Making sure your teenager gets enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do to help them succeed.
Teenagers typically get far too little sleep during the school year. If your teenager is like most, they only get about 7 hours of sleep a night. This is typical, but not healthy! Teenagers actually need 9-10 hours of sleep to support their growing bodies and brains.
In addition, teenager’s biological clocks are set later than they were when they were younger. Ironically, most high schools start much earlier than elementary schools, so just when your teenager needs to sleep later, they have to get up earlier and earlier for school.
Some high schools are beginning to acknowledge the research, and have later start times, but they are few and far between. Moreover, there is a push to end the school day early for student athletes, who need to leave to get to their games. The later the school day ends, the more instruction the athletes miss.
Why is sleep so important for teenagers?
First of all, sleep is critical for mood regulation. Without a good night’s sleep your teenager will struggle to manage anxiety and moods. If your teenager is in a low mood, stressed-out, or irritable, sleep deprivation could be a major contributor.
Secondly, your teenager needs a good night’s sleep in order to function in school and in sports. Your teen may say they don’t feel tired (Venti latte? Giant Red Bull? Super-size Cola?) but they are not as alert and able to learn if they are low on sleep. It will be more difficult for them to process complicated material, and they will certainly not perform as well on the field as they might have.
Finally, if your teenager is low on sleep, they may fall asleep in class. This often happens in the classes where they are struggling the most. The material becomes overwhelming (poor mood regulation, also a result of lack of sleep) and then they miss critical information, which puts them further behind. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of poor performance and shame.
So, what can a parent do to help their teen get more sleep?
Unfortunately, your influence is limited. If you have a good relationship with your teenager, they may listen to what you have to say, but the pull of their social circle is probably going to be a whole lot stronger.
Nighttime is when teen world gets busy. Everyone is texting and posting and your teenager will have trouble resisting the urge to join in, even if they intend to.
Here are some strategies you can use to help your teenager get to bed on time, be able to sleep once they are in bed, and be able to sleep in as long as possible in the morning.
1. Make sure your teenager does their homework before watching TV, playing video games, or hanging out on social media.
Some kids may not have trouble getting their homework done at a reasonable hour, but others will need more supervision to accomplish this.
The best way to keep track of them is to have them do their homework in a common area of the house. Maybe the living room is designated as a quiet place for the kids to do homework before dinner.
This way, when it’s time for bed, your teenager doesn’t have the compelling excuse that they need to do their homework first!
2. Have them set their phones on “Night Shift” from about 9:00pm to 6:00am.
On an iPhone go to Settings–> Display and Brightness –> Night Shift. Android users can get an app called Twilight.
This puts an orangey glow on their screen that tells their brains to wind down for sleep. Sounds simple, and it is, but the research shows that it really works, to a certain extent. You can also get an app for the computer called f.lux that does the same thing.
3. Caffeine. Just Don’t.
The morning scene in front of high schools these days is hundreds of teenagers with large paper cups of coffee in their hands, but by the time they get home from school, they should be done with caffeine for the day.
If your teenager is taking any medication, be sure to talk to the prescribing physician about any sleep problems they may be having. This is especially true for ADHD medication.
4. Help them set up their morning routine the night before.
You can request that they set out their clothes for the next day the night before, so they don’t have to worry about it in the morning. Kids who wear uniforms need to be sure they have all the pieces that are required for the following day.
One thing you can do for them to help out is to get their lunch ready for them the night before. Teenagers are often not hungry for breakfast before they leave, but you can always pack an extra sandwich or a smoothie/protein drink for them to take with them. When I was working in high schools around Los Angeles, I often saw kids who were starving by the last period of the day because they had already eaten their lunch by about 9:00am.
If your teenager is doing poorly in their last class of the day, but well in their other classes, be sure to inquire about what they are eating, and when. Sometimes this is a quick and easy fix- a couple of extra sandwiches can make a big difference in a teenager’s ability to focus in their last class of the day.
Now here comes the tough one…
5. Take their phones after 11pm and turn off your internet.
This will get a lot of resistance, and may not be the hill you want to die on. As in, pick your battles. You are going to have to gauge how to approach this based on your relationship with your teenager.
It will however, be a lot easier to insist on this if you follow this rule as well. If you are easily sucked into the internet late at night, you might want to check out my blog post on ways to limit your time spent on the internet.
Maybe you could sell it as an experiment. “Let’s see how we all feel after a week if we make a family commitment to turn off all screens after 11:00pm”
You could also put it on them: “Well, if you are able to be up and in the car/school bus on time with all your homework done, then I guess you are getting enough rest with your system. But I notice that you have a lot of trouble getting up on time since school started, so we are going to try this for a while.”
Helping your teenager to get enough sleep can be a constant struggle. Don’t give up!
The times that they do get enough sleep, be sure to point out how much better they feel and how much better they do in class and sports.
Many teens have trouble sleeping once they are in bed for the night.
This is yet another reason to put the phones away after 11pm. Most teens' phones will ping all night long with updates and texts on group chats. This disturbs their sleep more than they realize.
Please reassure them that even if they are not actually sleeping, lying quietly and resting is almost as good for their body. Sometimes the stress about not sleeping will keep them awake. Lying quietly is good.
If your teen struggles with sleeping once they are in bed, this can be a good time to break the ‘no electronics’ rule, and let them listen to a meditation or a guided visualization. (If their phone is on "airplane mode" it won't ping all night) Have them find one or two they like before they go to bed, so they aren’t getting frustrated trying to find one in the middle of the night.
If you find that your teenager is unable to get a good night’s sleep despite their honest efforts to do so, it may be time to seek some professional help.
If your teenager spends an inordinate amount of time sleeping, that can be a sign of depression. Many teens routinely sleep in until the afternoon on the weekends and vacations, but if your teen can’t seem to get out of bed even when there is something fun to do, it is time to talk to a doctor or a therapist about their symptoms.
First get a routine check up to make sure there are no physical causes. Be sure to mention your teenager’s sleep problems to your doctor.
If your teenager has no physical problem preventing them from sleeping, and/or they seem anxious, irritable, or depressed, please call me at 323-999-1537 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a free 15-minute phone conversation. I am happy to help you find the appropriate resources in your area.
A good night’s sleep is vitally important to our well-being. If your teenager isn’t getting one, chances are you aren’t getting one either! I want everyone to wake up feeling rested and ready to meet the day!
This blog post is part 2 of a Back-To-School series. Click here to read Part 1- How Do I Get My Teenager to Do Their Homework. Click here to read Part 3 – How Do I Get My Teenager To Talk To Me? Click here to read Part 4 – Is Instagram Bad For My Teenager?