Updated: Aug 25, 2021
“Sweetie,” you say, “It’s time for a bath!”
“No!” your little love yells back, taking off to hide in the closet. You sigh and begin the nightly routine of finding, wrangling, and bathing your kid. By the time you’re done, you’re wet from the stress and soap, exhausted, and hours away from starting a new day of navigating your child’s unwanted transitions.
Transitions between daily activities are often the most frustrating times for parents and their kiddos. It’s hard to feel emotionally connected to the human clawing and kicking for you to put them down when all you want to do is feed them, dress them, and tuck them into bed for the rest they (and we) so desperately need.
Why is this so hard?
Why Do Kids Struggle with Transitions?
Imagine sitting with your hobby. You’re focused, in a groove of some kind, and finally enjoying a moment to yourself where you feel human and not just mom, dad, employee, boss, or spouse.
Suddenly, you hear footsteps outside your door. You hear the dreaded turning of the doorknob. You feel a poke, poke, poke in your side. You look down to see a diaper-less child covered in peanut butter. Which is now poked into your side.
Do you feel it? The frustration of the interruption? The irritation at being pulled from something that was lifegiving into a world of duty and obligation and responsibility? Have you ever acted from those emotions? You might have been curt with your spouse or other children for not helping, felt resentful at the ease of everyone else’s lives around you, or used passive aggression to communicate your dismay at the interruption.
We act out and we’re adults!
Now imagine being a child with very few coping skills, social skills, or really, any great concern for how others feel at all. The world is constantly coming at you with things to learn, like eating, standing, crawling, walking, falling asleep, communicating… and you finally have a moment to sit in something familiar and easy, like making mud pies or drawing on the pretty white wall. Along comes an adult who wants you to do something hard or just different.
Let’s consider what’s going on in their brain. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain responsible for the executive functions, like delayed gratification, responding to cause and effect, rationale and logic, making meaning of language, and prioritization. Yet this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until around the age of 25. What has developed, however, is the brain stem, which is important for responding to our perception of danger, and responding with the Fight, Flight, and Freeze response.
What does that mean for kids? It means a shift from an enjoyable or familiar activity to a new or unenjoyable activity does not have the support of the PFC to help with delaying gratification or understanding (let alone caring) about all the good reasons for the change in activity. It does, however, have a strong ability to respond with fighting or fleeing. Hence, the tantrum.
What is it About Bedtime?
Some transitions seem more difficult for kids than others. Bedtime can be one of those challenging opportunities for your kid’s Big Feelings to show up. It’s the ultimate stopping point for kids. Their day is done. The chance for fun is over; they must stop what they’re doing and calm their bodies down to prepare for sleep.
Depending on the events of the day leading up to this shift to bedtime, your child may have a range of feelings in response. They might feel sad about the fun things ending, excited for the next day, overtired, overstimulated, restless, or angry at a task they didn’t want to do before bed, like clean up! With an underdeveloped PFC and an active sense of self-discovery, many kids attempt to “flee” or “fight” the transition at hand.
Our kids aren’t the only ones who’ve struggled with bedtime transitions.
How Joseph Responds to Bedtime
In Mission: CONTROL! Joseph struggled to control his Big Feelings when it was time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed. Switching from imagining super-hero-ing with his favorite television character to sleep was just too much for him.
Joseph reacted with Big Feelings. These Big Feelings catapulted him into another universe, a world in which he’d have to choose to give in to the “enemy” or overcome them with his box of tools.
In reality, Joseph’s brain had flooded with adrenaline and cortisol in response to the call to bedtime and he couldn’t think clearly. He was overwhelmed and responded in Big Ways.
With the help of his mother’s calm, Joseph worked hard to reconcile his Big Feelings (Robojo) with the voice of reason (Gretchen) so that he could defeat the “too much” feeling (Green HypnoZoids). When his sidekick Gretchen reminded him to choose a strategy to gain control over his Big Feelings (by breathing) he accessed his willpower to “break free” of the uncomfortable feelings, managed his emotions, and solved the problem.
You might be thinking: If only it were that easy! How do I get my kids to Planet Kelvin 273 to beat the Green HypnoZoids? That sounds way easier than what I do every night to get my kids to bed.
I’ve got good news! Mission: CONTROL! The Big Feelings Adventure! was written to creatively reflect what’s going on in reality. Every aspect of the story strategically and intentionally portrays real life challenges and strategies. Let’s take a look at what we can learn from Joseph and his mom’s adventure with their bedtime transition.
Calm Parents and Bedtime Wins
When Joseph explodes in anger at the bedtime request, his mom works really hard to maintain her own calm. The thing is, a parent’s brain operates the same way as a child’s… we just have a more fully developed brain to work with. Our PFC supports us in the same way as children, allowing us to delay gratification, prioritize, and set goals. Our survival mechanisms work the same as well. When a child is showing us their Big Feelings, it takes effort for us to not show ours too! Our brain wants to respond from a place of self-protection. Instead, we have to choose to keep our PFC engaged and demonstrate our calm.
Some ways to keep and share our calm include taking deep, four-second breaths to keep the blood flow moving, choosing to whisper our words instead of yelling them, purposefully feeling the ground beneath our bare feet, drinking a glass of water, and reminding ourselves that our child’s brain has been hijacked by survival chemicals and needs a minute, and your calming presence, to come back down.
This is what Joseph’s mom does. She reminds herself that sharing her calm is important and intentionally repeats “share my calm” as a mantra to keep herself grounded. Then, remembering that Joseph’s brain needs experiences of safety to calm down, she gets down on his eye level and says, “I’ll stay right here until your feelings are quieter and your big feelings are safe.” By doing this, she has created space for Joseph to exercise his willpower, overcome his Big Feelings, and return to earth safely.
Another way to help kids transition to bed is by holding to a set routine and communicating expectations for this time of day. While it will take a number of days of upholding boundaries around the routine, eventually your child will understand what’s expected and have an easier time making the transition. The bedtime call won’t be a surprise to an otherwise engaged brain. Routines support a child’s developing brain by giving them opportunities to function on a kind of “auto pilot,” leaving brain space for learning new activities.
Include in your routine a calming or wind-down activity. This helps their brain and body come into alignment as they prepare to sleep. We’ve all experienced a tired body but an active mind, or a restless body but a tired mind. We need prompts in our environment to bring the two together. You can do this by reading a “quiet” book before bedtime, sharing a time of family prayer, gratitude, or highs and lows of the day. Maybe you wind down together with a quiet snuggle, low-key songs, or a soothing bath. Whatever you choose to integrate into your routine for calming the brain and mind, make sure it is supportive of your family dynamic, and that you do it consistently.
While planning your bedtime routine, give yourself more time than you think you’ll need, especially if you’re introducing a new routine. We all know that kids rarely operate on our schedule. Make sure to keep a buffer of time before and after the routine so you’re not pressured or stressed to have it end by a certain time. Bedtime is often a time when kids are full of questions that suddenly need answering, or thirst that needs quenching, or one more visit to the potty. If you see these becoming a stalling tactic, build them into the routine and keep a boundary around when those things happen (with some flexibility, of course).
Speaking of kids being full of questions at bedtime, while this can be a stalling tactic, it can also be a safe space in the day without all of the hustle and bustle that frees their mind to process life. I encourage you to allow children a “Talk it Out” moment before or during their calming routine. Joseph’s mom used this time to glean learning moments from the tantrum that had occurred earlier. With Joseph calm again, he could more thoughtfully process what happened. Many parents and children find this to be a sweet time of connection. You can put a time limit on the discussion, but don’t miss this opportunity to hear the things in your child’s heart and mind. This will also serve as an outlet for mental noise that might otherwis