Ask The Expert: My 12-year-old son won’t get up for school

Ensuring children have a relaxing bedtime routine and get a good night’s sleep is crucial for a happy family life. (Part one of a three-part series)

Part one of a three-part series:
Achieving a relaxed bedtime pattern has enormous benefits for children (improved health, well-being and achievement in school) and for parents (less stress, fewer tantrums and relaxed, happy kids). During relaxed bedtime routines, parents and children also have time to chat and connect with each other.

As if these benefits aren't enough, research also shows that getting a good night's sleep reduces the chances of obesity. Linking in with the new Safefood campaign, 'It's Bedtime', I will be answering a series of parents' questions over the next three weeks with the common goal of getting a good night's sleep. If you have a parenting question for John Sharry, send your query to health@irishtimes.com

Q I have a 12-year-old boy who just won't get up for school. He doesn't appear to have issues with school, seems to be doing well once he gets there, has lots of friends and so on. The problem is the battle in the morning to get him up. We try to have him in bed for 10pm but that ends up being 11pm some nights because that's a battle too. The tantrums in the morning are breaking my heart. I've taken away all his toys as punishment but it doesn't work. Please help.

A Your question illustrates the vicious cycle around bedtime and sleep that is easy to get caught in. If children go to bed late, they become overtired and sleep badly, which leaves them exhausted and fractious in the morning. Further, the more battles you have with children to get to bed, the more they can resist and the more agitated they become, which makes it less likely for them to be able to relax and sleep. This increases the behaviour problems at night and in the morning. In addition, bedtime and morning battles take their toll on parents, who become tired themselves and less able to respond calmly and effectively.

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In trying to break this pattern, the important thing is to pause, take a step back from your bedtime battle and consider new and different ways to respond.

Sit down and agree a new system with your son

The first thing to do is to sit down at a calm time with your son and involve him in making a plan. Acknowledge that the bedtime battles must be very stressful for him as well as for you, and that you both have to find a better way of resolving things. Listen to his feelings and encourage him to generate some solutions.

The important thing is to start a constructive conversation with him; don’t try to sort everything out in one go, but agree that something must be done and that you will talk again.

Have a much earlier bedtime

When children throw tantrums and struggle to get up in the morning, it usually means their bedtime is far too late. I would say that a target bedtime of 10pm is far too late for your son and this might need to be brought back at least one or even as many as two hours.

As this early bedtime is likely to be a shock to him, agree to move towards it gradually. For example, you might say, “You are very tired in the morning, so we need to make your bedtime earlier. What we will do is reduce your bedtime by 10 minutes each night until we get to a point of you getting up happily and easily in the morning. When that happens, we will know we have reached the right time: I think it should be about 8:30pm but we will see how we get on.”

To motivate him, you might write up the reducing-bedtime system on a chart and agree a reward to help him do it: “To help you make progress, each night you get to bed by the agreed time we will give you a point that you can cash in for treats at the weekend [such as a movie].”

Agree a system of consequences for the times when things don’t go well

Rather than getting into battles, it is better to establish a system of consequences for when things don’t go to plan. The key to using consequences is to make it small and repeatable and to make sure you never remove all his privileges. For example, if you remove all his toys, then the consequence no longer works: it is better to remove only some of them so he has always something to work towards. For example, you might say that for each minute he is late up in the morning, he loses a minute of his TV/screen time during the day.

Have a system in the morning that ensures you do not get stressed out

Try to think up a plan of action for the morning that allows you to remain calm and lets him experience the consequences of getting up late. For example, you might just remind him once to get up and then, if he is late for school, you remain calm and let him experience the consequences the school imposes. Or if the pressure is on you to get out in the morning to work (and he has to leave at the same time as you), you might try to arrange with your work that you could be a little late in the mornings as you establish the routine or you might allow your partner to take him to school later while imposing a loss of TV time or pocket money as a consequence.

Having a well-thought-out “what if” plan will help you feel calm and in control in the morning and will ensure he starts feeling the consequences of his actions.

Ensure a relaxed evening time

Make sure you have a relaxed evening time way before bedtime starts that allows time to wind down and also a “connecting time” for everyone. For example, make sure to include reading time or chatting time when you can spend enjoyable time with your son. Also, plan with him different relaxing things he can do in his room before sleep, such as reading or listening to music, that will help him wind down.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus charity. He will be giving a talk about overcoming anxiety in children on Monday, April 27th, and one about parenting when separated on Thursday, May 7th, both in Dublin at 8pm. See solutiontalk.ie