Updated: Mar 3, 2022
If you’re anything like most of the parents I work with, you don’t want kids to talk at bedtime, you want them to sleep.
I get it. But the reality is, kids are going to talk before bedtime anyway. In my article, Navigating Bedtime Big Feelings: How You Can Help Every Child Manage Change, I talk about why the transition to bedtime can be so challenging and rewarding. Your child’s brain neurologically needs some help traveling from playtime to sleep time.
One way it manages this transition is to release all of the stimulation that’s been pent up throughout the day, verbally and energetically. As brainwaves fluctuate, your child begins to feel relaxed, safe, and open. While they process the day’s events, their brain strives to file away and categorize important moments and new survival skills, discarding as much of the rest as possible.
Megan Glosson says it best in her Moms.com article, Why Do Kids Always Have A Million Things to Say Before Bedtime?
“For starters, when young children recreate their day, they can interpret and process key experiences. As they hash out the day verbally, children put pieces together, find meaning, and even develop a stronger sense of self. In other words, younger children have a million things to say before bedtime because they’re growing emotionally and cognitively.”
Well, and maybe a little to stall the transition from the fun of being awake to the boredom of being asleep.
This creates an opportunity to join in your kiddo’s need to wind down and process the day safely with a trusted adult. These days will likely pass, so using the time to intentionally connect with your child can be a sweet memory for all.
And guess what? I’ve saved you the work of figuring out how to be intentional and strategic with this time on your own. I’ve gathered some of my favorite bedtime questions for you to try out in your own bedtime routine. The point is to create a safe space for your child to wind down, supporting the need of their developing brain to transition, while strengthening the bond between the listening, curious adult and child.
Why These Questions Work
Before we dive right into the questions I’ve selected for you, let’s talk about what types of questions work and why.
Adults like to be in control. We like to control conversations, and we especially like to control children. That’s not entirely terrible! Kids need a healthy level of adult guidance, supervision, and redirection. However, we adults can quickly neglect opportunities for child-directed thinking, decision-making, and processing.
The questions we choose at bedtime should capitalize on this opportunity. Open-ended questions, questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no,” make space for a child to share their own thoughts, process through the world as they experience it, get supportive and curious feedback, and enlighten their caring adults as to what exactly goes on in that head.
The temptation for the listening adult is to steer the conversation, correct inaccuracies, or make lessons of the thoughts bubbling up from the kiddo. Instead, make space for your child to verbally process freely. Bring your curiosity and ask thought-provoking questions to learn more about the inner workings of your child, holding space for them to come to their own conclusions, and process through any of their random wonderings from the day.
This doesn’t mean you can’t help them with the context or answer the questions they ask. It simply means to be mindful that you don’t take over the conversation with a personal agenda, thus blocking the much-needed and important work of their brain to grow, develop, learn, formulate, and bond in the process.
Questions to Ask at Bedtime
Now, onto my suggested list of questions that you can introduce to your bedtime routine.
How were you helpful to someone else today?
Much of a child’s day is full of corrections, mistakes, falling and getting up, lectures, lessons, and redirection. That’s an important part of childhood but it can also weigh any human down to spend the day under the lens of “not doing it right” or “not good enough.” This is rarely the intention of a parent but can become a story that the child picks up and carries as part of their identity. A question like this inspires your child to reflect on moments where they were valued contributors to their community in some way. This is an empowering and invigorating feeling. A human’s quality of life is highly dependent on the sense that we have something to offer to the world in a worthwhile way. Allowing kids to reflect on the value they bring to others is a powerful way to help them positively shape their own sense of self.
What is something that was hard but you did it anyway?
Encouraging your child to think about difficult things they’ve overcome is a powerful way to reinforce the resilience they developed as a result. Every time we overcome a challenge, we prove to ourselves that we are capable of doing hard things. The more times we experience this, the greater our resilience, self-belief, and strength become. A healthy adult has stacked years of these overcoming moments, but kids are just starting! Letting kids verbally remember the challenges they overcame throughout the day is like a booster–it reminds their whole body what they were and are capable of, further cementing the outcome of that memory as the probability for future challenges. Shoot, ask yourself this question before bed too!
How did you notice your brain growing today?
In my book, Mission: CONTROL! A Big Feelings Adventure!, the young boy Joseph goes on an intergalactic adventure and faces his big feelings, the Hypnozoids, in a showdown between his willpower and his strong desire to stay up late and watch his favorite TV show.
As Joseph transitions from his imagination back to his patiently waiting mother in reality, she says, “Did you know that your brain grows when you solve problems like you just did with the TV?” As part of their bedtime routine, Mom and Joseph talk about his emotional outburst and ensuing battle.
“When you felt back in control, was that when your big feelings and brain were able to work together to solve the problem in a peaceful way?” It’s here that Joseph realizes that his brain grew in the process of using his willpower to navigate his big feelings.
You can use Mission: CONTROL! A Big Feelings Adventure! to help your child recognize their own struggle with big feelings during transitions. Then, when you ask, “How did you notice your brain growing today?” they’ll know to look for ways they chose to use their willpower, self-control, and resilience to do hard and uncomfortable things.
If your child isn’t sure how their brain grew, you can point them back to the previous question and encourage them to think of ways they’re growing as a result of getting up and trying again!
What else do you want me to know about your day?
This question is so great for allowing your child a “brain dump” before bed. Have you ever tried going to sleep but your brain won’t shut off? Questions like this give your child a chance to ask themselves, “Is there anything else you need to get off your chest?” At this point, their response may be fragmented, random, or downright hilarious (or super deep!). Just sit as a patient listener while they scan their thoughts for anything else that might need to be released. Not only does this support their developmental processing but it also further demonstrates that you are an attentive, safe, and nurturing caregiver. This also becomes “memory” and embeds itself in their growing sense of self and identity.
Is there something I can do tomorrow to make your day easier?
Last but not least, we come to a question that demonstrates the mutuality of healthy relationships. While a parent-child relationship carries a kind of hierarchy, especially in earlier years, it’s still interdependent at its best. One way of fostering a give-and-take relationship is to be vulnerable yourself! Asking how you can make their day easier allows them to consider their own needs within your relationship, as well as modeling what healthy relationships do: encourage, support, negotiate, take into account, and seek to grow and improve. Listen to their response, as silly or deep as it may be, without judgment. Again, bring your gentle curiosity to this heart-sharing time with your child. Continue to hold a safe space for them to process anything and everything and still maintain a sense of connection and bond. And ideally, a strengthening of that bond!
How to Set Up Your Bedtime Routine
Bedtime routines, including those utilizing questions, will look different from home to home. Some families use art to wind down, storytime, tickles and snuggles, or bathtime. Some routines last 20 minutes and some last over an hour! Some families set a timer so that everyone, including the kiddo who will stall all night long on being asleep or alone, knows there is a hard stop time for the routine.
There are many things to consider when planning your family’s routine, like
What time do family members need to be awake and functional the next morning?
How much sleep do family members need to achieve that?
How long does each child take to wind down?
How much energy can you realistically give at the end of a long day?
What limits might you need to place to keep it productive and fertilizer for ongoing connection?
This list isn’t exhaustive. Hopefully, it gets you thinking about your own family’s dynamics and needs. It’s okay if your routine only includes one question. It’s okay if your routine doesn’t use any questions! This is simply another tool to add to your bedtime toolbox. Carefully choose the tools that work best for your family. For other tools and resources, visit the rest of this site! We have resources for grownups and kids! You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. We are here to support your journey to the healthiest home and relationships possible!
Your kids are wired to wind down to sleep by reflecting on and processing their day (and even life!). Some of life’s most deep and philosophical questions come from the very kids we are all begging to fall asleep.
Now you can use that time of reflection (and begging) strategically, to support their neurological development, their brain’s process, and your relational connection. Bedtime has the potential to be a sweet and memorable moment for everyone. The above questions are a resource to guide you into an intentional time of winding down for sleep.
I would love to hear some of the insightful things your kids say, other questions you find effective, or what your bedtime routine looks like! Share with me in our Free Facebook Group and we might feature you on our website or socials (with your permission, of course).
Here’s to bedtimes full of connection and growth!