Meltdowns at Bedtime (or Anytime)

Confused and dismayed, a parent asks Janet for help with a bedtime pattern that has developed with her 3-year-old. Her daughter keeps changing her mind about being tucked in. Unable to please her child either way, this mom leaves the room, which causes her daughter to explode. Upset by the outburst of emotion, she soon returns. “As soon as I go back she calms down, gets in bed, and lets me tuck her in and leave the room without a fuss.” This mom is worried that she is encouraging her daughter to use a tantrum to prolong bedtime and wonders if Janet has suggestions for shifting this pattern into a happier bedtime routine.

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be consulting with a parent who reached out to me via email. Her issue is that her daughter keeps having what I would refer to as meltdowns at bedtime. The parent is trying to figure out what she’s doing wrong, she feels bad about this. She refers to them as tantrums.

There are people who talk about distinguishing tantrums and meltdowns, and that there would be a different approach to each. In my experience, there’s a lot of blend, and my approach would be more specific to the situation than to trying to decide if something was a tantrum or a meltdown. But in this case, I consider these meltdowns. And in all cases my general approach would be to hold limits and trust that the feelings need to be expressed.

Okay, first of all, here’s the note that I received from this parent:

My almost three-year-old daughter has started a, “I want my blankets to be tucked in/No, I don’t want blankets/I don’t want to be tucked in,” back-and-forth most nights at bedtime that leads to a tantrum if I take her at her word that she doesn’t want to be tucked in and leave the room. The tantrum is heartbreaking and she’ll either eventually hurt herself or I will give into the intensity and go back to her room to tuck her in.

As soon as I go back, she calms down, gets in bed and lets me tuck her in and leave the room without fuss. But it’s becoming part of the routine that she has to have the meltdown in order to accept the tuck-in and good night. I don’t know what to do. I try to put the blankets on her anyway and she kicks them off and then howls as I leave the room.

She has a consistent bedtime routine, and once she’s calm and I leave the room, she will read books, sing songs, and otherwise entertain herself in bed until she falls asleep. She’s down until morning at that point.

So there’s the note and here’s the parent…

Janet Lansbury:  Hi, thank you so much for reaching out to me.

Parent:  Thank you for taking my call.

Janet Lansbury:  Well, I thought that your issue was one that a lot of parents could benefit from because, for one, I actually get a lot of questions around bedtime, but also this… what somebody called an indecision meltdown (and I thought that described it really well), where children keep changing their mind and we’re trying to please them and it seems impossible and it doesn’t make any sense anymore. It’s a common thing that happens with children your daughter’s age. She’s almost three, she’s right in the thick of it. Let’s hear a little about what feels most urgent right now and then we’ll go over your situation and see what we can do.

Parent:  The pieces that I’m struggling with, and I realize I’m not being consistent with her, which I think is a problem, but I really think that I could be consistent if I just felt like I knew the right answer of what to actually do in these moments. But I feel like there’s two competing things with this specific set of tantrums that my daughter is having. One is I’ve read some of your comments around this indecision behavior, and it’s like, “Okay, you’re having a hard time making a decision right now, so I’m going to help you or I’m going to make the decision for you,” but in this case, she’s physically resistant to the “decision”. It’s not exactly the same as my being able to grab her and help her put on her shirt, which at the end of the day we accomplish — actually getting her shirt on. So that part feels very confusing for me.

Then the second part that feels very confusing is I’m a huge believer in staying near for the tantrum process. That’s worked so, so well with my daughter up until point. Yet, now we’re at bedtime, these feel like stalling tactics. I’m trying to leave the room and she starts having the tantrum. The indecision for me is do I continue to leave the room or do I stay because it is a tantrum? But the tantrum then gets her what she wants, which is she doesn’t want me to leave the room.

It’s new enough behavior that I just find myself frozen in indecision, or worse, she’s in her room, crying and screaming, I’m in my room crying because I don’t know what to do. I just feel like I don’t know what to do.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh, I’m sorry. That’s not fun, it’s not a fun way to end the day.

The most important thing I want to help you with is the perspective to see what’s actually going on here. That is something I talk about a lot and it’s really the key to everything, because I can say to say this and do this thing, but if you have the perspective, or a more accurate perspective, then you will know what to do. If we see this as like, “Oh my gosh, I’m failing here and I can’t please her. I don’t want to leave and she’s upset and I’m a bad mom and now we’re sad.” That’s because of the way that we’re seeing it. The way that I would like to help you see this is that this is actually a gift that she’s venting these feelings before she goes to sleep.

What I loved about your story is that it’s so succinct, in a way, and it’s so unreasonable. Sometimes it can seem more reasonable — what they’re asking for — and it’s easier for us to get stuck in it. But this, the indecision about being tucked in, makes absolutely no sense at all. It’s totally unreasonable, and therefore, we know this is not about being tucked in or not. It has nothing to do with that.

Parent:  Right, it’s not the blankets.

Janet Lansbury:  It’s not the blankets or what you’re doing, and that’s important to know. It’s not the choices you’re making there. It’s something that is inevitable and actually really healthy that we should probably all do, especially lately, to have a release of all the stresses of the day. Maybe there were other times during the day, I want to talk about that. But if there’s anything left, then she’s got this healthy, healthy, healthy instinct to spill it, to vent it, to express it and get it out of her body so that she can relax and do those wonderful things, singing songs, reading her books. That’s so beautiful that she can center herself, but she’s showing you that she can’t actually do that until she clears this. She can’t do it until this experience happens.

If you could go into this seeing: wow, this is such a healthy gift that she’s getting it out so she can sleep really, really well.

I certainly know what it’s like to be sitting on feelings and then you can’t go to sleep or else you wake up in the night. If I could just cry or scream beforehand or in the moment when something’s happening, then I wouldn’t have that. Children have this healthier way of processing their emotions.

So first of all, seeing this as this inevitable thing that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with her doing something healthy, then you’re going to feel differently about it and you’re going to welcome this way that she has found to get herself triggered into venting, which is it’s about the blanket and you tucking her in and dah, dah, dah. But that’s just a tool that she’s using, unconsciously, to be able to vent.

Now you can go into this saying to yourself, “Okay, she’s probably going to do this thing,” and maybe she can do it with you if you’re seeing it this way, if you’re welcoming it, which is I know what you would prefer, or maybe not at the end of the day, I don’t know, but you say that you would prefer being there for her, which of course… we all want to do that.

Anyway, here she is. She’s now talking about getting tucked in, so right there I would say, “I would love to tuck you in, my dear,” and then she says, “No, I don’t want you to tuck in,” or whatever. Is that what she usually says?

Parent:  Yeah, she starts kicking the blankets off and, “No, I don’t want the blanket.”

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, so I would stop right there because you’re going to see … I mean, or you could make the choice, “Yeah, I’m going to try one more time to put it on you, my love.” But you could just stop with her kicking it off.

If you were not engaged in: Oh my gosh, this is a problem and I’ve got to figure this out… If you weren’t so in it with her, if you gave her that emotional space, just taking a step back, maybe she would have the feelings there with you in the room. Have you ever tried that?

Parent:  I don’t think so, in terms of stepping back, but still staying there. When she says, “No, I don’t want the blankets,” and tries to kick them off, I say, “Okay, you don’t want the blankets. Good night, I’ll see you in the morning,” and I walk toward the door. It takes until I get to about the door and open it and she’s like: Oh, she’s really leaving, like this is really happening. This is when it will all just full-blown come on. But I have not tried, “Okay, you don’t want the blankets, no problem. I’m just going to stand over here for a little while and make sure that that’s your choice.” I don’t know if that’s exactly what you’re saying, but I haven’t tried that.

Janet Lansbury:  That is what I’m saying, but I wouldn’t even say words to her when she’s in that unreasonable place. She’s in a somewhat dysregulated state there, so there’s really no point in saying what you’re going to do and all that, especially now that you’ve been through this millions of times. Don’t say anything, just say the part about, “Okay, it’s time to tuck you in.” Okay, you’ve done this routine, right?

Parent:  Right.

Janet Lansbury:  Then, “Okay, I’m going to tuck you in, my love. Goodnight, have a lovely rest.”

Then she kicks it down and then just don’t say anything. Try to focus on just breathing and relaxing yourself and trusting, because when we’re saying words like, “Okay, I’m going to do this,” we’re still in that fix-it mode sometimes without even realizing it, as if it’s a reasonable thing that she’s doing. You know it’s an unreasonable thing. You love her and there’s no point in getting into, “Well, you said, so okay, I’m not going to do it, then I’m going to leave.” That’s you just a little bit getting into it on her level and trying to make sense of it or act like as if it’s reasonable. I would be so much higher in the way that you’re seeing this and look at just it’s so unreasonable, I’m just going to let her do her thing.

Parent:  I do have a worry that if I just back off and stay in the room that she will start engaging me as if she’s not going to sleep, because on the non-tantrum nights the situation is: Well, I’ll just call Mom for that one more thing, that I’ve got to tell you one more thing or I need one more thing in my crib.

She has different tactics on different nights, quite frankly, and to your point, probably the tantrum nights are the nights where she just really has something that she can’t get over, that she really needs out.

I worry that if I just step back in this moment of indecision and don’t move to leave the room, that she will not go into full-blown: Okay, I’m going to get this out of my system. it will be more like: Okay, well Mom’s staying so maybe I don’t need to do the things that I do to self-soothe to go to sleep because mom’s still here as entertainment.

Janet Lansbury:  Right. Or: I’m still going to get engaged with her and pull her into this.

Here’s how you can feel better about leaving, because I know you’re not feeling good about leaving. I would tell her earlier in the evening, or whenever you’re doing dinner, I would mention to her the whole routine, if you haven’t done this, of how you’re going to go to bed and all the things you’re going to do. Not in a warning tone, “And then I’m going to leave.” But in a matter of fact, “Sometimes you’re not sure about your blanket and you don’t know what you want and that’s okay. We all feel like that’s sometimes.” Really empathizing with her as a person. “And you know what? I’m going to say good night and then if you want to yell at me, that’s okay. If you need me to come back, I will.” Or however you want to set it up so that you are writing the script that includes that you’ll always come back if she really, really needs you.

You could even put in there, in the routine plan…  If she does these other stalling things, which are just normal things children do, that we’re going to do the last water and the last hug and how many hugs do you need? In a way, you’re sort of writing a contract with her, not expecting that’s she’s going to-

Parent:  Co-create.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, creating. Help her create a story. But you know her and you know that this might be part of the story. Your job as a mom is to say goodnight and to mean it and to be done so that she can do her job, which is to have her lovely rest. I always present sleep positively, not, “You’ve got to go to sleep,” like it’s this bad thing. Sleep is is a gift. At my age you really-

Parent: “Someday you’ll love it.”

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. “You get to rest your body” You’re not trying to sell it to her, but it’s just the way that you see it.

So write it with her, write a story with her, and then let her play all the parts she wants to and you play your part. I think what that does, at least for me and a lot of parents I’ve worked with, is it gives us permission for those things to happen. It makes us feel better because we know our child knows. I mean, she already does know, because she figured out what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and she does know the way that you do things. Children know everything about us. She knows already what that script is that she’s playing with you. But if you actually put it out there openly, it’s going to make you feel better, I think.

Parent:  That’s a great idea. I haven’t done that in a really long time, but I used to do that when we were first establishing that there is a bedtime routine and she loved hearing about all of the things that were going to happen. I would tell her the whole bedtime routine and then ask her, “Do you want me to tell you again?” and she would say yes. We just have had such a solid routine for so long that I forgot about that tactic.

Janet Lansbury:  I think it’s actually going to help you more than her. I think it’s going to make you feel more confident about this.

The other thing is to see it for what it is, which again, it’s that she’s having her therapeutic moment at the end of the day and you’re not doing anything wrong here. You’re actually giving her a gift, getting to do this, and yeah, I would do it however it works. You’re not being a, whatever, abusive parent to walk out when you’ve done all the wonderful things and your daughter knows quite well that you’re there and you’d always come back if she needs you.

I would say in the script, I would say, “Maybe you’re going to want more water, but I’m going to leave. If you do need to tuck in after a bit, then I will come do that of course.” Then leave that space for her to have the feeling. I think it will make you feel a lot better.

I also want to ask what’s going on that’s different, because you said this is a newer thing. I wonder if there are some stressors going on that are creating this need to vent at the end of the day. Anything new happening?

Parent:  That’s a great question. I am pregnant with our second. Who knows subconsciously if she’s reacting to that–

Janet Lansbury:  I do.

Parent:  The other thing that I think is really challenging right now is that she goes to daycare during the week, while I work, and she has a nap at daycare. When she’s home with me on the weekends, she doesn’t have a nap. I notice a dramatic difference on the nap days, in terms of her just staying up much, much later in the evening and having a harder time, obviously, falling asleep than I do on the weekends where it tends to go much smoother and be faster. According to my daycare provider, my daughter asks for the nap and they don’t let her sleep two hours, which of course she doesn’t need any more being almost three. And daycare is such a stimulating environment that I do believe that she probably feels that much more acutely, needing that nap, than when she’s home with us on the weekend. She is, for the moment, an only child and so maybe gets downtime in other ways.

So I do think there is just some legitimate keyed up-ness that is present during the working week. Then to your point, yeah, this change to her life is coming and she’s aware of it. We talk about it and so she does know that things are going to change. I’m sure, listening to you, that that’s part of processing change that’s going to happen in her environment.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, and it’s not just a little change. It’s literally her whole world, which is her parents, is changing. The most important aspects of her world are shifting in a big way. It’s very mysterious to a child. They may have seen babies and people with younger siblings, but they cannot fathom what the whole process is going to be like. So that mystery can be frightening for children. They can’t get a grip on it. It’s mysterious to us as well, but for a child, they don’t have those frames of reference for any idea of what this is going to be like. So it’s a big, big deal. Whenever somebody with a toddler wants to talk to me about behavior, especially if it’s recent behavior that’s starting, that is the most common thing, that people are-

Parent:  It’s a big thing.

Janet Lansbury:  Sometimes people don’t tell me until the end of the call, like “By the way…” And I say, “Oh my goodness.” But yeah, that’s a big deal.

Parent:  It’s a really good point. It wasn’t in my purview because I was thinking, okay, after the baby comes I just have to be prepared for the roller coaster. I have to be prepared for anything goes. I have no idea how she’s going to feel, I have no idea how she’s going to react. I was not necessarily in the mindset of, oh, she’s anticipating this big change and so maybe that’s something she’s processing in her mind and her emotion, because in my mind it was like: Oh, well, it’s not here yet.

Janet Lansbury:  Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. No, she’s processing it all. From the very moment there was a twinkle in someone’s eye when someone said something to someone and then, yeah, she knows. I mean, children, even if you don’t tell them, they know. They know something’s happening that’s different. They feel it. They’re so aware and intuitive. It’s already started. So that gives you more reason to know that she has stress and feelings. It’s going to come out in different random ways. Does she have other indecisions?

Parent:  It’s a really good question and I would say I don’t know that I know the answer, because she is in daycare during the day, five days a week. It’s a wonderful daycare, there’s a lot of things that I love about it. I would say that it is fairly old school, in terms of things like distraction and, “Oh, you’re okay.” While I try not to do that at home, it’s not the same situation at daycare, which is where she spends quite a bit of her time.

Janet Lansbury:  Right, but she could still get this from you, so I would even more look out for it in the time that you have with her.

You’re right, just being with other children in a group like that, it’s so stimulating, so much more tiring than the weekends at home with you. She does need a nap, but I would also consider… If she’s having a hard time settling down in the evening… Actually, I would consider putting that earlier. If she’s not even sleeping two hours, she could still go to sleep four, five hours later. It shouldn’t be a thing that this makes her have to stay up so late. The problem is that they get over-tired at the drop of a hat and then it’s so hard for them, just like it is for us. They’re resistant, they don’t feel like it, they’re getting that second wind. I would just think about, possibly, if you could shift everything earlier.

Parent:  A little earlier.

Janet Lansbury:  And try that. Then, now she’s processing this emotional journey. That’s scary, and that’s underneath everything. Then she’s got the challenges of being in care: being with the other children and the other adults taking care of her. So there’s a lot for her to discharge. The more you can see it that way if she pushes limits when she gets home or if she’s grumpy… What’s harder for you is that the more our children are gone, the more we want it to be nice when we’re with them, and so I think that’s making it harder for you.

Parent:  Totally true. It does, it feels like more of a failure when you feel like you’re spending all of your time together fighting instead of working together or having a nice time.

Janet Lansbury:  Exactly. But if you could shift this to what I’m saying, which is that you can be the place for her to offload… You can be that person, and you already are. But don’t get into fights with her. Make your choice as the adult and let her be upset about it. Welcome her to be upset about it. It’s a win.

I know this is the hardest thing that we all try to do as parents that are following this path — to shift the way we’re seeing our child’s emotions, which come out in behavior and testing and pushing us and stalling and all those things. If we could see those as I’m the person that helps my child to express this so that she can find balance with all the challenges in her life, or has a better chance of it. It’s a very off-balance time with this transition. Every child goes off balance in some way. What they need is somebody that can balance them. It doesn’t always look nice on the outside, but it’s so important for you to try to work on seeing it positively. For you.

Parent:  Yeah, that makes total sense. I think that I have always attempted to view it in that positive way and, to a certain extent, I have been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that she’s always been quite easygoing, to be honest. Now these nighttime tantrums, which are just truly tornadoes of emotion and an intensity that I have rarely seen in her, have just rocked me a little bit. I mean, my heart just breaks for her. She’s just so hurting about something.

Janet Lansbury:  Mm-hmm (affirmative). The pregnancy. Sorry.

Parent:  It is what it is, and I guess she will survive it, as most of us do.

Janet Lansbury:  She will. And she’ll survive it wonderfully if you keep doing what you’re doing, which is letting her feel all the negative things. Even with the baby, it won’t necessarily be directly about the baby. It’ll be testing at bedtime. It’ll be getting indecision meltdowns. I mean, that’s the problem… it never looks in a nice little box of, “I’m feeling bad about the baby.” You know?

Parent:  Right.

Janet Lansbury:  That would be helpful. We have to remind ourselves of that — that you can be this person that helps her to share all the downsides. It’s never fun when our children are upset, never ever, ever. I mean, I have adult children, I dread it every time. But every time after something passes, I realize, yep, it’s the best thing that could’ve ever happened. And I congratulate myself. I pat myself on the back for not pushing back on it or trying to get in the way of it, for giving my child that emotional space, welcoming all these uncomfortable things.

So I think it’ll help to start to congratulate yourself. Even this thing that you’re doing now, when you see her turn and she’s fine, instead of feeling like: Oh gosh, I’m not getting this right, feel like: Wow! she’s brilliant at this.

Parent:  She got it all out and now she-

Janet Lansbury:  And I’m letting her and I’m-

Parent:  … now she’s perfectly happy.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, and that’s the way it is with children, and even adults. That’s the way it is. It’s a good thing. It never feels good in the eye of the storm, but if you could keep reminding yourself to trust it.

Parent: Thanks, that’s very helpful.

Janet Lansbury:  Good. I think you already get all of this and you’re way in the right direction. It totally makes sense. She’s never had this kind of a challenge in her life, this kind of an emotional challenge. Some children feel a lot better when the baby’s there, it is just the anticipation that is hard for young children. So just have your expectations realistic so that you can take care of yourself, realize it’s going to be rocky with her and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Parent:  That’s helpful. It’s helpful to validate my instinct to walk away. I mean, maybe it is the impetus for the crying, but it’s the impetus that she needs so that she can do it so that she can get over it so she can get back in bed and she can progress with her night.

Janet Lansbury: 100%. You are giving her the gift of a boundary so that she can have the gift of expressing her feelings.

Parent:  That makes sense.

Janet Lansbury:  So see it that way, yeah. She’s showing you what she needs. It’s really, really clear.

Okay. Well, thank you so much, again, for putting up with this.

Parent:  No, thank you. This was very helpful. You reminded me of a couple of things that I needed to be reminded of and that give me a lot more faith that my instincts are the right things to do and that we’re going to be great.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes, you are. She’s going to be sad, she’s going to be happy, and yes, your instincts are spot on.

Parent:  Thank you, thank you very much.

Janet Lansbury:  Keep trusting yourself, you’re doing a great job.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in, and both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

3 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you for this. We are in the thick of it with 2 boys- a high energy 2.5 year old and a 5 week old. This was a great reminder to trust ourselves and to trust our toddler during these highly emotional early days of being a big brother.

  2. This seemed more like a therapy session for the parent than actually finding a solution? She just validated whatever the mom wanted to hear (stay, go, doesn’t matter…) and won’t actually change what the child will see as the approach, just how the mom feels about it. Found it very strange and not helpful for finding a response to nighttime meltdowns my 1 yo has started having.

    1. @ Krista – I believe Janet did. The mom knew deep down the best thing is to do is set a boundary and walk out of the room instead of staying in there. She just need a bit of guidance from Janet that the resulting screaming was an ok part of the process.

      “Parent: That’s helpful. It’s helpful to validate my instinct to walk away. I mean, maybe it is the impetus for the crying, but it’s the impetus that she needs so that she can do it so that she can get over it so she can get back in bed and she can progress with her night.

      Janet Lansbury: 100%. You are giving her the gift of a boundary so that she can have the gift of expressing her feelings.”

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