6-Year-Old Struggling At Bedtime
: My six-year-old daughter has started to become very difficult at bedtime. She is not refusing to go to bed, but she makes lots of demands once she is in bed. She says I haven't tucked her in properly and sometimes I have to do this 4 or 5 times, only to be told that she needs a wee and has to get up again. This can go on for nearly an hour sometimes. I try my best not to get angry, but she has started waking up her little brother (who goes to bed without any problem).
Last night I had really had enough and got my husband to deal with her. He is very calm. She repeatedly screamed for me and my husband reassured her that we loved her but that bedtime is for sleeping, and not for screaming and repeatedly getting up. Do you have any suggestions for me?
There are many possible explanations for your daughter's bedtime struggles. It also sounds like setting limits, and having consequences is challenging right now. Looking at her neediness at bedtime, there are several possibilities. Developmentally, children go through stages where they are learning something new and feeling vulnerable or confused in the face of their new understanding. At six, she may be figuring out her separateness from you at a new level. She may have just discovered that she won't really live with you forever, that she will be totally on her own one day. Or she might be thinking about mortality. These discoveries may be making it hard for her to go right to sleep or to let you leave her.
It is also possible that your daughter is exploring how her body works. She may not have figured out why people really have to sleep. When she was younger, sleep crept up on her and she couldn't really avoid it. Now that she is older, she may be experimenting with "keeping herself awake," as a way to learn about her body. She may not have fully made the link that sleeping helps you function better when you are awake. She may be feeling like sleep is a waste of time. Further, she may have recently figured out that the world goes on while she sleeps, and she doesn't want to miss anything.
Young children are also exploring power and control. When she was younger, your daughter just assumed that you were in charge of everything. Now, she may be experimenting with who is really in charge of her sleeping. Do you have the power to make it happen or is it ultimately up to her?
There may be other issues your daughter is grappling with which are keeping her awake. When children are going through changes, transitions and/or stress, they may become clingier at nighttime. During the day, things are often going so fast that children don't really get to focus on their struggles, but when things quiet down at night, the unresolved issues of the day arise. Your daughter's struggles may have nothing to do with family. She may be trying to make friends with a new group of kids at school. She may be struggling with some part of her schoolwork. Likewise, changes at home (illness in the family, job change, move, conflict) may also be a cause for her concern and unease at bedtime.
Here are some things to consider as you respond to your daughter.
. Listen and talk to her. Your daughter may not know any better than you do what is going on with her. Finding some time to talk with her when you aren't in the middle of an argument may help the two of you figure out what is happening. You could do this before bedtime, or on a walk, or over tea. Think about the times that she is most likely to share her thoughts and feelings with you and capitalize on those times. Try to ask "open-ended," non-judgmental questions. "I've noticed that you are having a hard time at bedtime. What do you think is going on with you?" "Tell me about school (friends, soccer, etc.) What is going well and what is difficult?" "Let's talk about our days. Shall we talk about the fun things or the hard things first?"
. Observe her. Sometimes kids can't really identify verbally what is going on with them, but through observing your daughter's behavior, you might get a clue. What does she look like when she gets out of school? Happy? Tired? Overwhelmed? Excited? Sad? When is she the most content? When does she struggle the most? Watching her may give you information or at least an idea about what to ask her about.
. Support her expression of feelings. Often children have feelings that they don't understand or know how to express. They may not even know what caused the feeling or what it is called. We live in a world that doesn't generally applaud the expression of feelings, particularly the challenging ones. Children learn early on that we would like them to keep their expressions of sadness, fear and anger to a minimum. "That's enough crying for that." This may leave them with leftover uncomfortable feelings and no outlet. Making sure that children have full permission to feel what they are feeling for as long as they are feeling it (It will end, we promise) will help them be more confident and secure in who they are.
. Plan for more time together at bedtime (or another part of the day). Bedtime comes at the end of the day when everyone is tired and out of patience. It is hard to set aside quality time just before bed. However, this may be the time that children are most ready to connect with us and to share their thoughts and feelings. Try to plan for a bedtime ritual that allows for some time just to cuddle, talk or hang out together. This may even mean reading fewer books to allow for time to really talk.
. Make a bedtime plan together. You can discuss with your daughter what a bedtime plan should look like. What are all of the things she wants to have happen and what are all of the things you want to have happen? Schedule enough time for these things. You may even need to start the whole thing earlier. Then the next day, evaluate together how it went and make any necessary changes. Once you and she agree on what should happen before you say good-night, it should make the final separation somewhat easier. You can also ask her five minutes before it is time for you to leave if there are any more things she wants, because after five minutes, you are going to be leaving. Once you have finally left, it is useful to interact as little as possible with her. If she says she wants water or to go to the bathroom, let her know that she can take care of those things herself. You are now doing your own nighttime routine.
. Get clear on what you can and can't control. Much as we would like to control when and how long our kids sleep, ultimately, that is going to be up to them. However, you do get to control (somewhat) where she stays after a certain time and how you are going to interact with her. You can make a clear limit that she stays in her room after a certain time or that you don't interact with her after that time. If she is clear that you aren't available, she will be better able to let herself go back to bed and rest. This means that you need to be sure that you have spent enough time with her. You can briefly say to her, "I'm reading now. You can get yourself back to bed." Or you can quietly, without fanfare, take her back to her bed and leave (as many times as necessary.) It can be liberating to know that you can be firm and clear without getting mad. If you understand that she is doing the best she can and that you just need to set a clear limit, you can sometimes avoid the mad feelings. If you get mad, it makes things more complicated, and may prolong the process.