Living with Children: How to end the bedtime tantrum drama

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QUESTION: We have a 3.5-year-old and each night we have a routine that we go through with her—bath, pajamas, brush, choose two books and read them, sing a couple of songs, and pray before lights out. Bedtime typically falls between 7:30 and 8:00 PM each night and she sleeps soundly for about 11-12 hours. We try to go through the routine calmly but most evenings, she finds some way to deviate from it.

Almost every evening, she ends up having a screaming meltdown because we’ve told her the next step, given her time to respond, and she procrastinates in a big way. We’ve tried skipping books and songs as a consequence, to no avail.

Last night, for instance, when it was time to go to her room to read, she threw herself on the floor and screamed bloody murder. We ended up having to carry her into her room. What can we do to make bedtime happier and calmer? I don’t want her last thoughts as she closes her eyes to be about the meltdown that just ensued!

ANSWER: Oh, let me assure you that if the last thought before she closes her eyes and goes to sleep is about what horrible parents you are, it’s fine. That is not likely to be her last pre-sleep thought, by the way. But if it is, so what?

The fact that your little maniac sleeps for twelve hours after a tantrum clearly means she isn’t traumatized by her meltdowns or having nightmares of the two of you turning into golems.

Relax. Take a load off. Your job is not to make sure everything in her life is okay from her point of view. In fact, if you make that your job, she will quickly become a tyrant who wants more and more things “her way or the highway.”

If anything, your bedtime routine is too long. Eliminate a story and all but one verse of one song. My general rule of thumb for bedtime routines is less than five minutes. Any more than that and you’re looking for trouble.

At this point, however, even if you cut the routine to five minutes, she is still going to throw a fit. After all, bedtime tantrums are now a habit. In a sense, they are part of her bedtime routine.

So, when she begins throwing her tantrum, and at whatever point during the bedtime routine, simply tell her, “Oh, honey, the doctor says that if you start screaming at bedtime, you have to go to bed right away.” (The doctor should be every parent’s default fall guy.)

Stop the routine and put her to bed and let her scream herself to sleep thinking of what horrible parents you are and the horrible doctor you’ve been talking with. Kidding!!

I predict a two-week cure, but that is predicated on not threatening her with bedtime if she begins to throw a fit but simply interrupting the routine, putting her immediately to bed, and leaving the room.

As with many things concerning toddlers, there is no easy-peasy way to do this. While she is screaming, just sit in a comfortable chair and repeat the following words: “No pain, no gain.” Or, sing “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison loud enough to drown out the noise.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2022, John K. Rosemond]