How can we get our defiant child to lie down and go to sleep at night? He's a handful at any time and under any circumstances, but nothing can top his uncooperative behavior at bedtime. No matter how many times we put him to bed, he gets up again and again. I feel as if I'm losing my mind for lack of sleep. What can we do about this?


Battles at bedtime are not unusual when there is a strong-willed child in the house. In some cases this problem may even persist into the elementary years. The remedy is basically the same as that which we would prescribe in any conflict with a strong-willed child: firm, loving and persevering discipline. The key to winning this confrontation is not to punish harder but to conquer a child's will by outlasting him, even if that process takes two or three hours.


In dealing with a situation of this kind, it's important to take appropriate action and stick with it until the undesirable behavior has been eliminated. Success depends on your ability to establish meaningful consequences and to apply them consistently. Be sure to discuss these consequences ahead of time. Your child should understand what is and what is not acceptable before he is held accountable to keep the rules.


You might begin by saying something like, "We all have jobs and responsibilities in our family. Your job right now is to stay in bed and go to sleep." Let your child know that if he fails to fulfill this responsibility, something unpleasant will happen. This could involve the removal of some privilege directly associated with the bedtime ritual or routine. For example, if he is used to listening to music, looking at a picture book or cuddling a stuffed toy, take them away until he decides to stay in bed.


After putting your child to bed, you should be prepared to intercept him immediately if he gets up. It might be a good idea to take a book or some paperwork and sit just outside his door. If he comes out, take him back to bed and sit quietly with him. Talk calmly and firmly about the importance of staying there. Explain how important it is for him to get enough sleep because that helps him grow. Say, "What we need right now is for you to stay in bed. What do you think we can do to make that happen?"


If he decides to climb out of bed a second time, repeat the process. Be firm but not angry or exasperated. Having drawn your boundaries, stay within them. Your goal is to outlast your child, no matter how long it takes. It's a matter of simple endurance. Once the battle has been won, the child will usually live within the parameters established. If it is lost, the next conflict will be even more difficult.


Meanwhile, don't forget to invest an equal amount of energy on the positive side of the ledger. Here, as in so many other areas, it's important to stay vigilant and "catch your child being good." When he has a good night, find some way to encourage him and praise him on his accomplishment. We're not thinking here in terms of rewards, which can promote selfishness if offered in excess, but rather of family celebrations. You might, for example, place a glass jar in a prominent place and allow your child to put a marble in the jar every time he goes to bed without a fuss and sleeps for eight or nine hours at a stretch. Then, when the jar is full, you can celebrate by planning a family outing or devising a creative way to get involved in serving friends and neighbors as a parent-child team. Let your child choose a fun activity or pick a family he'd like to present with a batch of home-made cookies. This will give him the sense of control and self-determination that is so effective in moderating the behavior of strong-willed kids.

From the Focus on the Family website at  © 2010 Focus on the Family.  Used by permission.

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