Focus on the Family

Strong-Willed Child Won’t Stay in Bed

Child lying on bed looking at camera with defiance
How can we get our defiant toddler to lie down and go to sleep at night?

Our toddler is a handful all the time, but nothing tops his behavior at bedtime. No matter how many times we put him to bed, he gets up.


Bedtime battles are common when there’s a strong-willed child in the house. And in some cases, the problem can last beyond toddlerhood and into the elementary years.

The fix? Basically the same as what we’d recommend in any conflict with a strong-willed child: firm, loving, and persevering discipline.

The key to winning this confrontation isn’t to punish harder but to conquer a child’s defiance by outlasting them — even if the process takes hours. With any situation like this, success depends on how well you do the following:

  • Take appropriate action and stick with it until the undesirable behavior is gone.
  • Set meaningful consequences and apply them consistently.
  • Discuss consequences ahead of time. (Your child should understand what is and is not acceptable before they’re held accountable to keep the rules.)

Steps to help your strong-willed child stay in bed

1. Start by saying something like, We all have jobs and responsibilities in our family. Your job right now is to stay in bed and go to sleep.

Let your child know that if they don’t meet this responsibility, something unpleasant will happen — like losing a privilege directly associated with bedtime routines.

For example, if their door is usually open or a night light is left on in the hallway, make it clear that the door will be closed and the light turned off if they don’t stay in bed. Or, if your child is used to listening to music, looking at a picture book, or cuddling a stuffed toy, take those away until they decide to do as you ask.

2. After putting your child to bed, be ready to catch them right away if they get up.

Sit just outside the door. If they come out of the room, take them back to bed and sit quietly with them. Talk calmly and firmly about the importance of staying there. Explain your concerns about safety in the house and why you can’t let them walk around while others are asleep. Say, What we need right now is for you to stay in bed. What do you think we can do to make that happen?

3. If your child decides to climb out of bed a second time or more, repeat the process — as many times as it takes.

Be firm but not angry or annoyed. You’ve drawn your boundaries. Your goal is to outlast your child, no matter how long it takes. It’s a matter of simple endurance. Once the battle is won, your child will usually live within the guidelines you set. But if it’s lost, the next conflict could be even more difficult.

4. Remember to invest an equal amount of energy on the positive side of things.

Here, as in so many other areas of parenting, it’s important to stay aware and catch your child being good. When they have a good night, find a way to encourage them — to praise them on their accomplishment. This isn’t about rewards (which can promote selfishness) but more like family celebrations.

You might put a glass jar in a visible spot and let your child put in a marble every time they go to bed and stay there without a fuss. Then, when the jar is full, let your child choose a fun activity to do with the family or pick someone in the neighborhood who needs some home-made cookies. (A sense of control and self-determination is extremely effective in moderating the behavior of strong-willed kids.)

Want more help?

If you’d like to talk more about your situation or these ideas, call us for a free over-the-phone consultation at 1-855-771-HELP (4357). Our licensed or pastoral counselors would love to hear from you and help in any way they can.

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