When parents of strong-willed children reach out to me for advice–as a counselor and on my blog for strong-willed children–there are typically two questions that seem to dominate the conversation…
How do I get my child to eat (without serving her mac & cheese for breakfast, lunch and supper!)?
How do I get my child to fall asleep (without an hour-long headbutting session in which I finally cave and let him sleep in my bed!)?
While it’s challenging for any parent to get their child to eat, sleep and even go to the bathroom, getting a strong-willed child to do any of these things seems like a trek up Mount Everest…a lofty goal that you want to achieve but the fear of the journey might discourage you from even starting.
I’ll tell you right now that if your goal is to force your strong-willed child to do any of these things, your goal is probably going to fail.If your goal is to force your #swc to do anything, your goal is probably going to fail. Click To Tweet
You see, your child has an incredible ability to question everything, and to argue and negotiate most of the commands that you give to him on a daily basis. Your child seeks the right answer to everything and finds the answer that he thinks is the most appropriate for him. Because of this quality, the more you try to force him to do something, the more he will fight back.
And how successful do you think this will be at bedtime…when both she and you are exhausted and it’s already 30 minutes past her bedtime?
I know, I know…you’re thinking that as the parent, you have to force your child to do things she doesn’t want to do sometimes. And that might mean that you’ll have to…
- Force her to eat her vegetables
- Force her to go to the bathroom even if she swears she doesn’t have to, and
- Force her to fall asleep because she needs her rest in order to function tomorrow.
And you’re right…as a parent, you do have a responsibility to take on the task of telling your child what needs to be done when absolutely necessary. And sometimes, actually pretty much every time, this will make your child unhappy, but you do it because you know that you have to.
Unfortunately though, with a strong-willed kid, you can force the vegetables onto his plate, but he’s only going to put them in his mouth if he thinks it’s a good idea!
You can force her to sit on the toilet, but there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make her go potty.
And you can physically force him into the bed, but he’s only going to close those eyelids when he’s good and ready (and you know he’s got an excellent ability to fight sleep much longer than you can!).
So, while you can tell your strong-willed child why he needs to do these things, forcing him to do them is likely going to be out of reach.
Luckily though, while it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to force him to do what is necessary, he may be able to make the right decision on his own.
In today’s post, I’m going to address one of these top concerns for parents of strong-willed kids: How do I get my kid to just fall asleep without a power struggle?
I’ll share some simple–yet effective–techniques to help your strong-willed child to fall asleep without an hour-long argument (because who has time for that at the end of a long day when you’re exhausted!)?
#1 Plan the Bedtime Routine…Together!
One of the main reasons that getting a strong-willed child to do anything starts to look like a political debate is because adults accidentally forget that kids have opinions too.
We don’t do it on purpose. We’ve simply been trained to think that adults need to be in the authority position. Often times, because we’re in a hurry, we start telling kids what to do. We make decisions for them. We create the rules. We create the schedule and time frame for when everything is supposed to be completed.
Some kids, like the flexible, easy going child will be able to adapt to your expectations and go with the flow.
A strong-willed child, on the other hand, will not be able to go with the flow, unless he agrees with the expectations that you’ve set. And the best way to get him to agree with you is to include him in the process of setting those expectations.
Create a Bedtime Routine
Instead of setting the bedtime rules and routine for yourself, include her in the planning process for bedtime. Plan a special meeting to talk about what the bedtime routine should look like (but if you want it to be successful, make sure it doesn’t happen during bedtime).
Hint: Make it fun…maybe a coffee date or a special backyard picnic to make her feel extra special and important.
Below are some things to consider when talking with your child about what to include in the process:
- What must be completed before bedtime? (i.e. brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, going potty, etc.) If your child doesn’t think of all of the “musts” then you can introduce them by saying something like, “And how do we get rid of that stinky breath?” versus telling the child that he has to brush his teeth before bed.
- What’s your child’s idea of the best order for completing these necessary tasks? (i.e. does it make sense to brush teeth and then have a snack?) If he comes up with an order that isn’t conducive to a smooth bedtime routine, then ask a silly question to get him thinking about it, for example, “Won’t you look silly. Didn’t you forget to put something on before you jumped into bed?”
- What are some things unique to your child that he’d like to add to the process? (Does he like to read 3 books before bed? Does he want to talk about his day? Does he want a back rub?) Where should this/these fit into the order?
- How much time is needed for each of the tasks? What time does the bedtime routine need to start? Your child is going to need your help on the start time, but you can guide him there by saying, “Hmmm…so you think all of this is going to take the little hand to go from here to here. Looks like we need to get started then when the big hand is here and the little hand is here, right?”
- Who needs to be involved? (Does he want to do some one his own? Should mom and dad both be there? Can it be done with just one parent? What happens if one parent is gone?)
If you and your child come up with any other topics, include them in the conversation. The more details you know about your child and what he’s thinking during bedtime, the more you understand what’s going through his head and why he might be fighting bedtime so much.
Once you’ve completed the task of planning out the routine, it’s time to talk about what happens if the routine isn’t followed.
Talk about Bedtime Consequences
Most parents tell me that it’s incredibly challenging to provide any sort of consequence during the bedtime routine. You’re exhausted…your child is exhausted…the process of consequences and rewards seems to take away from the ultimate goal of the routine, which is to get your child to fall asleep before you do!
This frustration is why the next step in this process is SO important. Instead of randomly throwing out threats of consequences during that power struggle moment, plan ahead with your child to establish what the consequences will be if the bedtime routine (that he established…with your help) is not followed.
Use The Preview Technique to preview some possible behaviors that might occur during the bedtime routine and talk about what the consequences for that behavior should be.
If you haven’t signed up to receive your copy of The Busy Mom’s 9-Step Guide to Raising Kids Who Actually Want to Listen, you can sign up here and get instant access to The Preview Technique and 8 other go-to techniques for raising a strong-willed child.
Here are a few behaviors and conversations to consider:
- Why are each of the musts so important?
- What should happen if one of the musts isn’t completed?
- What should happen if the child takes more time than allowed for the routine?
- What should happen if the child doesn’t go to bed after the routine is completed?
- What are some good examples of reasons why the child might need to get out of bed without a consequence?
Remember that while your input is valuable, the most important player in this is your child. The more involved he is in the process, the more invested he will be in following the process. Once you both feel satisfied with the plan, it’s time to put the plan in place!
Create a Bedtime Routine Poster
Once you and your child have created a rough draft of the plan for the bedtime routine and consequences, create a poster together. Technically, this is an optional part since I’m sure you’re busy and you don’t have a ton of spare time to sit down and do this. But again, the more involved he is in the process, the more invested he will be, so if you and he sit down and work on this together, he’s likely to care about his bedtime routine even more.
It doesn’t matter how you do this. Maybe you and your child decide to pick out some clip art or other free images online; maybe you’re an excellent drawer and you decide to draw the pictures yourself. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that your child can look at so that you have a reference point during the bedtime routine.
Let him pick out a place in his bedroom where he wants the poster to be placed so that he can see it while he’s working on it at bedtime.
#2 Implement the Bedtime Routine…Together!
Now that you’ve created the bedtime routine, it’s time to put it into practice and see how it works.
When it’s almost time for bed, instead of announcing “Alright, it’s time to get ready for bed now!” engage your child in a conversation that reminds her of the expectations that were set for bedtime. For example, you could say something like, “Oh wow, in 10 minutes, the big hand is going to be here and the little hand is here. Do you remember what you decided would happen then?”
A question like this engages her in a conversation, reminding her of the importance that she set for each of the steps of the bedtime routine, versus placing her in a role of being told what she has to do next.
When it’s time to start the routine, ask her what she decided was the first step of the routine. She may choose to look at the poster you created or remember on her own. If she’s struggling, point out the poster so that she can be reminded of the choices that she made with you. (This is one of the reasons why the poster is so valuable, so that you don’t have to be the bad guy and you can just point to the picture, reminding your child that she came up with this idea, not you.)
As she completes each step of the routine, you can use The Narrator Technique, or simply identify when she has completed the stage and ask what’s next. Move through each of the steps until she has completed them all, reminding her of how smart she was to create such a great plan and remember all of the steps.
Hopefully, this leads you to the end of the routine and your little angel falls asleep without a hitch. But, just in case she shows her true strong-willed nature, there’s 1 more step in the process to help you know what to do if she fights the routine (as so many kids will do).
#3 Use the Bedtime Consequences
There’s an important reason that you used The Preview Technique while you were planning the routine and the consequences for not following the routine. This was to save you the energy (and guilt) of having to come up with consequences to discourage misbehavior during the bedtime routine.
Since your child played an integral role in establishing what the consequences should be for misbehavior, you already have a kid-approved plan in place for what to do, so you don’t need to feel so guilty.
If your child starts to deviate from the plan, or argues with completing the task, say something like this:
“Ooops, the poster says that it’s time to brush teeth. When you refuse to brush your teeth you choose to _______________.” (Insert the consequence that your child already established).
Because it’s bedtime, you want to make sure not to escalate the situation. Try to stay away from statements that differ from the established consequence (If you don’t brush your teeth right now, I’m taking your stuffy) and threats that involve the child’s consequence in an inappropriate way (You’re going to a time out right now. That’s what you chose, so that’s what you get!)
Stick to the formula, and be willing to give a few extra warnings before implementing the consequence. If you have to use the consequence, then say something like,
“The poster says it’s time to brush teeth. Since you are choosing not to brush your teeth, you are choosing to _______________.”
If you’ve placed the consequence on the poster, then it’s very easy to just point to the picture as you say this and remind him with that simple action that this is something that he has chosen.
Once the consequence has been implemented according to the plan, then return to the bedtime routine and continue on, following the same protocol until the child is asleep.Get your #swc to fall asleep without a #powerstruggle. Let your #child help set the routine Click To Tweet
What to do If the Plan Fails
While this plan can work pretty well, it isn’t foolproof. After all, it’s bedtime and both of you are exhausted. And we all know that logic is not an exhausted preschooler’s strong point!
If you start to notice that exhaustion is setting in and a meltdown is just moments away, I suggest using either of the following techniques to help keep your child in a calm state and work towards getting your child to sleep (versus escalating the situation and pushing sleep just out of reach).
When a meltdown seems imminent, abort your plan and switch to The Narrator Technique and incorporate The Emotion Coach Technique as needed.
In The Narrator Technique, you act as the narrator of your child’s experience, pointing out what you are seeing and hearing. In The Emotion Coach Technique, you continue to point out what you are seeing and hearing but involve a conversation on the emotions that you are seeing in the child and the coping skills that he uses or needs for the purpose of calming down.
I talk about the technique more in-depth in my 9-step guide but below is an example of what this might look like in this situation:
Mom: You’re getting frustrated with your pajamas. You cannot seem to get them over your head.
Mason: Yeah. I stuck mommy. I scared.
Mom: You’re scared because your head is stuck and you can’t figure it out. I’m standing right beside you and have hands that can help you.
Mason: I need help, mommy.
Mom: OK. I can help you. I’ll just pull your head through like this…and now this arm…and now that arm.
Mason: I scared mommy. [hugging mom]
Mom: Yes, you were scared when your head was stuck and now you’re hugging me because that makes you feel better.
Mason: Mmm hmmm.
Mom: It helps you calm down when I hold you. The poster says it’s time to get into bed and read books. I’ll keep holding you until you feel better.
Mason: I not feel better.
Mom: OK…I’ll keep holding you while we read our books. You’re still feeling scared and I don’t want you to feel scared.
If you’re frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get your child to bed each night, and exhausted with the power struggle that takes an hour or more each night, take a break from all of that head-butting and try out this technique to see if it helps.
This technique does require a bit of planning ahead, so it may seem like more work at the beginning, but over time, the amount of time you’ll save during those exhausting evenings is immeasurable!
I’d love to hear your story! If you used this technique and had some success, please share your story here to help support other moms who are struggling with this challenging part of this daily routine!
If you have anything to add that you’ve used that has helped your child to fall asleep without a power struggle, please feel free to share your wisdom!