Ask An Expert / Sleep

Since the birth of our third child, my eldest daughter refuses to go to bed. Please help!

Help her feel loved and important, and try not to give her attention for acting out

Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA
Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA

Clinical Psychologist, ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

Since the birth of our third child, my eldest daughter refuses to go to bed. She often throws temper tantrums and will not stay in her bed, despite my husband and my best efforts. Please help!

First, congratulations on your new arrival! I hope that you are able to savor this time with your newly expanded family. I also want to commend you for reaching out and asking these important questions.

Regarding your daughter and her recent acting out behaviors, it is important to acknowledge that she has recently gone through a big transition. Even though she already had another younger sibling prior to the birth of your son, a new baby is, from your daughter’s perspective, somewhere between an exciting new future playmate and a major catastrophe. All of a sudden, she now has to share her parents’ love with not one, but two siblings. Not to mention, the new baby is getting a lot of extra attention and nurture, and your daughter may feel like she wants a piece of that pie. When she acts out at bedtime, she probably gets more attention. Remember: negative attention is always better than no attention at all.

So, what can you and your husband do? The first step is to make sure she feels loved and has a role in her newly adjusted family. Think about different ways that she can help you in caring for her little brother, which will help her feel helpful, needed, and loved. Some of those tasks (like changing diapers, feeding, and bathing) may take a bit longer when she helps, but consider it a deposit in your family’s well-being bank account.

You should also have a conversation with your husband about finding a little time each day (five to ten minutes) to each spend some special alone time with her. Be sure to make this time about you and her, with special focus on play and fun. Encourage her to choose the toys and follow her lead. Notice the positive things she’s doing (e.g., taking the toys out gently, taking turns during a game) and give her a healthy dose of positive praise (e.g., “Thank you so much for sharing so nicely!”). This provides some important and necessary positive attention. I often like to remind parents that you can never overpraise a child, so be sure to give it out as much as you can. Finally, use your playtime as an opportunity to reassure her that you love her just as much as you always did and you love spending time with her.

The best consequence you can give for her tantrums is to ignore them. We want to reinforce her positive behaviors and eliminate the negative ones. If we give any kind of attention (positive or negative) to the negative behaviors, we guarantee that they will persist. When it is bedtime, calmly (easier said than done) let your daughter know that it is time to go to bed. Say the command a maximum of two times (more than two commands becomes nagging). Ignore her when she yells back and continue to guide her into her room. No matter what, follow through on what you’re telling her to do. When she obeys your command and/or speaks to you respectfully, make sure to respond with a healthy dose of positive and labeled praise. “Labeled” means that she knows exactly what she is doing right (i.e., “Thank you for walking quietly into your bedroom. I am so proud of you for calmly getting into bed!”). Over time, as she realizes that she gets more attention when she acts appropriately, she will be motivated to continue to do so.

You can also consider a reward chart as an additional incentive for your daughter. To try this, every time she follows through with bedtime instructions, she gets a star/points that count toward something she really wants. She can redeem her earnings at the end of the week or a certain time each week. Make sure the stars or points seem really valuable to her.

Should you find that these interventions are difficult to apply, you can always enlist the help of a mental health professional to assist you in tackling these challenges.

Good luck as you use these techniques with your daughter and congratulations again on your new little bundle!