Banishing Bedtime Blues

by Chick Moorman

"My son won't go to bed at night without a struggle. He keeps getting up with all kinds of excuses. It doesn't seem to matter what we tell him. Nothing works. What do you recommend?"

This question was posed by a concerned parent in the middle of a fifteen-minute question and answer period following one of my Parent Talk System presentations. I knew a five-minute response to this important question was inadequate, but I offered advice anyway. I don't recall my exact answer -- I think I mumbled something about consistency and the need to keep to a schedule. I'm sure I suggested returning the child to the bedroom as many times as he vacated it. I'm also sure my words were not very helpful or comforting.

Later, as I thought about the bedtime issue and talked it over with friends, I realized there was no way I could have offered a quick solution to this complicated situation. There are too many variables -- too many reasons for getting out of bed and too many possible responses.

One effective response is to create a bedtime routine, an evening ritual that remains consistent. This ritual could include a ten-minute warning, dirty clothes in the hamper, bath, pajamas, teeth brushing, stories, prayer, hugs, and kisses. Routine provides security. When the routine is repeated with consistency, both the parent and the child begin to rely on it. Everyone knows and can anticipate what comes next. Each step follows the previous one, every time.

When there is no set routine, bedtime is easier to resist. There is no expectation of what will happen next, no order of events to fall back on. The evening becomes too open-ended, too open to interpretation, too subject to change.

If you have an ongoing bedtime ritual and your child still resists staying in his or her bedroom, ask yourself, "What does my child need? What is my child trying to get? What does my child want to accomplish?" Then invest some time in figuring out what it is that your child really wants.

For some kids, getting out of bed is related to fear. They may have just had a nightmare, or they may have remembered one from the evening before. Perhaps they are scared of the dark or of being alone. Perhaps they feel insecure when you are out of sight.

If fear is the issue, ask your child, "What would help you feel more safe?" Tell your child that one of your main roles as a parent is to help him or her feel safe. Then create a plan together. This could be turning on a fan if your child is afraid of noises, or turning on a light if he or she is afraid of the dark. Leave the door open if your child is insecure, or provide a comforting teddy bear to increase feelings of security. Perhaps you could allow the family dog to sleep in your child's room. One parent agreed to check on his child every half hour, "so you'll know I'm here," he told her.

One woman I know had a child who was afraid of monsters. The solution? She filled an old window cleaner bottle with water and labeled it "Monster Spray."

"This will rid your room of any old monster," she told her child, "and send it back to its own mommy and daddy." The "Monster Spray" sat on a bedside table to provide constant reassurance.

Another need that children have is to get in on the action. When exciting things (or perceived exciting things) are going on downstairs, who would want to stay in bed? Your child may hear you laughing, talking on the phone, or watching TV and not want to miss out on any of the good stuff.

If this is the case, make sure the "good stuff" isn't that good. Turn off the TV. Do something quiet for a few minutes. Or invite your child to join you in doing the dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floor, or bringing in firewood.

Tell your child, "When you're up, I do things with you. When you go to bed, I have to get my work done. That's when I do a lot of grown-up stuff. You're welcome to join me if you want to, but you'll have to help. Tonight I'm folding laundry. Come on, join in."