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12 year old daughter won't go to bed at night, get up in the morning, always late for school

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Dear Dr. Laura,

My 12 year old daughter always stays up late (usually around MIDNIGHT) even though from 9:30 pm I repeatedly tell her to the point of exhaustion- "It's time for you to go to bed". In the morning she ignores my pleas to get up in the morning and my voice and frustration escalates to the point of angrily screaming at her. She seems to not care if she gets to school late. And she is consistently late arriving to school, although she loves school and is top in her class. I have even resorted to throwing her coat and shoes out the door onto the grass. I was widowed when she was born and am 54 years old and I have come to hate my role as single middle-aged working parent. I resent her so much so that I want to send her to boot camp - because she does not listen, nor respect me. I just do not know how to get through to this child.


Dear One,

Your daughter needs more sleep. Going to bed at midnight is much too late for a twelve year old. They need at least 9 and a half hours sleep a night. That means if she has to get up at 7am for school, she needs to be asleep -- lights off and asleep! -- at 9:30pm. No wonder she won't get up, even if she likes school. 

This is complicated by the fact that for young people, the body clock seems geared to stay up later and sleep later. Our culture, with early school start times, and parents who need to get out the door to work, isn't hospitable to young peoples' body clocks. 

So your goal is a tough one. It's not so much to get your daughter up in time for school -- that's the natural result of enough sleep. Your goal is to get her to bed at a healthy hour, despite biology and past habit.

Is this possible? Yes. As I write this, I happen to have a 13 year old girl who follows this schedule. Does it take constant reinforcement from me to get her to bed? I'm afraid so. Is it worth it? Completely. She gets up in the morning cheerful and without fuss, usually before I would need to go in to awaken her.

How can you engineer this?

The best way to get children (including tweens and teens) to do what we want is through your connection with them. So your first job is to get past your anger so that you can reconnect with her. More on that in a minute. Here's your plan.

1. You're the adult. You set the limits in your house. She's allowed to have negative feelings about the limits you set, but she still has to obey them. Bedtime is bedtime. No matter how tired you are, you are still responsible for her well-being, and that includes her bedtime. We wouldn't let toddlers make all their own decisions, and twelve year olds aren't ready to do so either.

2. When you announce the new schedule, give her some choices: Does she want her shower or bath at night or in the morning? (Night is better to relax her, but morning will wake her up.) Does she want a half hour in bed before lights out to read and relax, or just fifteen minutes? (Without this time, she's likely to be tossing and turning after lights out.) Does she want lights out at 9:15 or 9:30pm? (Duh.) She won't like the new routine, but if she has some choice in creating it, she won't be quite so resistant.

3. Type up the new schedule. Post it. Stick to it. Her job will be to test the limits. You can count on her doing that, over and over. Your job will be to stay cheerful as you enforce the new routine.

4. Curtail screen time in the evening. Her body will naturally start to make melatonin at dark, which makes us sleepy. But the blue light of the computer and TV prevent the body from making melatonin. They're like a shot of caffeine. If she needs to keep up with certain shows, she can watch them on the weekend.

5. Take the computer and TV out of her room, if they're there. I know plenty of kids who are chatting with friends online or binge-watching shows once parents go to sleep.

6. If she has a hard time falling asleep, get her an audio designed to encourage sleep, such as Indigo Dreams: Kids Rainforest Relaxation Music. It will be hard for her to adjust to a new schedule, so be understanding and give her support. Remember, running on too little sleep means she's got stress hormones built up in her system, and they'll keep her awake for the first few days if she doesn't stay up past the point of exhaustion. They'll also make her grouchy, so she'll feel and act a lot nicer once she gets past this hurdle.

Given your daughter's past habit of staying up so late, this could be a tough transition. So in the beginning, you might also try giving her melatonin in the evening for a couple of weeks. I'm not recommending this as a doctor, since I am trained as a psychologist rather than a physician and can't prescribe or even recommend physical remedies. But I can say as a mother that I have seen it work wonders. Available at your health food store in mint or orange; most parents find one milligram is perfect. The research I have seen shows no issue with short-term usage. I don't recommend this or any sleep aid permanently, just for a short time while adjusting to a new schedule.

She'll also fall asleep more easily if you lie down with her at bedtime for a few nights. You'll probably fall asleep and lose your evening, but you'll get a good night's sleep and be up early to take care of anything left unfinished the night before. Major bonus: cuddling will improve your relationship dramatically.

7. Don't let her sleep in on weekends. It will throw off her schedule completely. If she isn't sleep deprived, she won't need to.

8. Make sure she has no caffeine in her diet. 

9. Get her on your side. Your daughter loves school and is at the top of her class. Congratulations! What a blessing! Use that to your advantage by explaining to her that studies show that kids lose an IQ point for every hour of sleep they get less than 9 and a half hours. (It's not a permanent loss; just for that day.) Wouldn't she like 100% perfect scores on every single test, quiz and paper?

So that's my advice in response to your daughter not getting up in the morning, but I have something much more important so say to you.

You are at a crossroads with your daughter. If you want to drive her away from you, into the arms of some teenage boy and possibly drug use, keep on resenting her. However, if you want to use this situation to repair your broken relationship with your daughter and become close for the rest of your lives, here's your opportunity.

I hear that you are a single mom and exhausted from the effort. I understand that you work all day and then come home at night to find a child you feel you can't get through to, who doesn't listen to you or respect you. Any parent would want to send her child to boot camp and would resent all the effort she has to expend on her child's account.

But I don't think that you really want to drive your daughter away, or you wouldn't have written to me. I think you actually want to bring her closer, to connect with her, to have her appreciate and respect you. And I think it's possible for you to recreate your relationship with your daughter into one of mutual respect and appreciation.

How? You might want to start by spending some time on this website. I particularly recommend these articles:

You CAN Have a Terrific Relationship with Your Tween Daughter

Building a Great Relationship with Your Child

I also recommend the entire section on Positive Discipline, because it will help you transform the disrespect in your household into connection. This section has lots of info on how to enforce limits in a way that creates mutual respect. And here's an article specifically on Discipline for PreTeens.

You might want to check out the section on Communication, which I think will be invaluable in finding ways to talk so your daughter listens, and listen so she talks.

Finally, please consider working with a parenting coach for a few sessions. I understand why you're fed up here. But the stakes are high, and you don't have to do this by yourself. Please give yourself whatever support you need. 

You can't control your daughter; you can only control yourself. But I see over and over with parents that when we are willing to make the effort to change, our kids change too.

I wish you and your daughter every blessing.

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