Q: My 12-year-old daughter thinks she’s old enough to set her own bedtime. We told her that we want her in bed, lights out, by 9:30 on weeknights and 10:00 on non-school nights. This really isn’t working, however, as she continues to try to stay up later. In one of your books, you describe a system for letting teenagers earn their curfew. Can we use a similar system for bedtime?
A: Curfew and bedtime are horses of two different colors. The former involves safety, peer group, maturity, and responsibility issues that are not involved, or as involved, as regards bedtime. For that reason, I would not advise using an approach similar to the curfew system that I describe in my book Teen-Proofing.
I generally recommend that parents set no specific bedtime for a child 12 years of age or older; rather, they simply insist that after a certain time — say, 9:00 p.m. — the child is on non-punitive restriction to her room. Assuming that she does not make it difficult for other family members to get a decent night’s sleep, the youngster can stay up as late as she wants. However, if getting up in the morning and getting ready for school, church, or whatever become problematic, then the parents go back to enforcing a specific, and relatively early, bedtime. In that unfortunate event, they also remove distracting electronic devices — cell phones, computers, and the like — from the child’s room so that she can fall asleep more easily and get the sleep she obviously needs.
If that step needs to be taken, then the child’s room is cleansed and the “old” bedtime is enforced for at least a month, but no more than two months. Then parents replace the distractions and let the child determine her own bedtime again. My experience is that the “punishment” doesn’t have to be used more than twice before the problem is solved.
This approach helps the pre-teen or young teen see the life-long relationship between freedom (what a child at this age wants most) and responsible behavior (what parents want most from kids at this age). To maintain or gain more freedom, the child begins to act more responsibly. Win-win!
Q: Our 4-year-old daughter goes to the bathroom frequently during the day. Sometimes, she will go into the bathroom, pee, come out, and go back in again within minutes. Her need — if that’s the right word — increases when we put her in her room for time-out, during nap time in the afternoon, and after we put her to bed at night. Her pediatrician has ruled out a urinary tract problem. How do you recommend handling this?
A: I’m glad you told me her physician has ruled out a urinary tract problem because I wouldn’t have given you advice otherwise. This isn’t the first time parents have described this problem with a girl this age. Odd, for sure, but nearly all young children do odd things of one sort or another, and one or two odd things does not make a odd child. The somewhat selective nature of the problem tells me this is a tad manipulative.
Tell your daughter that if she has to go to the bathroom more than once during her nap, that you have to move her bedtime back one hour that evening (notice the margin of error). Otherwise, I recommend that you completely — and I mean completely — ignore her need to be in frequent contact with white porcelain during normal waking hours. With dispassionate enforcement on your part, the naptime urges should disappear within a couple of weeks.
When you think that part of the problem has been solved, use a similar approach concerning her bedtime urges. Tell her that if she goes to the bathroom more than once after being put to bed, you will move her bedtime back an hour the next night. If my experience serves me well, that approach — ignoring and a mild consequence — should clear up her urinary tract hyperactivity in short order.