind before I help them brush their teeth and climb into bed. Sometimes I need a few minutes to sit in a quiet room, sometimes take just a few deep breaths. I may think about a story I can tell to calm them or an anecdote that will engage them as they brush their teeth. More often, I simply tell myself to settle down and guide them with a calm tone and gentle hand. Once I have prepared my own emotions, I can better deal with theirs.
2. Ease the transition to bed for your children. When you call for bedtime while your kids are enjoying a game or TV program, the stress of unwanted change will often provoke a reaction. Instead, give them plenty of warning. If the bedtime routine is rushed and packed with many tasks – brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, washing up and going to the bathroom – start earlier or shift some of the tasks to an earlier time. You might ask them to brush their teeth after dinner or put their pajamas on before TV. With older children, encourage them to finish their homework before or just after dinner.
3. Negotiate rules with your children. When you find yourself arguing about the same issue day after day, it’s time for a rule. Kids follow the rules more consistently when they help make them. While kids shouldn’t be allowed to negotiate the amount of time they should sleep (the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research recommends at least nine hours of sleep for children ages 7 to 12, and still more for younger children), you can ask them for their input on the practical details. Could they stay up later on weekends if they sleep later in the morning? Could they stay up for special evenings if they promise to nap the next day? Do they lose their story time if they are slow getting ready for bed? When you can enlist your children to help you clearly define the rules, they’ll follow them more willingly.
4. Create an environment that fosters sleep. Cut down on the number of bedroom distractions, such as TV and active toys. Make sure the room is quiet and dark. Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Don’t feed them large meals (and certainly no caffeinated drinks) close to bedtime. Reading a story or even playing a book on tape may help focus and settle their minds.
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Bedtime schedules are important for both parents and kids. We know that sleep comes more easily and the body functions most efficiently on a regular schedule. On the other hand, an extra 15 minutes now and then won’t hurt.
Engage and Coach
Remember that your children are less able to cope with their emotions and stress than you are. They’re learning how to manage time, how to deal with their rapidly changing bodies and desires, and how to deal with you.
Coach them along the way. If they seem to have trouble with bedtime, sit with them and ask them how you might work together to ease the stress. Talk about what you remember from your own childhood, or suggest ways they might think and behave that might help them. Focus less on closing the door tonight and more on how you can get them through this phase so that bedtimes will be more successful for both you and them next week, next month and next year.
How to Negotiate With Kids … Even If You Think You Shouldn't: 7 Essential Skills to End Conflict and Bring More Joy Into Your Family, by Scott Sinclair Brown, Viking Press, 2003.