Your Teen Should Be Sleeping More
We talk about sleep hygiene for kids here a lot. Everyone is concerned about babies sleeping through the night. Everyone wrings their hands over toddlers and preschoolers and even elementary-aged kids getting enough sleep. No one debates its importance; we all agree it’s a big deal.
But then… kids become teens and parents just seem to shrug and throw their hands in the air, a lot of the time. Teens insist they’re not tired, and in asking around, more and more I hear of parents to teens who turn in earlier than their kids and hope it all works itself out. “I got tired of fighting,” one friend told me. Another said her teen had so much homework, there was no way around those late nights. And a third said, “I figure it’s good preparation for college, anyway. Who among us didn’t spend part of our teens skating by on a few hours a night for months on end?”
Here’s the reality, when it comes to teens and sleep: The average teen should be getting between 8 and 10 hours of sleep each night, and yet a mere 15% of teens actually are. And the very same parents (I include myself in this, by the way) who would never skip vaccines or let their underage kids drink or say, “Oh, you only want to eat cheese curls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Your choice, I guess!” are letting their teenagers sleep way, way less than that.
Adequate sleep is a health issue. Full stop. Sleep is critical at every stage of development (and for adults, too), but we tend to downplay its importance when it comes to our teens.
Worse, teens and their fast-developing, not-yet-fully-formed brains are particularly susceptible to deleterious effects of sleep deprivation. “Oh, all teens are moody.” Guess what—sleep deprivation makes you moody, and plenty of teens are sleep deprived.
So what does all of this mean? The Internet is chock-full of information about sleep debt, how to encourage sleep, how and why schedules matter, etc. I trust anyone who wants the scientific stuff can go find it. But if you are a real human person with real human teenagers who insist they’re “not tired,” what do you do? How do you help encourage your kids to get the sleep they need? I have a few suggestions.
Do as I do. If you’re a night owl, yourself, and especially if you’re a sleep-deprived one, don’t expect your teens to agree to parameters you don’t follow, yourself. Model good sleep hygiene—go to bed at a reasonable time! And while sleeping in on the weekend can be good for the soul and the sleep-deprived brain, most experts suggest you keep that weekend wake-up time within a few hours of your regular time, so model that, too.
Bedrooms are for sleeping. I realize that once the kids head off to college, their rooms will be their entire house, as it were, but while we have an actual entire house, bedrooms are for slumber. Our family doesn’t do screens in bedrooms. (I realize not everyone is down with this approach, but it works for us.) No TVs, computers, or phones in bedrooms, regardless of the time of day. Bedrooms are for relaxing and unwinding and not staring at glowing things (unless, I don’t know, your fairy godmother shows up and she’s especially shiny, I guess). On the flip side of this: We do allow/encourage music as part of the relax/unwind thing. Also, I will happily make sure you have whatever you need to make your bed a cozy cocoon of wonderfulness where you can’t wait to dive in and fall asleep. (Read: I’m a believer in lots of pillows, good-quality sheets, etc.)
The buddy system. Again, this isn’t going to work for everyone (and please don’t get a pet for this purpose!), but if you have pets who are lazy, sometimes a snoring animal companion is a help to a tightly-wound teen. Both my kids sleep better when one of the dogs is splayed across the covers being a great example of blissed-out sleep surrender.
Routine, routine, routine. Granted, in our house of ASD/ADHD we may rely more heavily on routines than the average bear, but routine is useful in establishing good sleep hygiene at any age. When your kiddo was a baby, you did bath/bottle/book/bed or whatever to get her settled for the night. When she was a little older, you still read together and had a tuck-in ritual. Just because they’re old enough to wander off on their own doesn’t mean they’ve lost the need for some familiar, repetitive steps to prepare their brains for a good night’s sleep. I believe even later-high-school-age teens need to have a bedtime. And while you maybe don’t run into their rooms and turn the light off, you absolutely can enforce a “this is the time I expect you to be in your room on school nights” rule for their own good. Maybe they’ll still stay up too late, but at least they’re closer to their beds, and working within a structure that cues their brains that sleep should be happening soon.
Give them some space to figure it out. Again, enforcing a nightly “in your room” time sets up a boundary that is suggestive but not absolute. Older kids need that, but they also need that wiggle room to figure things out for themselves. Yes, your teen is sometimes going to stay up until 2:00 am several nights in a row just because she can, and she’s going to be cranky and obnoxious and you are going to just ignore that as best you can and maybe suggest to no one in particular that not getting enough sleep sure can make a person surly. At the same time, if your teen isn’t getting up on time for school or otherwise meeting responsibilities, you may need to tighten the reins, some. But if they’re simply tired and cranky, let them be. They’ll solve it eventually.
Go for a walk. Today’s teens—mine definitely included—tend not to get enough exercise and/or outdoor time. When I notice one of my kids is really struggling with sleep, I grab ’em and make them go for a walk around the neighborhood with me. The benefits of just 20 minutes outside with your body moving are varied and plentiful (it’s a near-guaranteed mood elevator, too), but it will make it easier to sleep later in addition to everything else good it does for you.
(Now… all we need is a few more hours added to every day, and we’ll all be well-rested and happy….)