There’s nothing quite like coming to the end of a busy day with small children, desperate for a bit of quiet adult time and seeing the flicker of light at the end of the tunnel approaching… only to have it stamped out by a child who refuses to go to sleep. It is understandable that in those moments calm and collected parenting gets stamped out right alongside. We need them to go to sleep. We need that time to ourselves to feel sane. We need a break. We need them to bloody well do as they’re told!
And in that little word “need” lies the entire problem.
The minute we need our children to behave in a certain way for our own wellbeing we are handing over control. Not control over them, but control over our own internal state. The truth is, nobody can make you feel anything (not even your own sometimes impossible child) without your permission. And once we need something from our kids, we’re handing over that permission slip.
Our children are not out to get us, not out to disturb our peace, not planning to mess with our schedule. They just are. They’re being kids, being true to their own sense of how tired they are (or not) and what they feel like in the moment. It is us, as the adults, who are trying to impose an agenda on the moment – trying to make it bend to our will. And life always has other plans!
We also teach our children in those moments to veer away from trusting their own bodies and listening to their own internal state so that they can learn to self-regulate instead of always needing us to lay down rules and guidelines. This is similar to getting them to finish their dinner when they’re not really hungry. We tell them to override their very nature.
So how do we meet our own needs (because let’s be clear, we really do have a need for some quiet adult time and a break from constantly attending to little people) AND meet our children’s need to listen to their bodies and figure out their own schedules?
The trick is to have freedom within boundaries. You can, for example, allow the kids to stay up doing something quietly in their room until they feel tired, provided they do not interrupt the adults. The French have been doing this for centuries. They simply state that from 8pm it is adult time and children need to occupy themselves.
Most parents I know panic about this idea as they’re worried the kids will then be too tired for school the next day. Will they? Yes, there probably will be a day here and there where they overdo it and don’t get enough sleep. This is called experiencing the consequences of your actions. And it is exactly how children learn to self-regulate.
You will also find that when you remove your need and desperation for them to sleep that that anxious energy is no longer a factor at bedtime and everyone is feeling more relaxed and peaceful, and this naturally sets the stage for a trip into slumberland!
In short, stay calm, make sure you are meeting your own needs (and not relying on your kids to meet them for you) and let your children naturally fall asleep when their bodies are ready.