Managing Morning Mayhem and Winning Bedtime Battles

Your child has infinite filibuster tactics to avoid being rushed out the door or whisked off to bed. But these wise ideas are sure to bring a calmer a.m. and p.m.

Morning And Bedtime Battles Mother Daughter Son Kitchen Table Thayer Allyson Gowdy
The most epic battles—and tantrums—in my household happen when I’m getting my daughters, ages 4 and 8, off to school in the morning or into bed at night. Their daily shenanigans can drag on for more than an hour, involve nonstop stalling and cajoling, and bring us all to our boiling point. Based on the grumblings I hear from other moms at drop-off and the fed-up texts about kids who are still awake far too late at night, lots of families are struggling with the same ordeals and keeping it off Instagram. “Parents are trying hard to stick to a schedule, while kids want more control and don’t like to be hurried,” sums up Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a family physician and author of Get the Behavior You Want... Without Being the Parent You Hate! However, this underlying conflict of interest can be overcome with the right approach. I asked experts and parents for their most successful strategies.

Morning Madness

Stall Tactic: Your child won’t get moving.

Get 'em Moving: Children don’t possess a genuine sense of time until around age 8, so they don’t feel the same sense of urgency to leave that you do, says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., co-author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. Still, even a 3- or 4-year-old can understand sequence, and creating a picture-based list for your child to follow can keep mornings on schedule. Robin Immerman Gruen, of Chicago, taped her 7-year-old son Frankie’s morning plan to his bathroom mirror. It includes the tasks he’s in charge of completing: Going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, getting dressed, turning off the lights. “We used to have yelling and chaos every morning,” says Gruen. “Now that he knows what’s expected, the stress level has gone way down. If he gets distracted, we can look at the plan together and get back on track.” 

Get your child invested in the process by letting her illustrate each activity or by taking pictures of her doing each one. She could also check off tasks on a chart. Remind her that you’ll be able to do something fun together if she finishes her morning jobs by a certain time. Some kids are motivated to get ready faster when they have to actually race against the clock. You can use your phone, or consider investing in a device like the Time Timer MOD ($37), which provides a kid-friendly visual cue of time running out.

Stall Tactic: He complains of a mystery ailment.

Get 'em Moving: Sure, your child might be sick. But if he suddenly has a headache or stomachache he may really be anxious. “My 9-year-old son, Jase, gets worried when it’s time to leave, so he says his tummy hurts or he’s going to throw up,” says Laurie Adams, of Ann Arbor, Michigan. When this happens with your child, gently ask him if something or someone at school is upsetting him, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, Ed.D., author of Sleepless in America. (If feigning illness to stay home becomes a chronic pattern, address your child’s symptoms with your doctor or a therapist.) Whatever the cause, make mornings as stress-free as possible. Consider getting ready before your child wakes up so that you’re able to focus on his needs. Or ease him into the day with a few minutes of cuddling. “That physical connection in the morning calms even older kids,” says Dr. Kurcinka. You can also try budgeting an extra 15 minutes into your morning to give him time for an activity he enjoys, like reading or building with Legos.

Stall Tactic: She can’t find all of her stuff.

Get 'em Moving: If your kid has trouble organizing her homework, lunch, hair bands, and other school supplies, ask yourself, “Does she know how to pack her backpack and fill her water bottle, or do I just assume she should be able to?” says Adrienne Fitzer, founder of the Applied Behavior Analysis Center in Cranford, New Jersey, which provides on-site and online resources for parents and professionals working with kids with special needs. If you haven’t taught her these tasks, demonstrate each one and then have her show you how it’s done. You can also give her a head start the night before. Remind her to put her completed assignments in her bag. Set out clothing and accessories for the next day together, and have her place her soccer cleats or dance shoes near the front door so she’ll spot them on her way out. Slowly let your kid take over.

Bedtime Battles

Stall Tactic: Your kid needs to finish “one more thing."

Get 'em to Sleep: Kids learn the art of dodging bedtime from an early age. Can you blame them? They’re 100 percent convinced the fun happens when they go to bed. To soften the blow, establish a soothing but firm nighttime routine, with no wiggle room for delays. Start by making the hour before bed screen-free: The light that TVs and digital devices emit suppresses the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that aids in falling asleep, says Dr. Gilboa. Avoid activities that may get your child revved up or interfere with shut-eye, such as pillow fights or a big snack

Molly MacDermot, of New York City, figured out an effective nighttime flow for her kids, Jerome, 12, and Summer, 8, by trial and error. “It takes Jerome longer to settle down, so I let him have extra time to draw or read,” says MacDermot. She often guides them through a brief meditation in which they relax each part of their body from head to toe. This helps them chill out and signals that it’s time for sleep.

Stall Tactic: She keeps calling for you.

Get 'em to Sleep: You say good night, but your kid pops out of her room or hollers for you to come. Sound familiar? Four year-old Leah Schwarz always finds excuses to lure her parents. "She’ll say, 'I need a tissue,' or 'Please get me a drink of water,'" says her mom, Barrie, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Avoid extra visits by setting clear expectations and anticipating her common requests. “Say, ‘If you call me, I’ll check on you once, but then I won’t be able to come in again because you need sleep to grow and be healthy,’ ” suggests Dr. Gilboa. Another idea: Give your child a coupon to use for one visit. After that, no more check-ins.

Stall Tactic: He says he’s scared. 

Get 'em to Sleep: Your child’s imagination can run wild—conjuring monsters or robbers—when he’s by himself in a dark room. Channel his creative mind in a positive way by asking him to recall a happy memory like his last birthday and then think about what he’d like to do for his next one, suggests Dr. Kennedy-Moore. A more concrete thinker might prefer counting backward by twos or taking some slow, deep breaths. The point is to help your child focus his mind in a different direction. You can also try talking about his nighttime fears during the day. “Prove to him that things don’t exist just because he thinks of them in his head,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. For example, have him put his hands together, close his eyes, and imagine that his thumbs are turning green. Then have him open them and say, “See, no matter how hard you think of something, that doesn’t make it real.”

Some anxious kids may need to gradually build up their confidence so that they can go to sleep on their own. If you’ve been sitting with your child until he falls asleep, try reducing how long you stay in the room or stand in the hallway. You can also promise to check on him at regular intervals. Peek in without saying anything, and gradually stretch out the time between visits. Eventually, he’ll learn that he really doesn’t need you to drift off.