When it comes to teens getting enough sleep, numerous forces are working against them. Early school start times are wreaking havoc on their circadian rhythms. An overload of after-school activities is turning bedtime into gotta-start-on-homework time. The buzz of texts from friends, the screens shining in their faces and the constant lure of just one more game or episode of Riverdale are keeping their brains wired well into the night. And all the lectures coming from concerned mums and dads seem to be dissolving into thin air because, well, adolescence. And so they slog through their days, cranky and short-fused and barely able to respond to basic questions. As parents, you wonder if there's anything you can do to help.
You can and you must.
Teenagers need sleep — more of it than they probably think. According to the latest recommendations from the US National Sleep Foundation, kids ages six to 13 should get nine to 11 hours. Teens ages 14 to 17 need eight to ten hours. And young adults from 18 to 25 should aim for seven to nine hours. Yet very few are getting it. Only about 8 per cent of American teenagers are snoozing for the optimal amount of time — nine and a quarter hours — based on a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
That means the rest are sleep-deprived — many severely so. One study showed that 59 per cent of teenagers get fewer than six hours of sleep on school nights. The effects of this go beyond dozing off in fifth-period trigonometry. Sleep deprivation can impair their judgment (at a time when they're already wired to engage in risky behaviour), trigger anxiety and mood disorders, impact their ability to learn, increase their risk of obesity when they become adults, make them more likely to get sick and lead to car accidents. It can also make them more prone to getting zits.
For parents, it will likely take more than a gentle "Hey, honey, it's getting late" to shift your teen out of their ingrained habits. Here's what you can do instead.
Show Them Why They Need Sleep, Strategically and Respectfully
A whole lot of us could use more sleep, and better sleep — as adults, we generally acknowledge that. Once you reach 30 or so, you realise sleep is glorious! One of life's greatest pleasures! Many teenagers, however, believe they function just fine on very little sleep, or if they're tired, they can simply "catch up" on zzzs on the weekends, which is not true. And when they have a strong opinion about something, and their parents try to convince them otherwise, it can lead to a power struggle.
"Many kids resist changing their sleep patterns because they don't want to hear 'I told you so' from their parents," write Dr. William Strixrud and Ned Johnson in their book The Self-Driven Child. "It is important to approach the subject in such a way as to validate their knowledge of themselves. You could say something like, 'You may be right. You may be one of those kids who needs less sleep than most people. Let's see if that's the case. I want to support you in making good decisions for yourself.'"
Also, know that it's hard for teens to go to bed at an hour that you'd consider reasonable. Ellen Wermter, a nurse practitioner at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine tells me, "Teens are already predisposed to a delayed phase sleep pattern, meaning that as they reach adolescence it becomes harder for them to go to bed in the earlier nighttime hours. They are simply not sleepy." Approaching the issue from a place of empathy and understanding, rather than with threats, can go a long way.
Strixrud and Johnson note that teens often respond best when advice comes from a third, non-parental party. Maybe you have a trusted pediatrician or counselor who can share some insight. You can't force your child to sleep, but you can talk about sleep and find out what's keeping him from sleeping, and then together, come up with a plan.
Shift Your Family's Routines
Just about every sleep expert I spoke with emphasised one word when it comes to helping your teens get enough sleep: routines. "You cannot, and shouldn't, aim to control everything, but selectively influence what you're able," says Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental pediatrician who has written the forthcoming book How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, an Happy Kids. "Encourage a lifestyle that allows for family time, down time, exercise and sleep. Routines like regular family meals and rules around technology have been shown to benefit teens behaviorally and academically."
In the morning, expose your teens to outside light — open the windows, have them walk the dog and maybe encourage them to walk to school. And do this on weekends, too. Wermter tells me that sleeping in on Saturday and Sunday can cause "social jet-lag" — from Monday to Wednesday, they will likely find themselves groggy and unmotivated.
Then in the evening, try to eat dinner while it's still light out, but if your kids need a snack after that, make sure it's one that won't upset their stomach and mess up their sleep. Encourage them to set up a homework schedule in which they do everything that requires a screen first. All non-screen projects can be done after that. Because blue light from devices has a major impact on melatonin levels, Wermter says all screens should be put away one or two hours before bedtime. It's also important to take a critical look at your teen's schedule. If juggling drama club, volleyball practice, drill team and SAT practice sessions is making your kid exhausted and weepy, you'll need to help them prioritise and maybe make some difficult cuts.
Set Up the Right Environment With the Right Tools
Good sleep requires the right environment, and that often means calling in the reinforcements. Here are some that may be truly worth the investment:
- A family device charging dock: Give all of your family's devices — laptops, phones, iPads — a bedtime and a place to sleep and recharge. The dock should be placed outside of the bedrooms.
- A non-phone alarm clock: Alarms with wake-up lights that simulate a sunrise are Lifehacker favourites.
- A blue-light filter for your screens: If your kid must do homework on a screen at night, he needs a filter. f.lux is a free download that adjusts a computer's display according to the time of day, making the colour warm at night so your eyes can rest.
- Blue-blocker glasses: Have your teen wear them any time they are using screens in the evenings. Wermter likes the light-blocking glasses by Swanwick Sleep.
- A weighted blanket: If your teen has racing thoughts at night due to anxiety, a weighted blanket could be helpful.
- Cooling bedding and a fan to keep the room cool: Teenage hormones can make their bodies run hotter than adults.
- Smart lights: You can have Alexa gradually start dimming the lights at a set time, letting everyone know it's time to start winding down.
Lobby for Later School Start Times
This might be the most important task of all. While parents can and should help their teens establish better routines, optimise their environments and sing the praises of sleep from the rooftops, the fact is that most school schedules are not synchronised to adolescent biology. A just-released study by researchers from Children's National Health System found that by shifting middle school start times to 8 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m., seventh and eighth grade students have been able to get an average of 17 minutes more sleep each weeknight, which might not sound like much, but is, in fact, huge. The kids reported feeling less tired and more alert during class.
Having school start later is controversial, of course — parents need to get to work and the shift might interfere with after-school activities. But there are real health risks that come with teenage sleep deprivation. This is something we simply can't sleep on.