Bedtime: A Ritual of Closeness

byJoshua Metz, LCSW

The situation had been escalating for months. The early warning signs had gone unheeded. Overtures for assistance were met with resistance. Demands were made. Barriers erected. Negotiations were not serious, and eventually broke down all together. All that was left was a stand off.

What’s described above was not ripped from the front pages of the newspaper or international news broadcast. Nothing that serious, unless you’re a father and daughter engaged in a nightly battle of wills, emotions and drained energy reserves that is the subject of the above paragraph. The situation: Bed time. The problem: All parental control and sense of structure has been lost and what used to take two books and 15 minutes is now lasting 45 minutes to an hour. The stakes: nothing less than parent and child emotional calm and sense of well being.

Bed time with young children is a nightly routine all parents are familiar with, and something that many look forward to at the end of a busy day. The day passed, dinner is over, the last game is played, TV is switched off. It’s time to slow down, quiet down, and get some much deserved rest. Most parents have a routine for bedtime that often includes: bathroom; brush teeth; read a story; say a prayer; and final kisses and hugs. Sounds like a nice routine — a familiar and very special friend greeting you at the end of the day.

But at times, bed time can be nothing short of a battle of wills and endless negotiations that can end in tears, frustration, and even anger – the opposite of what one expects this time of night. There’s the pleading for one more book, a refusal to brush teeth, a sudden burst of energy that comes out of nowhere, or an emotional meltdown when trying to leave. And why won’t the child stay in the bed? Parents are left frustrated, tired and bewildered, especially when they can remember a time when things were much better at bedtime. What changed? The routine is the same. The players haven’t changed. The room is the same. Even the sheets! How did we get here? Oftentimes, the answers to these questions lead parents to “take the bull by the horns” and resolutely take charge of bedtime. No more silliness. No more choosing books. It’s bath, then teeth, then one book, then bed. The hope is that by instilling more authority and control, the child will fall back into line and behave. Bedtime has become a routine of necessity and stops being a delightful opportunity for closeness and calm.

I’d like to offer a different way of looking at bed time, especially when the parent and child are in a rough patch. Instead of viewing it as a routine, or something to get through as quickly and painlessly as possible, try to imagine bed time as an opportunity to spend quality time together, a “ritual of closeness”. This closeness provides the nourishing emotional bonding at the end of the day. It can be a time when hugs are in abundance, a favorite story is read aloud, the last “tickle tickets” are redeemed, the ups and downs of the day are reviewed, a last fun game is snuck in, and songs or prayers handed down from generation to generation. But most of all it’s a time of positive, emotional connection.

To help create such an experience, it’s helpful to ask a couple of important questions. The answers to these questions may help parents identify what can best contribute to a ritual of closeness that nourishes rather an exhausts.

Question 1: What do I, the parent, want to get out of bedtime?

Am I looking for some much needed snuggle time and hugs because I’ve been away from my sweet child all day? Is this a time when I look to play a short game with my child? Do I want to get some horseplay in that I couldn’t do earlier in the day? Or is it something that I need to finish relatively quickly because there is still more to do before my day is complete? Be honest with yourself. Entering this nightly ritual with a good understanding of what you’d like to receive can help guide what you contribute and how you go about it.

Questions 2: What does my child say she/he wants to get out of bedtime?

To answer this question you just listen to what he or she says about what they would like to have happen during this nightly ritual. But more importantly, you want to understand what’s underneath the child’s concrete request and that will tell you about what your child needs. One might understand the pleading for another book or the rearrangement of pillows and covers as a plea for just a little bit more time together in order to feel secure and ready for lights out. The controlling demands that lights be on or off and the doors aligned just right is really the child saying “I’m a little unsettled about being all alone here in the dark and going to sleep. It can be a little scary, so I’m trying to control as much as I can before I let you go.” The jumping around and fast pace that is ignited by the words “time for bed” may actually be an expression of physical or mental fatigue. Jumping around often means “I’m tired and I don’t know how to wind down and turn off”. Understanding the child’s feelings and motivation behind the behavior enables the parent to match what she does to align with the child’s needs — and this can have a dramatic calming impact on bed time.

By asking yourself these questions and understanding bedtime as an important ritual of closeness with your child, you are in a better position to maintain (or regain!) control, establish appropriate and predictable boundaries, and create an environment that leads to a positive end to the day. You know what you want and need from bedtime. You’ve given your child an opportunity to have a voice (though not a veto) in what’s happening. And you’ve taken some time to reflect on what your child is trying to say with his or her actions and requests. And when you reflect on these questions, you may have the information you need to create unique good night ritual. Bedtime becomes a shared experience, where calm stalemates are resolved and obstacles are removed or overcome.

Sweet dreams 🙂