They're tired but wired
When children's bodies crave rest, they may experience a surge of adrenaline to compensate. A disruption in their regular routine can compound the problem. The antidote to this energy burst isn't to move bedtime later to accommodate it -- in fact, it's a sign that your child needs to be put to sleep earlier. So stick to a set schedule, no matter how alert your child appears to be. "Kids thrive on structure, even if they seem to resist it," says Kurcinka. "A good bedtime routine lets a body know it's time to sleep."
"After an exciting early evening of T-ball, my son Owen, who's five, told me he didn't want to go to bed and that he wasn't tired at all!" says Lesley Hargrave of Zionsville, Indiana. "Of course, he was exhausted, so I just pretended not to hear his protests and carried on with our normal bedtime. I kissed him good night and left the room -- he was out like a light in about five minutes."
Smart woman. When my son was 4, my husband and I routinely found ourselves on long walks through the neighborhood at 9 p.m. because Henry seemed literally to be bouncing off the walls (or at least from couch to chair) after the sun set. Finally, his preschool teacher gently urged us to put Henry to bed earlier because he was so tired in school. Like many first-time parents, we were amazed to discover that despite Henry's protests to the contrary, he easily fell asleep at his new, reasonable bedtime.
But while bedtime routines help regulate a child's sleeping clock, they do little to convince him, no matter how worn out he is, that going to sleep is something he wants to do. Most kids don't like to be alone in their rooms or separated from you, and they don't want to miss out on whatever's going on in the household after they've been tucked in. Similar impulses provoke an otherwise played-out kid to refuse to leave the playground, toy store, or playdate. "Just five minutes more!" they wail, even when umpteen five-minute extensions have already been granted.
The fatigue factor can also trigger a meltdown when a depleted child simply can't recognize when to call it quits. Such was the case recently for 6-year-old Genevieve Shortz of Belfast, Maine, a high-octane kid, according to her mom, Lindsey. As a playdate wound to a close, it was almost impossible for Shortz to extricate Genevieve from a friend's house. "We finally got out of the house and started to walk home when she broke down and began to cry -- and yell and stomp her feet," Shortz says. "It turned into the worst public tantrum I've seen. She screamed and yelled, and nothing helped."
To defuse a meltdown like Genevieve's, says Kurcinka, empathy and calm work wonders. "Say to your child, 'Stop. I will help you to stop.' Pick her up, if you can, and hold her. Name the emotions you think she might be experiencing, even if you're just guessing. 'You're mad that you had to leave your friend's house. You wish you could play as long as you wanted.'" Your Zen-like serenity, in most cases, will be contagious. (Once she's settled down, you can talk about the words she can use to describe her feelings in the future.)