As children get older, they crave more independence and privacy. This is only natural but this doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t remain involved and ensure necessary routines be maintained. I know it isn’t easy and, in fact, can be a source of many arguments. Teens’ best strategy to get what they want is to simply wear their parents down, but in some cases it is absolutely vital that we stick to what we know is right, especially when it comes to sleep.
Because most parents lead busy lives and are tired, they don’t have the energy at the end of the day to ensure their teens are conforming to rules regarding bedtime, phone calls, use of technology, etc. Our kids can be very convincing. They are sure they are different, they can thrive on only a few hours sleep, they have to stay up to finish their assignments, and on, and on it goes. They are so vehement, even insulted that we don’t trust their judgment. They are quick to throw back at us the need for greater responsibility and decision-making. Your tired, their unrelenting, you think they should be old enough to know better…and you give in. Big mistake!
Let’s get the basics out of the way. First, research has shown that teenagers don’t need less sleep compared to when they were younger, but actually need more! They need an average of 9 hours of sleep. I can hear most of you gasp and think that is unrealistic and crazy, but it’s true. For optimal health (physical and emotional) and learning, 9 hours is ideal! However, most teenagers don’t get anything close to that amount. Many of you have heard about recent research, especially from the United States, claiming that teens have their own biological clock that makes them tired later and need to sleep in. In fact, many people are now supporting the idea of starting school later to accommodate their ‘natural sleep pattern’. But if you look at the data closer, they are talking about teens not being able to sleep before 11 p.m. – not 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning as many young people have made a habit. And the schools that were encouraged to have later openings had their first classes starting between 7 and 7:30 in the morning! Most schools in Canada do not begin before 8:30 a.m. and many do not start until 9 a.m.
Teachers don’t need studies to tell them that many of their students are chronically sleep deprived. Most young people in their teens (and many tweens) do not go to bed before 11 p.m. They are staying up to wee hours of the morning, whether their parents are aware of it or not (many of them are asleep and just happy that their kids stay in their rooms). They are playing video games, chatting through email, facebook, twitter, and many other social media sites. They phone each other on their cells or text each other throughout the night. Not only to teachers have trouble keeping some students off their cell phones, parents are totally unaware of how much time their kids really spend on their phones. Because many of them have phone packages that include free texting and local calling, they are not alerted by extra charges and don’t really pay attention. Parents need to take a close look at how much time their kids are spending on their phones and especially when they are on their phones! Are they getting and sending out a lot of texts when they are supposed to be in their classes learning? Are they receiving many calls and texts after midnight? If so, their technology is impairing a healthy lifestyle and it’s time to do something about it. When you were young, would your parents allow you to accept calls late at night if it wasn’t an emergency? Your kids will tell you things have changed. And they have. We have lost control over how our children spend their nights and they have developed self-destructive habits that have significant impacts on their daily functioning and ability to succeed.
Electronic media such as computers, TVs, cell phones, and video games make up just one aspect of teens’ lives that prevent them from going to bed at a reasonable time (between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m). Poor time management and organization skills (which many people struggle with) are also key components. Many students do not take advantage of time given in class to do work, and/or do not schedule time after school or early evening to do their work. They procrastinate or are simply tired because they haven’t got enough sleep in the first place. They also waste a lot of time with their electronic toys. Yes, computers are invaluable for efficient research, organizing, and producing their work. Young people can also use their computers to collaborate on projects and help each other study. But the truth is that much of their time on their computers and using technology is unproductive, and over time, many young people have developed poor study habits. They are convinced they can listen to music, chat, do their work online, and watch TV all at the same time. They may manage to do so and feel uncomfortable when they have to focus on one thing at a time, but this approach prevents them for managing their time efficiently and learning optimally (becoming easily distracted and unable to fully focus on any given problem or project). It also affects their mood. Negativity, depression, anxiety, and frustration can all be associated with lack of sleep and technology dependence. Quick fixes like caffeine, power drinks (more caffeine), and drugs do not only create dependency issues but are actually counter- productive.
Now, at this point, all of you are saying – oh, but that’s not my kid! Are you sure? Sleep deprivation can affect mood, performance, attention, learning, behavior and even biological functions. It can lead to car accidents, loss of confidence, weight gain or loss, acne, and so impact many other aspects of your child’s life. Being a teenager can be tough enough and confusing enough for both you and your child. And getting your teen back into a healthy and productive routine will not be easy, but is absolutely vital. So where to start?
- Help them create a schedule for their schoolwork based on a realistic amount of time they normally need. Teach them about project management. Check in with them regularly to see how their planning and scheduling is working out. Be encouraging and not overly critical but be consistent with the message that they must work things out within the time they have available to them during the day (not during the time that is suppose to be their bedtime). If, as things often happen, their plans are not working out, encourage them to begin thinking about how other activities need to be managed in order for them to meet their priorities. Their top priorities should be their health and their education (not the party they want to go to Saturday night or shopping at the Mall Thursday after school, or catching a movie with their friends Sunday afternoon)
- If they are struggling with the course work or workload, get them additional resources – extra help at school, a tutor, spend more one-on-one time with them, or recruit the assistance or a sibling or relative. If they are a slow reader, consider buying them the audio form of the book to listen along to when they are reading. Consult with your child’s teachers to find out other ways the school and you can work more productively to support your teen.
- Start talking about getting reading for bed around10 p.m. (putting the electronics away, beginning their hygiene routines, organizing themselves for the next day, etc.)
- At 11 p.m. they are to be in their rooms (remove their cell phones, shut down their internet (or better yet ensure the computer is in a quiet study space outside their bedroom) and remove any video games. Their light should be dimmed and curtains shut. Their alarm should be set for at least 8 hours of sleep, leaving enough time to get ready in the morning (and ideally have a healthy breakfast).
- Encourage them not to drink anything with caffeine after dinner or to eat or exercise within a couple of hours of bedtime.
- If they have not completed their homework, you may encourage them to do it at lunch if possible. This is the really difficult part – they must bear the consequences of poor habits – procrastination, poor choices, and old fashion rebellion. Of course, if they have serious sleep issues, they should not be punished and a health professional should be consulted. But do not be manipulated to believe that their failure is due to your insistence on a bedtime. Do not do their homework for them and do not call the school or their teacher asking them to make exceptions. If they can negotiate an extension with the teacher or do work to make-up a late assignment, great! That is something they should have to work out as a consequence of their choices.
- Try to avoid arguments before bed because increased stress will impact your child’s ability to sleep. This may be difficult at first because they will pull out every trick in the book not to have to conform to a routine. In advance, speak to them calmly about the importance of sleep and how you are committed to providing the best environment possible for their healthy development and success. Do not waiver. Be consistent and eventually they will realize that this is the new normal.
- Model good health habits, including a similar sleep routine.
Laying down the law or coming on like a drill sergeant is not the best approach. Ideally, your child should see that you are coming from a place of concern, wanting them to be happy and healthy. You should communicate your desire to help him or her with issues they may have already made known to you (being tired, not getting to school on time, not performing at the level they hoped, being irritable or over emotional, feeling stressed, etc). They should be involved in setting goals, creating schedules, and given the opportunity to discuss their views and problems. But, in the end, if they are choosing destructive habits, it is your responsibility as a parent to create an environment that will help support your child’s healthy development.