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'My 5-Year-Old Acts Awful At Bedtime'

There are many reasons, including that she does not feel she gets enough quality time, the transition between playtime and bedtime is too abrupt, or she is scared of being in bed for whatever reason.  Let's discuss.
11/07/2016 01:54pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Reader Confused Mom writes:

I was hoping you could provide insight on dealing with my 5 year-old-daughter whose personality resembles Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One moment, she's sweet, cooperative, and jovial; two minutes later, with no provocation, she's moody, throwing tantrums, and snappy. This typically only happens at night right before bed. We've tried everything -- ignoring her, encouraging good behavior, outlining consequences, etc. My husband and I are out of solutions, and we find her behavior is increasingly elevating our stress levels (which are already fairly high).

Dear CM,

This isn't Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it's Bedtime Jekyll and Well Behaved Daughter. Since this personality change just occurs at bedtime, using my special ninja therapist power, I'm going to go out on a limb and say.... it seems like your daughter is upset about having to go to bed. There are many reasons, including that she does not feel she gets enough quality time, the transition between playtime and bedtime is too abrupt, or she is scared of being in bed for whatever reason. Let's discuss.

Does she feel that she gets enough quality time with both of you? I would imagine that you're both pretty busy since you say stress levels are high, and if you both work full time, you may only have a couple of hours with your daughter on weeknights. If she does feel like she doesn't get enough time with you two, this can be remedied by the use of "special time," which is 10 minutes a night of parent-child time where your daughter chooses the activity, and all you do is focus on her. Put away the phone and try to forget about your stressors, and just play with her. Also, don't ask questions, issue instructions, or try to teach. Only follow her lead and narrate what you're doing. Example: "Oh, you chose the pink skirt for Barbie! I'm going to pick the blue shirt. Oh, you're putting her in the car!" This is like crack to kids, because you're fully in the moment, and they are in charge of the playtime. If both you and your husband do 10 minutes of special time with your daughter each night (individually; special time is one-on-one), you may see a real change in her behavior, because she will feel satisfied and not have to be sad about losing out on time by going to bed.

Also, you can work on an easier transition between playtime and bedtime. The whole bedtime routine, if you include bath and changing into pajamas, should be a half hour or 45 minutes, and your daughter should know that it is the exact same time every night. So, at 7:30, for example, you start the process, and she is in bed every night at 8 or 8:15. Bedtime routine can include special songs, special books, and any other special little things you can come up with. Bedtime can be a very special and close time between you and your daughter, and if she feels positive about it, she will want to behave so that you have more close, happy time together. Here is a good place to use natural consequences. If she tantrums, she gets less time with you doing her special books, songs, and so forth, and you can point this out, saying, "I am hoping we get to have our special book and song tonight, but you know that bedtime is at 8, and it's 7:45 now, so if you don't stop the tantrum, we aren't going to have time." And then just continue on, as calmly as you can.

If your daughter has nightmares or is scared of the dark, in addition to a nightlight, you can try to train her out of having nightmares. As I discuss here, kids are very suggestible (Hello, Santa and tooth fairy), so you can use this for the powers of good. I helped my daughter not to have nightmares by fake "hypnotizing" her (if you've seen any TV show where they use a swinging pendant on a chain, and "you're getting very sleepy," you too can pull this off) and be teaching her to "change the radio station in her brain" from nightmares to puppies or what have you.

If none of these tips work, your daughter may be overtired by bedtime, so try if at all possible to move her bedtime earlier by half hours at a time until it's 4pm. Just kidding. But do try an earlier bedtime.

Thanks for writing in, and keep me updated. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Thinks We Should Do a Playdate.

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice, including therapy, coaching, and consultation, here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.