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“I’m Not Tired.” Helping Your Tween Manage Changes in Their Sleeping Pattern

“I’m not tired. Can I hang out with you?” asks your sweet 7th grader—at 10 p.m. on a school night.

His endaring sentiment is tempered by the late hour. We know the math: late bedtime on a school night equals hard wake-up, cranky breakfast, dragging feet, missed school bus, rougher school day, tougher after school. And, all of this invariably happens the night before an evening event that will preclude an early bedtime the next day.

So, go to bed already!

As the mom of four kids born in six years, I prize after-bedtime time as my unsupervised, me-time to do whatever I’d like. So, imagine my shock and dismay when the 12-year-old is still tossing and turning and occasionally interrupting that precious hour.

As a family doctor, though, I know the facts. Cortisol, the brain’s “awake” hormone, changes our internal clock as puberty approaches. Our tweens, who used to wake up at the crack of dawn but were sound asleep by 7:30 p.m., morph into people who aren’t tired before 11 p.m. and cannot drag themselves out of bed before 10 a.m.

This isn’t contrariness, laziness, or selfishness—it’s biochemistry. Your tween has a new sleep pattern. In fact, a middle school that acknowledges this biochemistry would start at 11 a.m. and end at 7 p.m.

Although late nights lead to unwelcome challenges, middle school is a pretty safe time for our kids to learn the skills they need to manage the consequences.

4 Tips to Accommodate a New Sleep Schedule:

1. Make waking up their responsibility

To avoid hard wake-ups, we’ve put the responsibility for waking up firmly into the hands of our middle schooler. He has an alarm clock and has learned to put it across the room so that he has to actually get up to turn it off. We don’t dictate when he has to wake up, only that he must be on the school bus when it shows up. If he isn’t on the school bus, he can walk to school (two miles) and take the detention for tardiness. That’s only happened once. Of course, the fact that it was raining that day may have helped our cause.

2. Provide portable breakfast

Our son isn’t hungry in the morning. But, if he doesn’t eat food before 10 am, he’s very difficult to be around (and probably not learning anything). Compromise: he takes protein shakes and healthy microwaveable breakfasts that he eats during homeroom.

3. Give them space

We’ve all learned to give our tween some space in the morning; his dragging feet don’t have to slow anyone else down. He doesn’t have to be cheerful, but he can’t be mean. Since I, myself, may be the opposite of Miss Mary Sunshine in the mornings, my kids have already had some practice with this.

4. Let them learn the hard way

Lack of sleep often leads to a tough school day. Middle schoolers are usually aware of the academic and social pushback they get when they behave badly at school. Though my heart aches for a child having a bad day, I also recognize that there is a lot he can learn from that experience.

After school isn’t easy either. I might dread this, but I don’t have to fix it. Our son is learning about his mood and his sleep, seeing the advantage of taking some downtime after school, or going to bed a little earlier when he notices the impact of less sleep on his mood.

At the end of the day, we need to realize that the sleep battle is not entirely our teens’ fault. A tween’s sleep pattern is wired for late to bed and late to rise. Our job is to work with them to figure out the best solutions.

Dr. Deborah Gilboa

Deborah Gilboa, M.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. G”), is a family physician and author of Get the Behavior Your Want  . . . Without Being the Parent You Hate. Follow her on Twitter @AskDocG or learn more at AskDoctorG.com.