When my family is tired, we have a harder time coping. Period. But getting enough sleep—especially the nine hours recommended by pediatricians—seems impossible. So, I was grateful to get some practical advice about teens and sleep from Dr. Francoise Adan, a psychiatrist for the Connor Integrative Health Network which is affiliated with University Hospitals.
The Importance of Sleep
Q: What are the risks for teenagers who are not getting enough sleep?
Adan: When you are sleep-deprived, it can decrease your attention when you drive, thereby increasing your risk of an accident in the same way as alcohol. It also increases the risk of mood disorders and depression. It can make you cranky and moody, which can lead to self-medication. For example, you might use a stimulant, like a caffeinated drink; then, because you are stimulated from the caffeine, you don’t sleep well. That’s a vicious cycle. Then of course, lack of sleep impacts the ability to retain information, which then impairs your test taking.
Q: What can parents do to ensure that teens who need more sleep get it?
Adan: Awareness is really the key. Really stress that sleep is important. It’s critical for physical, emotional, and behavioral health. Teach your teenagers to take care of their sleep in the same way we want them to take care of their bodies.
Q: How do we teach that?
Adan: Ideally, we want to help teenagers in creating a sleep routine—that means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day. Create rituals. For example, take a warm bath or a shower a few hours before bedtime. Listen to some quiet music, and for sure do not use electronics: no phone, no social media, no computer. Technology not only overstimulates the brain; the light emitted by our devices interferes with our ability to fall asleep.
Q: What else can teenagers do to have an easier time falling asleep?
Adan: Bedrooms should be completely dark, which means some teenagers might find benefits from wearing an eye mask. You can also install light-blocking shades. The room should be comfortably cold—68 degrees. White noise, lavender essential oil spray on the pillows, chamomile tea—these can also help.
Q: Do you have any tips for how to let go of the stress from the day?
Adan: I’d suggest these stress release exercises, which can really help. Breathe in to the count of four, hold your breath and tense all your muscles, and then when you cannot hold your breath any more, breathe out to the count of six. This helps release the tension, while also reminding your body what it’s like to feel relaxed.
Q: What about those “counting sheep” tricks?
Adan: The idea behind those is to be mindful and to interrupt the train of thought that might be keeping you awake. Often, we are hijacked by our thoughts, and that can interfere with sleep. “I can’t fall asleep and I’m tired, and if I’m tired I’m not going to do well, and if I don’t do well I’m not going to go to college, my parents are going to be unhappy, I’m never going to meet Mrs. Right.” Before you know it, it’s one o’clock in the morning and you’re not asleep.
So how can you reset if this happens? Use your senses. “So, it’s one o’clock and I’m awake. I see the ceiling. I see the curtains. I hear a car in the street. I feel the comforter on my body and the pillows supporting my back.” Really try to anchor yourself into the present, not the thoughts about tomorrow or last week. That’s practicing mindfulness at night.
Q: What about giving teenagers melatonin?
Adan: I think you are going to have a hard time finding a pediatrician who feels comfortable recommending melatonin because there has been little research on its impact on teenagers. Melatonin is a hormone that our brains produce at the end of the day, when it gets darker. So if it’s not dark, the hormone is not going to be produced. Instead of offering artificial melatonin, make sure that the bedroom is dark and that all devices are turned off. Some people actually wear sunglasses in the evening.
Q: Why do so many teens struggle with falling asleep?
Adan: Part of the reason they don’t sleep well is because they are driven. Sometimes it’s parents putting on the pressure, but a lot of the time it’s self-imposed. There’s pressure with tests, athletics, relationships, family, college, and the future in general. There is so much reason for them to be anxious.
Q: How much sleep for teens should parents enforce during the weekend?
Adan: Ideally, we want to have the teens take responsibility for their sleep habits. But, let’s say we need to intervene. Explain to your teenager the consequences of poor sleep habits, so they can make good decisions. Make sure they don’t go to bed hungry and that they don’t have caffeine. But the reality is that we cannot force them to fall asleep. We can set some rules—turn off the TV, computer, or iPad—but we still can’t make them sleep.
Q: But what happens when a teen wants to hang out late at night on the weekend?
Adan: We are not going to have them in bed Saturday night at 11 p.m. Going to bed late is part of the fun of growing up. And they also need to have the freedom to experiment and learn from their mistakes. Hopefully they’ll realize, “Staying up too late on weekends is not helpful to me; therefore, maybe I need to do something differently. Because if I fall asleep on Monday, that’s just not going to help me to do well in school.” A lot of those kids are actually very motivated and will adapt towards something that is helpful to them. That is the ideal scenario—when the teenager is in charge of their sleep decisions.
Q: When should parents step in?
Adan: Allow them to have consequences. If they show up at a practice completely exhausted or they fail their test, don’t go and rescue them. We hope they will change their behavior based on the consequences of a bad practice or a terrible grade. At some point, however, you might feel the need to add some rules: “Tonight you are going to bed at 11 pm, turning off the lights, and giving me your phone.”
Q: Any final thoughts?
Adan: If your teenager has a system, and it works for him, then who are we to say, “Hey, this doesn’t sound right?”