If you’re a parent of young children, you have probably heard some version of the bedtime begging. Classic examples include “I have to go pee!” or “Can I have a glass of water?” Many children get more creative, and suddenly develop an allergy to the colour of their blanket, or find they simply must change their socks to a very specific (unavailable) pair.
Children are often successful in their bids at bedtime, because (to put this in non-behavioural terms) they are holding all the cards. An agitated child is not a sleeping child, so parents are going to be very motivated to try to stop the complaining by any means possible.
If that means giving one more hug or one more kiss, or switching that light on in the hall, then you’re probably not googling solutions and calling up your friends to ask for advice. You’re fine, and you can keep scrolling through this article, or treat yourself to some Netflix now that the kids are snoozing peacefully.
For the rest of us, bedtime consists of an extended negotiation, probably some stomping, pleading and/or screaming (on either side), and either surrender or a miserable stalemate. This pattern can be very hard to break.
Here are some useless things I’ve tried:
- ignoring the crying and closing the door (it keeps the sibling awake, and sets both parents on edge)
- angrily instructing the children to knock it off (surprise, surprise)
- promising treats or privileges for the next day (it’s hard to earn a reward that doesn’t kick in for 12 more hours)
- soothing and comforting the fussing children (they start up again as soon as I head for the door)
As you’ve probably guessed, there may be a way out. Here’s something that worked in my laboratory (a.k.a. family home) to reprogram our ritual.
- The first factor is timing; the time to learn new skills is not when stakes are high. Plan to talk to your kids when everyone is focused, happy, and alert. You’ll be much calmer too.
- Make your case: “I notice that bedtime has been very sad lately. You seem upset when you leave, and I’m upset too, because I want to help you sleep. Let’s try something new.”
- Reboot with something fun: “I know you want extra hugs and kisses at bedtime, and that’s okay. If you say this: ______________, I will definitely give you an extra hug and kiss.” In our case, I just wanted to say “Goodnight, (name of child)” and have them say “Goodnight mummy!” instead of moaning pitifully. If your children like to be imaginative, let them make up a “magic word.” For instance, the words “Hoola boola” could turn you into a kissing robot, but fortunately it only lasts for 10 seconds!
- Practice! Practice when it’s not bedtime! If your children like pretend play, this is a perfect opportunity. Go through your ritual, and if your kids like it, they may ask for a few replays. This is a) a good sign that you’ve picked an effective replacement behaviour and b) an excellent opportunity to practice this new skill.
- Give yourself a buffer. If your kids like to chat a bit after the lights go out, then include that exchange in your ritual before (not after!) the big finale.
Wishing you lots of luck and joy as you navigate these tricky situations. It’s never ever easy, but it can always get a little bit better.