I have a little sign on my desk that says, “I’m not a morning bird or a night owl. I’m some sort of permanently exhausted pigeon.”
Funny because it’s true, right? But funny for a middle-aged woman. Not so funny when it comes to teenagers. Yet teenagers are the worst when it comes to sleeping issues. They need a lot more sleep than they think and on top of that, they do it ALL WRONG.
My own kid is a vampire. She likes to stay up all night and then sleep until mid-afternoon. I realize this is a common theme for teenagers.
So much so that our school county readjusted the school schedules so that younger kids had an earlier start time and older kids could sleep in a little longer.
Even with the later start, most kids come home and nap once school is over. Which then means they stay up later. Which then means they sleep later. You see where this is going.
I’ve tried to nix the nap. Told my kid to just start her homework as soon as she gets home so she can go to bed earlier, but she’s just been in 7 hours of school – I get that she might need some time to give her brain a break. But even if that break is an hour or so of mindless TV or reading a book, she almost always falls asleep.
I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of amazing experts and my job so when it came to getting help with these sleep issues, I turned to Dr. Julia Nordgren, who is a pediatrician.
Dr. Julia believes the issue of vampire teens goes back to availability of screens. “When so many kids are up at night on Snapchat, FaceTiming, etc., it can be very hard for teens to detach.”
Further, the light from screens can influence the natural circadian rhythms, tricking your brain into thinking its daylight and making you feel more awake. A teen on her phone at night is likely to stay up an extra hour or seven if she doesn’t think she’s tired.
Dr. Julia adds, “Many teenagers are in the position of having to be up and functioning at school at a certain time, so I would work back from that time and encourage a bedtime 9 hours before. Ideally, they should be turning screens off an hour before that. And I could shoot the moon here – reading an actually hand-held book before going to sleep! That’s ideal.”
Sleep Like a Baby
When I was a kid, my mom never let us sleep past 9 am — even when we didn’t have school. She thought people would think she was a bad mother for raising lazy children. I HATED being woken up and I would be grumpy all day, especially in her general direction. I still hate waking up.
My kid is great about getting herself up and to school, so in exchange, when there’s no reason to get up, I leave her alone to sleep in – bad mothering be damned.
Turns out bad mothering is the new good mothering.
As Dr. Julia notes, “I think it is more important to really get a sense of how much quality sleep kids are getting, regardless of the exact time the sleep happens. Like if a teen sleeps from 1:30 am – 10 am each day, this could be fine (as long as they don’t have to be getting up for school!). But 3 am -9 am is probably not enough.”
And unlike me, don’t hate on naps. Embrace the power of alarm clocks so the kids don’t overdo it and mess up their sleep cycles but let them recharge.
Serious Sleep Situations
If your kid is more than just “teen tired,” consider talking to a doctor or getting a sleep study. There are a plethora of new sleep problems brought on by puberty.
When girls start their periods, they often become anemic, which causes low energy and general tiredness, but can easily be remedied with iron pills.
Teens are also prone to wearing themselves down and become susceptible to illnesses such as mono, which may not present any symptoms other than being constantly exhausted.
And even something as innocent as getting a retainer or braces to adjust the shape of your child’s mouth can change their breathing patterns, instigating mild sleep apnea so they never achieve the deeper levels of REM sleep that is so important to feel rested.
Another common teen issue is insomnia. Kids have problems. We might roll our eyes at their definition of problems, but for them, all the drama over who said what, who looked at who, and who wore what are big time issues.
Plus, school, siblings, parents, money, jobs, college, driving—the struggle is real. In order to focus on one thing at a time, kids push it all to the back of their minds during the day, then lay awake for hours sorting through it all.
If your kid has trouble falling asleep, consider introducing them to meditation or deep breathing techniques to help them calm the monkey mind before bed.
I am a huge fan of yoga nidra and taught my daughter some techniques that she still uses. Once I showed them to her, she was able to do them on her own and will never have to admit out loud that I introduced her to something that was actually (gasp!) helpful.
If you don’t have a kid who is up for meditation practices, suggest audio apps such as Calm or podcasts such as Sleep With Me, where the host intentionally tells the most boring stories on earth.
Or the IKEA Sleep podcast, where they read the names of Ikea furniture in soft, lulling voices. I’m not kidding – it’s the new ASMR.
With special thanks to Dr. Julia Nordgren for advising on this subject. You can find more of Dr. Julia’s advice, as well as delicious and nutritious recipes on her website or check out her published materials: The New Family Table and How Superfoods Work.