Bedtime, I Don't Think …

My husband and I are at our wits’ end. Our six-year-old daughter has become impossible to put to bed. We feel that we have tried everything and are completely out of ideas. We have a very lovely bed-time routine, where she has a snack and I cuddle her on her bed and read her two stories. Then I brush her teeth, tuck her in and kiss her goodnight. Sometimes when she is not ready to sleep, she is allowed to do something quietly in her room like colouring or reading. Before she turned six, she was very cooperative. This routine worked very well. Since she turned six, she wants us to lie down with her and she refuses to stay in her room. We refuse to do this and she throws a temper tantrum. My husband and I do not give her attention for this. We are very firm about her staying in her room. If she refuses, we lock ourselves in our room until she is asleep. She screams and cries and tries to kick the door in. We have talked about this with her and she knows that if she won’t stay in her room, we take a time out. This tantrum usually goes on until about ten o’clock every night. I feel that she is trying to manipulate us and I get very resentful. I have also explained to her that we need time to ourselves, all to no avail. Please help. We are getting to the point where we dread every evening.

It sounds as if you have been doing many of the right things but they aren’t working, so perhaps you need to search for the reasons why this has become a problem. We parents are prone to react to kids’ behaviours with consequences before we know the causes of the behaviour. Causes should be thoroughly explored first. This child has developed a problem in an area where there previously was no problem, so something in her life has changed.

What is it? Here are some possibilities :
1) Perhaps her bedtime is too early for her age, and she isn’t tired at the time she is supposed to go to bed. In that case, she needs a later bedtime, and make sure she doesn’t get an afternoon nap or get to drink anything with caffeine in it, e.g. cola.
2) It is likely that your daughter has just started full-time school, and she feels she is missing family time. Perhaps bedtime is the only time when she gets to be with you. If this is so, you need to find other times to be with her so that this need is met. Many parents are too busy preparing meals, doing housework and making telephone calls when their school-aged children are up, and their children rightly feel they don’t get any quality time. If a brief bedtime story is your daughter’s only “special time” with you, it’s understandable that she wants more of it.
3) She may be afraid of sleeping alone because of something she fears will happen to her or to you. See the Separation Anxiety article for ideas about what this might be. Perhaps something has happened in a bedroom or she has seen a movie in which it did. My son refused to sleep alone for a long time after seeing the first part of “Nightmare on Elm Street” at someone else’s house.
4) She may be feeling anxious about a situation in her life, such as starting school, peer relationships, a move, or parental arguments which she overhears. As I’m sure you know, anxiety can keep a person awake worrying.

Your daughter may be telling you that something is wrong. It’s important that you spend relaxed time with her so that she can express what’s bothering her. She may have difficulty putting it into words, so it will help if you think about what is different in her life which could be causing her to worry or be afraid, and ask her about these things. You can develop a routine of letting her talk about her worries and helping her deal with them before she settles down at night. Making sure you listen to your daughter’s feelings will strengthen your relationship with her. It may of course be temporarily frustrating for you, but it will pay off.

If your daughter has expressed specific fears, for example of monsters in the dark, you can find ways to deal with these, with a night light or the door open. You can problem-solve together to find things which will help her feel more secure. You can reassure her when some of her fears or anxieties are unrealistic, and you can plan to intervene in situations, for example at school, which are making her anxious.

What if you’ve checked out all these possibilities and it appears that your daughter isn’t afraid or worried, but just wants to play with you and won’t accept the limits you’ve set, even though you’ve made time to play and be with her at other times of day? If this is the case, you need to set firm limits, as you have been trying to do. Giving extra attention is fine in the daytime. In the evening when a child needs sleep and the parents need time alone for their own relationship and to recuperate from the day’s work is not the time for extra attention. A nice bedtime routine with time to talk, then a firm insistence that the child stay in her room, is a good way of asserting those important limits.

Continue explaining to your child that you really need some “adult time” to yourselves. It is important for her to learn that parents have needs too. We are talking about a six-year-old, not a toddler, here, and she needs to learn that her parents have needs too. Six-year-olds are not mature enough to understand this fully, but they’re old enough that their parents have to keep making this point. This child needs to have her needs and feelings respected, but she also needs to learn to do this for others. Introducing a child to the independence and responsibility of sleeping alone is an important step towards the maturity she needs to develop.

With regard to sleeping there are two different approaches recommended by professionals. Richard Ferber’s book “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” suggests that a child becomes used to falling asleep in the presence of a parent and then feels she needs the parent to be there, just as most of us need a pillow to fall asleep. The author suggests that the child needs to go through a period of withdrawal, and there is no way around it. “The No-Cry Sleep Method” by Elizabeth Pantley (www.pantley.com/elizabeth) provides alternatives for parents who do not wish (or cannot bear) to let their child “cry it out”, though she says her book is designed for parents of babies up to three years old. You can look at these approaches and make your own choice.

Here’s what I suggest : Let your daughter know that she is allowed to have the door of her room open as long as she is quiet and doesn’t come out or bother you, but you will close the door if she interrupts your activities. Or you can let the child fall asleep on a sleeping bag on the living room floor, or in your bed, and move her later. The condition for this is also that she has to be quiet and not interrupt you. This is acceptable as long as you are not watching upsetting TV shows, having arguments, or making love!

Many parents make the mistake of leaving a child in her room for a while, listening to her cry, and then resentfully allowing her to come out since she has been crying for a long time. This just teaches the child to cry for longer and longer periods of time, since she knows that her parents will eventually give in. Then she may very well find her parents resentful and cranky since she is taking up the only time they would normally have to themselves. If all the alternatives have been tried, and you really want the child to stay in her room after a certain time, you need to grit your teeth and carry it through, not giving in at all. If she keeps coming out of her room, you can stand and hold the doorknob silently until she is quiet and stays put, but don’t interact with her at all during this process. She’ll know she isn’t locked in but she won’t have the satisfaction of a noisy power struggle. Usually in this situation the child persists for three or four nights, then adapts to being in her room and becomes content with it. There should still be a warm loving bedtime routine.

You say you lock yourselves in your room. A locked door is a locked door, whether it is hers or yours. It can frighten some children, and to others it is an invitation to a power struggle. It sounds as if your daughter escalates the problem when you lock yourselves in your room, either because she feels abandoned or because she knows she is getting your attention and is engaging in a power struggle. Either way, this isn’t working. The locked door should only be used as a last resort if you have tried everything else, and there are plenty of gentler approaches you haven’t tried yet. How about using a totally different and positive consequence, such as allowing her to stay up half an hour longer and play a game with you tomorrow if she settles down quietly today?

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