One of the problems with blogging is that you end up giving a slightly skewed vision of your parenting. I often come across as much more serene and thoughtful than I actually am in reality. I certainly do put a lot of thought into my parenting, but let's just say I do better thinking at my keyboard than I do standing in the middle of the living room with two tired / sick / hungry / all of the above children.
In an effort to redress this, let me relate the events of one evening a couple of weeks ago. My husband was out, so I was putting the children to bed by myself.
The Bad Decisions
We actually have to back up a little for this story. While we'd been away on holiday, my two year old daughter had been anxious about sleeping in a strange room, and so I'd sat in with her every night until she fell asleep. I am actually in the habit of doing this with her at naptime anyway, but in the evenings, her brother's going to sleep too, so she had been fine with his company. Not so when we were staying with our friends, and I figured it wasn't unreasonable for me to sit with her for twenty minutes every evening... so long as she didn't expect this to continue when we got home.
Anyway, on this night, the second since we'd got back, I was determined that I was not going to sit in with her. We were going to go cold turkey on this, she and I. So I started by putting her back to bed every time she got up. At first I told her firmly that she was not allowed to get up. After a few times, I switched to putting her back to bed in silence.
What didn't help was that her four year old brother didn't want to be left in the room by himself, so he got up too, and I would have to get them both back to bed. I admit, I get a lot more impatient with him over this, because we've already been through this stage with him!
So it didn't take long before I started getting cross about this. I tried ignoring them... when I heard them on the stairs, I paid no attention and carried on at the computer. Naturally they came all the way up to me and gave me the big-eyed pout with a few whimpers thrown in. I tried shutting the door on them, and that triggered full on sobs.
The Ugly Decisions
Finally, my temper got the better of me, and I hauled them back to bed with a good scolding. My son was subdued by the threat of no television the following day (a near foolproof strategy with him). When my daughter got up again, I really let her have it. I mentally justified my tirade with the thought that if I made myself thoroughly unlikable, then the bed would seem the better alternative. Not so... my daughter will take even a screaming banshee of a mother over bed.
Following my theory to its illogical conclusion, I decided that the best thing to do would be to remove myself from the equation. If my daughter could not find her mother, then she might as well go back to bed and go to sleep, right? Right? So the next time she got up, I hid myself.
Yes, I think you can all spot the cruel flaw in my logic there. I'm in no way proud of that... but that's why I wanted to write it down, so I can't pretend it didn't happen. This is what I'm capable of doing when I'm tired and stressed.
... and One Good Decision
Anyway, after I'd soothed my now traumatised daughter, I had a new problem: how do I convince her to stay in bed when I've already shaken her faith that I am still nearby, even if I'm not in the room? So I put her back to bed, and sat down at the top of the stairs a few feet from her door. When she came running out of her room crying, I let her sit down next to me. I didn't actively engage her, but I also didn't push her away or make any indication that she should go back to bed. Gradually, she calmed down.
I decided that I would let her sit there until she chose to go back to bed of her own accord, no matter how long it took (by now my husband was home and somewhat confused about what had been going on, but he couldn't fill in for me; at night, my daughter is a Mum-only girl). After twenty minutes, she was literally nodding off, but she stuck determinedly to her step, holding onto the rail for support--it was terribly cute and a very good way for me to regain my calm too.
Eventually, when an hour had passed, I caved and asked if she wanted to go to bed. She groggily agreed, and I led her back to her bedroom and tucked her in. I didn't wait, but I still think she was asleep before I left the room.
As horrendous as the evening was, it was worth it for that moment of inspiration: the top of the steps. It's a neutral zone where she can reassure herself I'm still there, and I can wait quietly while she goes to sleep without being afraid to move or to leave too early. (It's really hard to tell when my daughter is asleep vs on the verge of sleep.) It's also something I should be able to replicate in most places we stay.
I've repeated and refined it every night since. At first, I would wait a suitable interval, and then ask my daughter if she wanted to go to bed (which always got an affirmative), but after a few days she started getting up herself when she was ready to go back to bed. Initially, she would be crying when she came out of her room, but that also lasted only a few days. Aside from that first night, I was always able to put her down and leave her awake... sometimes she would get back up again, but whenever she did fall asleep, it was without me in the room.
The biggest issue we had was her brother, who was not impressed at her going out to sit with me. Having him sit on the step as well proved to be too distracting as they'd inevitably start messing around with each other, so I had to enforce a double standard: she was allowed to get up and sit with me; he was not. I tried to explain to him that she was younger than he was, and she was never going further than the top of the step. I also explained that she needed to learn to go to sleep without me while he needed to learn to go to sleep without anybody, but this went down like a lead balloon.
I ended up just using the no TV tomorrow threat with him on a regular basis (we had to carry through with this once) to make him stay in bed. I did however come to a compromise where if he was upset, I would leave my daughter on the step and go in to him for a moment, and that seemed to help a lot. He still doesn't like it, but fortunately these days her time out of the room is very brief.
We went through a few nights where she was coming out and just messing around, and when she did go back to bed, she got straight back up again, beaming at me. So I started silently putting her back to bed as soon as she got up. She hated that, and while I allowed her to sit down on the step if she got herself genuinely upset, we soon had a groundrule laid down that if I put her back to bed and told her it was time to go to sleep now, it would do her no good to ignore me.
It's done wonders for her sense of security though. It's
much easier dealing with overnight wake ups now, as she usually doesn't
mind us leaving the room again. At some point, I'll try doing it for her nap as well, though I haven't had the nerve to make that change yet.
In the past few days, I've been able to keep my time on the stairs very brief. I put her to bed, she gets straight up, sits with me for a few minutes and then I suggest she goes back to bed. Most of the time, she does not get up again (though I have heard her giggling and talking to her brother). It's a simple, short part of the night-time routine and I could probably keep it up for years if necessary, though I'll likely reach a point where I push for her not to get up at all.
Right now though, I'm just relieved that I worked this issue out without further psychological scarring of my children. Is it too much to hope that for our next problem I can achieve my goal of zero psychological scarring?