What Parents Should Know About Their Teens’ Sleep Problems

If you’re reading this, I already know that you are frustrated with the power struggles, impossible-to-follow advice, and the advice you know doesn’t work regarding your kids’ sleep problems. You suspect that if your teen could sleep better, they’d feel better, but you can’t seem to get through to them. You have heard there are effective treatments available to them, but where are they? Who can help? I am about to tell you something radical: It may be time to give up some of the struggle. I want you to have the information that you need so you can consider whether taking a step back to allow your teen to set goals they can manage may work better for both of you. Some parents find this news difficult. Some find it a relief. In either case, I want you to think on your results in this struggle with your kids’ sleep, and consider an alternative.

Many parents are told to enforce strict schedules to get 9 to 10 hours of sleep that do not take into account the hormonal shift in their teens’ body clock and the demands to rise early for school. The trouble with this is that enforcing early schedules inadvertently creates insomnia. It also starts a tug of war with your teen. They know it is impossible to fall asleep early.

Biological Shift With Puberty

Here is some information you need to know to make decisions about how to handle your teens’ newfound night owl tendencies. With puberty, there is a hormonally driven, biological shift later in the time that your teen will become sleepy and the time that they become alert. This does not reflect obstinate, procrastinating, or lazy behaviour—this is biology. If teens are forced to bed early, they develop negative attitudes and/or reject the idea of a healthy schedule when they gain control over their schedule (e.g., when they go to college).

It is unrealistic to expect them to get up early for school. The problem is not with them, it is with our insistence of starting school early. So what is the alternative? One option to consider is looking for a high school with a later start time and/or to lobby to get your school to get on board with a later start time. Schools that accommodate this biological shift see better results in attendance, grades, and mental health, and a decrease in teen motor vehicle accidents. If a change in schools is not an option, it’s time to try and make the best of it with some strategies.

Blue Light and Electronics

You’ve heard about blue light and that exposure at night can shift the body clock later. It is highly unrealistic to inflexibly attempt to take all electronics away hours before bed. Negotiate a schedule of shut-down of electronics collaboratively. Ask your teen to think about which devices are most disruptive—not just because of blue light but also because the device can be associated with exciting or upsetting information (e.g., social media or intense TV shows), or for its potential to create the fear of missing out (FOMO). Then try an experiment for two weeks in which the most-disruptive device is powered down two hours before bed, the second-most-alerting device is powered down the hour before, and so on. Ask them to try a relaxing wind-down routine (e.g., reading, a bath, drawing, journaling) in the half-hour before bed.

The good news is that since blue light exposure can shift the body clock, we can use it to shift the body clock earlier. How? Increase light exposure upon awakening. Many teens resist turning the lights on even after they get out of bed. They leave the blinds drawn, lights off, and hoodie up covering their face, and they shuffle around the house in denial that they are even awake. This prolongs a negative feeling of grogginess called sleep inertia and it delays the message to the body clock that it is time to get up. Movement and light are powerful in telling the clock that you want to start getting up earlier. Thus, it is facetious, but true, that the best way to get up earlier is to get up earlier, and to let the light set their clock earlier.

Encourage them to experiment with moving their morning routine to pre-bedtime. In order for them to be able to sleep in a little more on school days, ask them to make their lunch and put it in the fridge, take their shower, pack their school bag, and lay out tomorrow’s clothes so that they can roll out of bed later than they do currently, grab something for breakfast, and head out the door.

Teens will be sleep-deprived during the school week because of early school start times. Sleepiness can create problems with falling asleep during class but it can also create dangerous conditions for new drivers. Brief naps (less than half an hour) can and, in some cases, should be used to compensate safely for sleep loss on weekdays, but not on the weekends. If teens go to bed at midnight during the week and rise at 7 a.m., they can sleep in on the weekends to get an adequate amount of sleep, but their bedtimes should not differ dramatically, and they should not overcorrect on weekend mornings. This is because their body is a clock with the expectation of regularity. If the clock expects a midnight bedtime and it encounters a far later bedtime, the entire clock shifts later. The later shift will make it extremely difficult to go to bed at a reasonable time on Sunday night (12 a.m.) and make it almost impossible to rise at 7 a.m., because the body believes it should rise hours later. Physiologically speaking it will feel like traveling multiple time zones, albeit without the scenery of the trip.

Putting Teens in Charge of Sleep Goals

Whenever possible, it is more effective for parents to wait to be invited as a resource to help. Research tells us that teens can set and accomplish more health-related goals when they are able to set their own goals. Once they have the information, they can make decisions that will ultimately make them feel better, more alert, and more well-rested. It is supportive to check in and ask if you can help, but it is helpful for the teen to be in charge of their own sleep habits. Free self-management apps may help your teen assess their own sleep and make reasonable, achievable goals. If they struggle, evidence-based books with the same cognitive-behavioural approach, like Goodnight Mind for Teens, can help your teen feel better and sleep better.

You can also model good sleep habits, which include powering down your devices and engaging in a regularly timed wind-down period in the hour before bed. There are many opportunities to affect positively the lives of the teen in your life by cheerleading their positive steps toward change. Giving them tools that put them in the driver seat is one way to give up some of the struggle and watch them succeed.