Who Should Set a Teen’s Bedtime?

Q: Is it unreasonable to tell a 16-year-old boy he should have lights out by 10 p.m.? He works hard on school, despite not liking it, but often stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework or reading. He has plenty of time in late afternoon, evenings and weekends to do it, but has created this odd schedule for himself.

Now he is also doing part-time work, about 7-10 hours per week, and his (very kind) boss has commented about him being crabby. He wants to go on a weekend retreat with our church that always wears out the kids by Sunday evening, so we told him to adhere to this bedtime before we decide if he may go. He is NOT happy with this, ripped up his retreat registration form and is generally hostile about the whole idea.

A: The short answer to your question? It’s not unreasonable, but it might not be enforceable.

Of course he’s hostile—he doesn’t want to be told when to go to bed as if he’s a toddler and not a teenager. The fact of the matter is, even if he complied with lights out at 10 p.m. each evening, that doesn’t mean he would actually get more sleep. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep, no matter the age.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set guidelines for him to follow that could help him go to bed earlier. For example, he must turn in his electronics by 9 p.m. each evening (central place for charging personal devices, laptops/PCs/tablets shut down, etc.). The TV goes off at a set time as well. The kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. each evening (no midnight snacks, etc.). Those general restrictions should assist with homework not being done late, since so much of it is done online in high school.

As for his boss saying he’s “crabby,” well, that’s up to his boss to address if son’s attitude is getting in the way of his serving customers. So I’d leave the crabby comment in the workplace arena and allow his boss to take action if necessary. That’s a natural consequence that your son can solve if he wants to—and better coming from an adult with authority over your son than your trying to solve the problem for him with an earlier bedtime.

For the church retreat, even if your son goes to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the retreat well rested. He will be tired and out of sorts after the retreat no matter what. Sometimes, teens need to find their own sleep limits before they’ll value sleep. I know my two teenage daughters know when they need to go bed because they’ve had to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Often, they will put themselves to bed earlier than usual because they’ve realized they need a little more rest ahead of a big test or after a sleepover, for example.

Overall, having in place home policies, like for electronic devices, is better than micromanaging a bedtime for a teenager. Model good sleeping habits yourself, discuss why sleep is important and let natural consequences happen when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on “Why you need to pay attention to your older kids’ sleeping habits” that has more info on this topic.

Early Riser Plagued by Fears

Q: Our 6-year-old son is an early riser. He is to stay in his room until 6 a.m., then allowed to come downstairs to play quietly. Lately he has been waking up mom and dad because he’s scared. We try not to talk to him about this because it’s probably more about him being lonely or wanting attention. We tell him to go find something quiet to do, but he comes back. Going to his room after dinner and to bed early on days when he bothers us this way has worked in the past, but is there a better fix for these tired parents, so we can get off this roller-coaster?

A: Ah, the joys and challenges of an early riser! There’s nothing more frustrating than kids who get up early when you want to sleep. Having boys myself who rose well before I wanted to get up, I understand your tiredness, but since there were two of them in my house, at least they had each other to play with, so I didn’t get the “scared” aspect.

I recommend a two-pronged approach to solving this dilemma. First, I would move his bedtime up earlier because 6-year-olds need more sleep than you think, and that might help alleviate some of his fears—when you’re tired, everything is scarier.

Second, when he leaves his room to play downstairs in the mornings, have a CD player he can pop in a CD, like his favorite music or audio book. That will “keep him company” while he plays by himself. Sometimes, just having a little background noise can help chase away feelings of uneasiness.

Finally, be sure you have touch point connections throughout the day with him. It might be that he’s not getting enough of those interactions, which don’t have to be long, but more speak to him directly. Some kids like snuggle time while reading a short book. Other kids like having mom or dad listen as they tell about the newest dinosaur they like. Still other kids enjoy sharing jokes or sitting in the sun singing a silly song. If you fill up that bucket during the day/evening, your son will be more likely to feel content—and less likely to let his fears run away with him.

Will He Ever Wake Up Dry?

Q: Our nearly 5-year-old son has been daytime potty trained since 22 months but has never been nighttime dry. He had his tonsils and adenoids out a few months ago, and our pediatrician said that may help with his deep sleep/bedwetting and waking up since he had snoring and sleep apnea. He recovered very well and has stopped snoring.

We put him in undies at night over a month ago, and he didn’t even wake up when he was wet until it got cold. We got a bed alarm almost three weeks ago and have used it nightly since, but we seem to be going backwards with it. It is the kind that clips to his undies. He was waking up a little with the alarm at first (at least sitting up in bed, but not really awake), and we would go in a help him wake up, then walk himself to the bathroom, change his own clothes, cover the wet spot if there was one, and we help get the clip back his undies in the right spot.

The past week, he is completely sleeping through the alarm. we try to nicely but firmly wake him up, turn the lights on, and get him to the bathroom, but he is often so disoriented he just starts crying—sometimes turning into screaming. He is now only wetting about once a night (an improvement from three to four times!), but I am not sure if there is anything else we can do?

The screaming and crying is the part I am really struggling with—hard to keep calm in the middle of the night when he won’t get up! Do we just keep going helping him wake up, sometimes having to drag him out of the bed? Wanted to start potty training my 19 month old in about a month, but don’t know if I can handle both!

A: Let me first dispel some common myths about nighttime training based on my own experience and the experience of many friends, plus some commonsense.

First, wetting the bed is more biology than anything. A child who wets the bed on a regular basis literally can’t help it—he sleeps too soundly to wake up when his body tells him he has to pee.

Second, nighttime training has nothing to do with a child’s daytime potty training. Often, a boy will master daytime well before night time.

Third, bed wetting alarms only work when a child is ready for nighttime training. As you’ve seen yourself, your son is sleeping soundly through the alarm.

It’s obvious that your son isn’t ready biologically to not wet the bed. Some boys (my two sons included) aren’t ready for night time training until age 5 or even 6. Sometimes, family genes can play a part, such as one friend whose sons wet the bed until 8 or 9—her husband and his brothers experienced the same thing.

So I would ditch the undies at night and the bed-wetting alarm, and go back to diapers or a pull up at night. Have him put it on and take it off in the morning, etc.

When will he be ready to transition to undies at night? A good rule of thumb is when he starts waking up dry three or four mornings out of seven. When he does that for a week or two, then you can try underwear again. His body will tell him when he’s ready.

Reading Under Cover

Q: Every night after my 9-year-old son goes to bed, he wakes up, goes to bathroom and reads for an hour. When I see it, I tell him to go to bed and he goes, but sometimes I am busy downstairs and don’t notice until later. Sometimes, he tells me than it’s the only time he can read and not be disturb by others. Also, he goes to bathroom before going to bed but within 10 or 15 minutes, he’ll go again and again. I don’t know what to do anymore because next morning he is really tired. Thanks!

Image courtesy of nuchylee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of nuchylee/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: It’s hard to say no to reading, isn’t it? All of my kids are readers, which we love, but it can also get in the way of chores and bedtimes. Since it sounds like your house may be a little chaotic for your son’s concentration, let him stay up a half hour later to read in his room without disruption.

For the bathroom breaks, more than once is likely too many. It sounds like this has become a habit with him, but he needs your help in breaking it. Give him something to hang on the back of his door handle, like a necklace. Tell him that as long as the object is hanging on the inside of his door, he can come out of his bed after lights out. However, when he gets up to go to the bathroom, he must bring the necklace to you. No necklace—no potty break. That should help cut down on the nighttime exits.

If he comes out without the necklace, then the next evening, you put him to bed immediately after supper, no extra reading time allowed (but he does get the necklace again for one bathroom trip). Most kids this age don’t like their bedtimes pushed earlier, so while he’ll likely try to come out multiple times the first night, this should cut down on the exits.

Remember, bedtimes are not solely for the kids—it’s for the grownups to have some time to themselves as well. My kids don’t always fall asleep immediately, but having some extra “think time” in their rooms in the dark isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all.

Revolving Door at Bedtime

Q: Our nine-year-old won’t stay in his room. He’ll be in and out, to use the bathroom, get a drink, and other excuses. He also has been reading after lights-out, hiding his reading by using a smuggled flashlight or putting a pair of pants across the base of his door to block the light. When we catch him with a book, he becomes a drama king, claiming “It’s very hard to quit” and then promises to not do it again…only to be caught a half hour later.

We’re tired of him coming out of his room a lot and policing his reading. We’re also tired of having him cranky in the mornings because he stays up too late reading. How do we put a stop to this behavior?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I think nearly every parent has experienced the jack-in-the-box of bedtime. A child who continually bounces out of the room no matter what you say. When your words have no effect on a child’s behavior, that generally means it’s time to stop talking and take action.

Because you know how much he loves to read, you have the perfect opportunity to motivate him to stay in his room, lights out, when it’s bedtime.

First, while he’s at school or out of the house, remove all books from his room and place them temporarily in another part of the house.

Second, hang a necklace or other object that can loop over the door handle of his room. Put this on the inside door knob.

Third, allow him to take only the current book he’s reading to bed—check his room beforehand to make sure no contraband books have been brought in when you weren’t looking.

Fourth, put him to bed 15 minutes early but allow him to stay up reading for those 15 minutes. He’s allowed out of his room until his normal bedtime.

Fifth, at lights out, remove the book from his room. At this point, tell him that he may come out of his room only once for any reason, but he must bring you the object hanging on the back of his door. No object, no exit.

He will test you by coming out more than once. Simply send him back to bed with a firm, “Stay in your room.”

Put up a chart for 30 days on the fridge (blocks numbered 1 to 30). This is preparation for the consequences the next day.

The next day, when he reaches for a book, say (the more sorrowful the voice the better), “Dear, I’m very sorry but reading is off limits until you can stay in your room after lights out for 30 days. You’ll have one time per evening to come out.”

He will probably throw a fit, but just shake his head. If you find him reading a book, magazine, newspaper, etc., then simply take down the existing chart and put up a brand new one even if he’s on day 29.

Some might label this overkill and worry that it will make your son not like reading. However, when something is as dear to a child’s heart as reading is to your son, then removal of that object/pastime in the short run will make such an impression upon him, that you will likely not have to do such a thing in the future. He will remember this for a long time, and probably choose obedience in other areas as well to avoid a similar action in the future.