By Lisa Damour
Here’s the bad news: teenagers need nine hours of sleep a night, but almost half get fewer than seven. Here’s the better news: parents can help their teenagers get enough sleep (most of the time), but it means putting rules in place during the tween years.
Sleep is a powerful glue that holds each and every one of us together, and well-rested teens and tweens think smarter, learn faster, and remember more than their drowsy classmates. Sleep also lowers stress, boosts mood, improves communication skills, enhances health, and reduces injuries and accidents. And, of course, getting enough sleep will give your teen the energy she needs to get through her demanding days.
How do you get there? Start by making the ten hours of sleep needed by tweens non-negotiable. When your fifth grader asks if he can try out for the science Olympiad, stay on the hockey team, and join a youth group, consider saying, “Here’s the deal: Until you’re thirteen, I get 10-1/2 hours of your day. Ten of those hours are for sleep and the half hour is for dinner and chores. That leaves you with 13-1/2 hours. You can take on new activities if you can finish your homework and get to bed on time. If you can’t, we’ll reconsider your extracurriculars.” Feel free to add, “When you’re 13, you get one more waking hour, but I still get nine hours for sleep.”
The tween years are also prime time for establishing good sleep hygiene habits. Psychologists use this off-putting term to refer to the routines that support sleep. For example, we know that it’s best to go to bed and wake up at consistent hours in a bedroom that is cool, dark, and quiet. And what’s the number one threat to good sleep hygiene for teenagers? You guessed it: digital devices. The light they emit suppresses key sleep hormones, and, when used in the bedroom, technology disrupts the critical connection our bodies make between being in bed and falling asleep.
When your sixth grader lobbies for a phone of her own, use her burning need to text with her friends to lay down rules that will support her sleep: all technology stays out of her bed (better yet, her bedroom), shuts down an hour before bedtime, and charges where it won’t bother her at night. If she balks at these rules, let her know that you’re holding yourself to the same standards; they are as necessary for adults as they are for tweens and teens.
Work to get good habits in place while you still have a tween, because the sleep deck is stacked against teenagers. A biological phenomenon known as sleep phase delay causes adolescents to want to stay up longer and sleep in later. And, in a diabolical twist, the school start times in most communities run against kids’ natural sleep patterns. Most kindergarteners get sleepy early and are up hours before the school day begins, while most teenagers can burn the midnight oil but have to drag themselves out of bed to make it to school on time.
If your teen didn’t get good sleep habits in place before adolescence and is suffering now, it’s not too late to help her make changes. Teenagers, especially tired ones, can be open to guidance on how to adjust their habits to improve sleep. Don’t take a judgmental tone when offering your advice (nothing turns teens off faster), just focus on the biological facts about sleep that apply to everyone.
With their busy schedules and heavy homework loads, getting the recommended nine hours of sleep is an uphill battle for most teenagers. What’s the best way to win an uphill battle? Get the best possible habits in place before it even begins.
Lisa Damour is a psychologist and the director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. Her forthcoming book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, will be published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, in February 2016.