How to Handle Bedtime Tantrums
You look at the clock and start to get tense. The dreaded bedtime is coming. Maybe you used to have a child that went to bed easily and now tantrums every night. Maybe you have a child that always put up a bit of a fight at bedtime. Either way, you are tense, anxious, and dreading what comes next. You are constantly wondering why your toddler becomes hysterical at bedtime. There are parents all over finding themselves in the same position.
There are a few things that are helpful to look at when trying to figure out why our child is losing it every night.
1) Child Development: This one challenges parents in many ways and bedtime is only one. Around 2 children like to start saying no and to exert their independence. They test their influence over situations and realize that they do in fact have the ability to say no. This is a normal and healthy part of child development. It may also be the reason bedtime tantrums have started. There is so much to see and do that going to sleep is not your child's idea of a good time. Now that they are practicing their ability to say no and test their influence, they make it very clear that they do not want to go to sleep.
3) Child's needs: Children are more likely to throw tantrums if they are hungry, tired, or overstimulated. Maybe your child had a long day and is exhausted. Maybe your child didn't eat much dinner and is now hungry (and cranky). Just like us, our children's ability to tolerate stress decreases when they are tired or hungry.
2) Changes: Take a moment to think about any changes in your child's life or environment. Has something changed. It may be big or really small. Maybe they started school, you went back to work, they have a new sibling, or you have moved. It may be something small such as rearranging their furniture of moving something around in their room. What seems small to us can be huge to our children.
3)Fears (worry and anxiety): Your child may be scared or anxious. It is not uncommon for children to develop fears as they move through childhood. A child that was fine in the dark may become afraid of monsters and the dark at 3 or 4. This is another very normal part of development. It is normal for children to develop these fears and if we are mindful of them and acknowledge them we can help our children manage them.
4) Our own Energy: Sometimes we aren't aware of how we approach our child's bedtime. When we feel rushed, frazzled, or even anxious about bedtime we are bringing that energy to our child. This can become a cycle that is hard to break: child has bedtime tantrums, parent gets anxious about bedtime, child has tantrum, etc. So, while making sure that we are calm, centered, and grounded isn't going to stop our child's tantrum alone, it will decrease the anxiety that our child picks up on. It also creates more consistency. We are asking our child to calm down and get rest, and if we approach this process with our own calm energy, they are more likely to follow along.
Now that we have a better idea about what may contributing to the bedtime tantrum, what do we do about it?
1)Give Choices: Now that you have a child who wants to exert their power, the best strategy is to allow them to do so in a controlled way. Avoid the bedtime power struggles by giving them choices about their bedtime. Let them choose the story, their pajamas, the stuffed animal they want, what night light to use, etc. Allowing your child to have control and a say about their bedtime will decrease the likely hood of having a tantrum.
2)Fears: Identify any new fears that your child may have developed, Your child may need a nightlight or even choose to sleep with a light on. If your child seems anxious at bedtime they may need your help falling asleep. Here are a few strategies that I have found helpful:
-Kids meditation or bedtime story podcast- they can distract themselves by listening
to stories as they drift off to sleep.
-play soothing music
-nightlight (or star projector)
-monster spray- just get a small spray bottle and fill it with water and lavender oil.
Spray the monsters away.
-comfort objects- your child may benefit from feeling close to you. You can use one
of your shirts and put it on your child's pillow case so they can have
you with them all night.
3)Managing our energy/anxiety: Take some time to make sure that you are approaching bedtime without being rushed. Our kids pick up on this. Just like they start to move slower than sloths when we are in a hurry, they can drag our bedtime when they pick up on our need to get it done. This is the time to clear that to do list from your mind (hard, I know). Take some deep breathes and get centered. You may need to start the process earlier so you can resist the urge to rush through bedtime, or become anxious about how late it is getting.
4) Remember to see your child as an individual: The tendency to compare our children to others is rarely helpful. I have had two children that were more challenging when it came to sleep. I had friends whose children slept (and went to bed) with ease from what seemed like day one. Not my kids. We had night terrors, we had kids who had better things to do than sleep, and we had kids that loved the company of others. Some children need more affection, comfort, and contact with their caregivers than others. I have heard these children be described as high needs. It is a real thing. So, be gentle with yourself and your child if they aren't on the path that other children are on. Each of us is unique and may have needs that others don't. Working with your child (yes even a 2 year old) to come up with a bedtime plan may help you navigate this challenge.
Lastly, it is so important to remember that this won't last forever. You can help your child move through this phase. Remember, when kids throw tantrums, it is because they are losing control or overwhelmed. The best thing we can do is figure out what is causing the overwhelm and help them find ways to mange it. Every behavior is a message, and a tantrum is occurring at bedtime because your child is trying to tell you something. If we can address the need then we can work through the behavior.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parent Coach at Mighty Oak Parenting.