Since I have kids at multiple stages (age 2-18), I’m very familiar with bedtime battles.
With babies & toddlers, it involves an endless litany of baths, stories, lullabies and sippy-cup refills. With teens, nightly routines morph into skin care, online homework, permanently attached Air Pods and microwave popcorn – often after midnight.
While parents of young children long for the days when their kids will get themselves ready for bed, I can attest that dealing with a teenager’s “inner clock” (or lack thereof) is no walk in the park. It can be downright exasperating.
At a certain point in your teen’s life, however, it is no longer reasonable to “make” them go to bed at a certain time.
“If you can’t control something, wrap it up and make an autonomy gift out of it,” writes Dr. Kenneth Wilgus in Feeding the Mouth that Bites You.
“They know you can’t stop them, but they like knowing that you know you can’t stop them.”
Wilgus reminds parents that recognizing a teen’s freedom in a certain area doesn’t mean giving up control entirely, however. He always recommends boundaries, limits and consequences to accompany each freedom.
For example, laptops and phones will be turned off by a certain time each night. Check! (Thank you, Apple Screen Time.)
Another boundary could be that teens will remain quiet after a certain time. Or parents will not help with fatigue related problems the next day. After reading this book, we realized that these two bedtime boundaries in particular needed to be firmly set in our home.
We were tired (pun intended) of being awakened after midnight by the sound of the shower in the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom. We also sensed that our function as an alarm clock and last-minute “lunch preparation service” on schooldays was preventing one of our teens from learning how to plan ahead.
As a result, we created the following boundaries:
“We will not serve as your alarm clock in the morning, nor make your lunch if you’re running late.”
“If you miss your ride, we won’t jump in the car and rush you to school (due to responsibilities with younger siblings). The next caravan doesn’t leave for 15 minutes, which means you will be late to school.”
We also added the following limit/consequence:
“After 11pm, please only utilize the bathroom to use the toilet. If we are awakened by other activities, you will lose _______ (insert coveted item such as Air Pods here) for the next day.”
We communicated these boundaries clearly to our teens and felt like 5-star parents!
Not even two days later, the teen in question overslept and woke up in crisis mode. Desperate requests for help were met with a compassionate shrug from us, which then elicited phrases like: “I can’t believe you won’t help me. Never mind. I know you just don’t care.”
Ouch. Those words cut straight to my heart. I don’t know about other parents out there, but my mom-brain equates a flippant “you just don’t care” with a serious declaration that “you don’t love me.”
I immediately responded: “Of course I care. That’s why I’m refusing to help. I’m treating you like a responsible young adult. It isn’t loving for me to continue rescuing you. You can figure this out. I believe in you.”
Clearly my teen wasn’t listening, and my mini-lecture only revealed how insecure I was about my plan of action. I realized later that this little pep talk was merely my way of reassuring myself that I wasn’t a bad mother.
Wilgus provides encouragement in this area.
“You might find it helpful to combat your fear that says, ‘I need to get in there and fix that!’ by remembering that freedom to fail is what your teenager needs even at the risk of looking or feeling like you didn’t do your job as a parent,” he said.
I reminded myself of this concept a few weeks later when we received a note from our high school principal that the child in question had accrued ten tardies and would now be given after school detention. Ugh. #momfail
Not so fast, Wilgus would say.
Perhaps missing after-school sports practice will motivate this teen to prepare the night before to be on time in the morning? I certainly hope so. It’s hard to watch someone figuratively bang their head against the same wall day after day.
Sometimes it drives me nuts, and I fall back into late-night lecturing. Here is a sampling of the phrases I have found myself shouting through the bathroom door:
“Remember that research shows hours of sleep before midnight count double when it comes to feeling rested!”
“If you would just make your lunch the night before, it would make the morning so much better…”
“What in the world are you doing in there???”
Thankfully, Wilgus provides an entire chapter on communication, which I desperately need to review.
At the end of the book, he also offers much needed words of encouragement, and I leave them with you:
“Walking alongside teenagers while they navigate their adolescent years often feels, at times, scary and unpredictable,” he says. “It is a process that can either beat you down or take you to a higher level as an individual.”
“In my opinion, there is no greater love a parent can give than to give what your kid needs, even when they need to not need you anymore (emphasis added). That is feeding the mouth that bites you!”
Thanks for joining me on this journey. And if you haven’t checked out Dr. Wilgus’ podcast Feeding the Mouth that Bites You on iTunes or your favorite platform, I highly recommend it!