Today we’re going to talk about how to handle sleep for our tweens and teens and why sleep seems to be so difficult for them biologically and socially. I want to give you some ideas about how to react and manage both your expectations and theirs regarding this really essential part of their growing years. With the stresses in our environment today the impact of sleep on our mental health and immune system is super important for us to pay attention to so I hope these ideas will smooth out a few issues in your home. With that said, let’s dive in.
Teens and Tweens
When our kids reach high school but sometimes as early as middle school, we start fighting with them when to go to bed and they just don’t want to. They’re big now, they have voices and talk back. They can disrespect us and ignore us. They think they know better. We’re often not the most trusted person in their lives even though some of us are lucky to still have close relationships at these ages.
There are a few complications that we need to be aware of:
The first is biological. The teen body clock changes in puberty so that it no longer matches the one that we have as adults or the one they had as littler kids. Scientists don’t understand why but it’s certainly been proven to exist. Their circadian rhythm is shifted later by up to TWO hours. That’s way different and a big stressor to us all because although parents can feel an emotional difference at this stage many of us are clueless that there are also biological issues going against us too. Right now you might have heard of the push for later high school start times which is where this is coming from. If their bodies get to sleep later we can assume that they’d need to wake up later so shifting the start time could be really helpful from a biological standpoint.
We’ve heard said that kids in middle and high school need 9-10 hours a sleep a night and many aren’t getting anywhere close to that which stresses us parents out. Why aren’t they getting enough sleep?
For some who are in high academic environments it can be loads of homework and in addition extracurricular activities being piled on top so that our kids can be competitive when they apply to colleges. The stress of this college push starts earlier and earlier these days, for many by middle school but certainly by freshman year of high school. Kids putting extra classes or harder classes on their schedules often with huge homework and test requirements. AP classes are great to see on college apps. Everyone seems to think the more the better? Right?
In my opinion, not right. I think it’s great to offer challenging classes to students who are interested but to push our kids or to let them push themselves for the sake of a grade bump for AP classes they’re not even interested in just doesn’t make any sense. If you have a Math kid, AP Calc makes sense but not AP Lit or AP Spanish. If you a literary kid then AP English makes total sense but not AP Physics. All this extra pressure for areas of non-interest is robbing our kids of sleep as they try to keep up. Take the pressure off and encourage your kids to focus on things that they’re interested in instead of filling in their college resumes. Colleges are also finally figuring this out and are looking for kids who have a focus instead of the rob-o kids who do everything well. They know it’s just not natural.
That said, I really feel that grades and college performance pressures are robbing our kids of sleep since they have way too much homework and have to stay up all hours to complete it.
Bed Times for Tweens
I do want to move on to give you some actual ideas about what you can do today concerning bedtimes and sleep.
First, Middle schoolers – I think it’s just fine having bedtimes but keep in mind their changing biological clocks. As they were growing through elementary school you should have been pushing back their bedtime each year by about 15 minutes or so. By the time they’re in middle school a bedtime of 9:30 or 10 isn’t unreasonable in my opinion. If your child loves at 9pm bedtime, go for it.
Bed Times for Teens
Next, High schoolers – I firmly believe that high schoolers should be setting their own bedtime. A bit scary for some of us but we only have four short years at most to love them though the learning process of what it means to manage their sleep. We need to not helicopter them but let them lovingly fail and encourage them when that happens. This includes making sure we’re not the ones waking them up, they need their own alarm clock and you give them love and empathy in the morning if they over sleep. Make sure they know that it’s their job to own when they go to sleep and when they wake up.
If they wake up grumpy because they were up late you can say something sweet and loving like: “Oh dear… you seem to be really tired. So sorry. It is really tough to go through the day when I’m tired. I bet you’ll figure things out. If you need some help with some ideas about what some kids might do, you just let me know. I’m happy to brainstorm with you after school if you want.” If they grumble back at you, ignore it and go on happily with your day. Don’t push. Let them know that you love them and look forward to seeing them later. Try to make it sound real even. If they really are grumpy then I’d also encourage you to listen to podcast #2 that deals with teens, emotions and how to handle them.
Another area we need to consider is to make sure electronics are kept in the right places and are not night time/bed time distractions. I’m going to do a separate podcast on electronics but know that my number one rule is for parents to, if at all possible, keep all electronics out of bedrooms and private places. If your teen already has all their electronics in their room you might have lost this battle but for some of you it’s possible you might have a window to talk to your teen about how their phone or laptop is robbing them of sleep that they so desperately need.
If you can, have brainstorming sessions where you discuss their sleep and how tired they seem to be. This is a bit tricky since we need to make sure we don’t lecture them but ask open ended questions. “Gosh, I noticed you had to stay up really late finishing your paper. It seems tough to plan your work, what classes are most challenging?” If your high schooler is touchy about all this, I would recommend setting up what I call Special Time and even going to a Special Place like a favorite sit-down restaurant so you can have their undivided attention. Sometimes with grumpy teens they behave better and have more conversation with you if you’re in public and they need to be polite.
One mom invested in some unlimited sushi to get her teen boy to have a serious discussion on this topic. Your budget might not allow that but be creative… teens around here seem to love Boba.. go for it if you think it will help. But, a nice couch in your home can work just as well if you can get them to sit with you. It should be just one parent, by the way, so your teen doesn’t feel like you’re ganging up on them.
Wake Up Times
One thing that lots of parents are frustrated with is they see their child staying up late playing games or YouTubing and then they want to sleep until 11, 12 or 1pm on the weekend. With our COVID-19 situation going on right now it’s getting worse for some families since there is no official “wake up” time or even weekend, it’s all a weekend! Their kids are turning into night owls. Ugh. What a drag. I think that it’s smart not battle with our kids about when to go to sleep, however it’s totally appropriate to negotiate with our teens about when to wake up. If we keep quiet about when to go to sleep they need to commit to getting up by a certain time. If you’d like them to wake up at 9am and the want to wake up at noon then both of you have to give and come up with something you both think is reasonable.
When my boys were teens I think we had a 10am or 11am agreement going on for weekends. It wasn’t formal but it was pretty much our normal. One family of a sophomore I interviewed agreed that getting up by 10am even with COVID-19 going on was ok. They aren’t bugging him about when to go to bed and he agreed he’d get up at 10 and wouldn’t be grumpy all day at the family if he’d gone to bed really, really late. It’s working really well for them. I do agree that not wasting time fighting about when they go to bed is the way to go. Negotiate mornings with empathy and love. You can use Love and Logic’s Energy Drain for ideas for consequences if your teens don’t own up to the negotiated agreement. Take a look at my website or email me for more information on that topic.
I do have to admit that having a good relationship with your child at this stage in their life is more important than their sleep. If you can talk to your kids and have fun with them and go places with them there will be opportunities to “notice” things like “I noticed you’re tired all the time” or “I noticed you’re really grumpy at everyone when you’ve stayed up late.” If they aren’t put under a microscope and criticized all the time they’re more willing to chat with us. That’s sort of what the Special Place is in my example above. If they love sushi or hiking or bowling then do that with them and see if a conversation about sleep can follow but be there, be present and be loving no matter what is happening. If anyone is yelling or nagging then you’re shutting doors to your teen’s life. Keep them open! If we love them through this difficult time and not have battles with them they will eventually own their own sleep. You giving them love and empathy through all this will let them know they aren’t alone and you will love them through them being tired and even grumpy.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast! Teens and sleep are a challenge. Letting them own their sleep is hard for us but essential for helping to raise a responsible adult who has figured out how to manage their schedule and can show up to work on time being respectful of other people and the commitments they make to others.