To Sleep, Perchance To Teen
There are very few things I know for sure about this life, but here’s one of them: Sleep doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Sure, when we’re raising babies, nap-time is practically a cult (consider: “We can’t go out then, that’s the baby’s nap time,” signs on doorbells imploring people not to ring, and a multi-billion dollar industry built on bedding, clothing, and various other devices designed to woo little ones into slumber), and even with small children we’re still comfortable chuckling, “Someone’s cranky! I think you’re tired!” (And every parent in the world knows that the response to that, 99 times out of 100, will be a stamped foot and an indignant, “But I ‘m NOT TIRED!“)
Once our kids hit their teens, though, most of us figure they’re “basically adults” (pro tip: nope!) and also that if they get tired, they’ll go to bed. Most teenagers are chronically sleep-deprived and their parents don’t even realize it. Start here if you want some science: This is a good read on the importance of sleep for physical and mental health, and if you’d rather see some statistics on what, specifically, too little sleep does to teenagers, check out this piece. If you already know your teen is likely not sleeping enough but you’re not sure how to handle it, well… come sit by me.
I am, perhaps, hyper-attuned to this issue because sleep is near and dear to my heart. Rather—more accurately—sleep is key to my mental wellbeing in a way I simply cannot ignore. Everyone is healthier when they get the proper amount of sleep, but due to my particular genetics or my chronic struggle with depression, a little bit of sleep deprivation is enough to throw me into an emotional tailspin. I know, for example, that my husband can function just fine on about 7 hours of sleep each night. I can survive on that (though I’ll sleep longer on the weekends), but in a perfect world, I’d sleep more like 9 hours each night, instead. Throw me into a situation where I’m getting less than 6 hours/night several nights in a row? Look out. Put me in a predicament like I had last week, where for four nights in a row I averaged only 2-3 hours of rest? Take cover. On the fourth day I felt like I was losing my mind, and I knew it was because I was tired, but that didn’t make it any easier. “I am just so tired,” I sobbed, while my husband made worried eyebrows and patted me. Even during a lesser crisis, the first thing that my brain does is refuse to stay asleep—I’ll go to bed and wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep. The lack of sleep worsens the very emotions that beget the lack of sleep and thus a vicious cycle is born. Moral of the story: Give me my sleep, and no one gets hurt.
Both of my teenagers will say that sleep is no big deal, but that’s where their similarities end.
My firstborn fought sleep from the moment she was born. She was the baby who cried when you put her in the crib, napped only under perfect circumstances and only for 15 minutes at a time, woke up just as cranky as she went down, and if there were lawyers who specialize in negotiating later bedtimes, well, she’d be set for her future career. She’s a night owl who wants to read “just one more chapter, then I’ll turn the light off, I promise.” Melatonin is her friend, as sleep never comes easily for her (at least not at the hours we suggest she avail herself of it). Now a junior in high school and theoretically a short step away from moving out and holding the helm of her own life, her room currently contains three separate alarm clocks. She is capable of sleeping through all of them, even the one that rolls away and gets louder the longer you let it go. To say she’s not a morning person is like saying that active volcanos tend to be warm. She is the picture of chronic sleep deprivation despite our best efforts, and although she no longer stamps her foot when she says it, she still insists she’s “not tired” if it is mentioned at any time other than when she’s supposed to be getting up for the day. And yes, she may claim to be “not tired” just before falling asleep on the floor in the middle of the day.
My youngest, on the other hand, went from a colicky babyhood right into being the world’s easiest toddler, the main feature of which was his innate and peaceful sense of when he was tired. “Night night?” he’d ask, gathering up his favorite blanket and pointing to his crib. He’d do this at night, if we weren’t hustling the bedtime routine along fast enough for his liking, or midday, to let us know he needed a nap. After those years of believing that depositing a child in a crib meant a symphony of wailing, I scarcely knew how to react to his sigh of relief and immediate relaxation when he was tucked in. Now a sophomore in high school, my son pops out of bed when his alarm goes off and heads straight to the shower. Much to his sister’s chagrin, he doesn’t have a bedtime—because he announces he’s tired and going to turn in each night well ahead of when I’d feel like he must be in bed in order to be well-rested. He sleeps late on the weekends, now, but that’s a relatively new development (one that coincides with a recent growth spurt).
Both of my children (and me!) have issues with emotional regulation. When sleep deprivation is part of the mix, things can get ugly pretty quickly. I know for myself, getting back to a place of equilibrium after a run of disrupted or otherwise lacking sleep can take days, sometimes even weeks. My daughter, however, never seems willing to recognize sleep as a culprit in her poor mood, and while my son is always happy to hit the hay, school and activities sometimes make that difficult.
So what do we do? I don’t have a perfect solution, unfortunately (though if you do, please share), but we do have a few rules we follow in times of Sleep Deprivation And Other Calamities:
1) Do as I say, not as I do. I’ll admit it: when I’m dealing with sleep deprivation, I drink more coffee. It’s a workable strategy but not a great one, and thankfully neither of my teens have picked up the caffeine habit. I’m trying to keep it that way—for them, I encourage good hydration (drink your water!) and extra protein for energy-boosting, instead. And sometimes I even try that, myself.
2) Build in down days. Science shows that so-called “sleep debt” is hard to erase, and it’s not as straightforward as sleeping late on Saturday, but every little bit does help. Whenever possible, I try to make sure we have at least one day each week where nothing is scheduled. The kids often opt to stay in their pajamas all day, and that’s fine with me.
3) Make evenings boring. No electronics, no excitement around bedtime as much as possible. I may not be able to force them to sleep, but I can make sure the last hour or so before they should be turning in is calm and non-stimulating.
I wish I had a way to make sure we all get the amount of sleep we need, all the time, but my magic wand is on the fritz.Published March 10, 2015. Last updated July 24, 2017.