As parents, we often suffer under the delusion that we have more control over our kids’ lives–and sleep–than we actually do.
Just ask any mother of a sleep-resistant infant who has tried every trick in the book. Can you make that baby sleep? Nope. You can do a lot to help foster sleepiness and good sleep habits, but you can’t actually make that little one close her eyes and sleep.
Similarly, we can’t actually make our teens sleep. And the reality is I would rather have my teens learn responsibility and self-regulation, than control their sleep myself.
So, what CAN a parent do to help teenagers get close to getting enough sleep?
1. Model good sleep hygiene.
We all know that “more is caught than taught” — and this is true of sleep patterns as well.
I live barefoot and in sandals. Every night I use a baby wipe to clean my feet before getting in bed. My toddler pulls out a baby wipe and cleans her little piggies, too. It’s adorable, and I’m sure you remember your toddlers copying everything you did. It may not be as apparent, but our teens are also copying what we do. The rhythms of their lives they have picked up from watching us.
I’ll be honest, I’ve had to work on my own sleep habits and it hasn’t been easy. Making the bedroom a peaceful place, a consistent bedtime and wak-up time, daytime exercise, turning off electronica early in the evening, letting go of stress, and having a regular evening routine… These are the good sleep habits we want our teens to practice and we need to start by modeling them.
How is your sleep hygiene? Do you have a before bed routine, or do you stay up as late as you possibly can and sleep in as late as possible on weekends? Our teens are taking their cues on sleep from us.
2. Regulate light
Melatonin, the hormone linked to the sleep regulation, seems to be controlled by the exposure to natural light. Bright light in the morning helps us wake up, and dim lights at night trigger the production of melatonin to help us get good sleep.
In the morning, we can open blinds and turn on lights throughout the house. We can dim the lights when the sun goes down, and maybe even light candles. Exposure to the blue light from screens seems to suppress melatonin. This is tricky when it comes to teens, who often have to do homework on the computer at night or are still engaged socially with friends.
We want to help our teens take ownership of their own sleep cycles and school responsibilities, and so in our family we don’t “make” them get off their computers at a certain time. However, we model making sure we aren’t using devices about a half hour before bed and encourage them to do the same.
We’ve found some tech helps useful as well. We’ve installed and encouraged our teens to use f.lux software, which automatically changes a computer/phone screen to be less bright and more warm as it gets later.
At an agreed upon time in the evening, our internet is programmed to go off (through Covenant Eyes–affiliate link). We’ve worked to get buy-in from the teens, rather than made a unilateral decision about this.
3. Create a Calm Atmosphere in Our Homes
Make your bedroom a sleep haven, the experts say. Reality in my family? The teens’ rooms are often messy and not the “sleep haven” I would envision. I’m not going to go in and take over. But I do try to make sure they have sheets, blankets and pillows they find comfortable — and you know, everyone is different with that.
While they are responsible for the upkeep of their rooms, without invading their space, I’ll change the sheets, grab dirty clothes, empty the trash from time to time. Not to invade their space, but help them stay on top of it. Again, this is where modeling comes in. My bedroom is not a “sleep haven” either, yet. But we’re working on it.
As parents, we can do more in the public areas of our home. We turn the thermostat cooler at night. What about making an evening routine of dimming the lights, lighting candles, putting on calming music?
Teens and parents need evening routines almost as much as toddlers and preschoolers. But our routines are no longer bath and bedtime story. What might it look like for you and your teens? Making herbal tea? Asking about their day? It’s amazing how hearts often open up when the lights go down.
4. Create a Calm Atmosphere in our Relationships
Stress and the stress hormone cortisol work against us going to sleep. And the resulting lack of sleep leads to increased cortisol production. It’s a perverse cycle that works against our teens getting the sleep they really need.
Many teens feel intense pressure to perform — in sports, in school, and in peer relationships. While we can not take away all the stresses in their lives, we can work to create calm in our relationships with them.
Conveying our unconditional love and acceptance to our children can help alleviate the anxiety to perform, especially in the areas of academics and sports. It’s tricky to communicate confidence in their abilities through high expectations, without implying pressure to perform.
Even though we dearly love our teens, the reality is our relationships will have conflict. That is part of life and close relationships.
Yet we can have control (sometimes!) over the timing of conflict, and to the best of our abilities, we can avoid conflict and adding stress to our teens in the evening.
I try not to have conflict with the kids in the evening.
In the “pick your moment” life hack, Gretchen Rubin recommends waiting for the right time to address something that may be particularly challenging. This is great for parenting teens. They aren’t toddlers who will forget if not corrected right away.
My coaching on the right way to clean the kitchen doesn’t have to happen after dinner. That’s when it bothers me and when I want to deal with it — but it could easily trigger conflict and a cortisol dump, and doesn’t need to be addressed then. I can wait for a time when they are receptive to hearing, we are both feeling positive, and not dump a bunch of stress on them when they are supposed to be winding down for sleep.
5. Understand Your Teen and His Sleep
Experts estimate that teens need 8 – 10 hours of sleep each night. Is your teen getting that? Mine aren’t. Even though I understand my teen’s NEED for sleep, beyond that I need to understand my teen.
Lack of sufficient sleep snowballs in to a whole host of issues. But the big one in our home?
Tired teens and parents are cranky. Irritable. Irrational. It’s true for me when I don’t get enough sleep, and it’s true for my teens.
This is where the power of understanding comes in. . . When we understand these external factors and internal issues, we are empowered to act and not react. Understanding the pressures they are under to stay up and get schoolwork done helps us encourage them. Understanding when they snap at us with an attitude when first waking up, helps us overlook the offense and not take it personally.
Ultimately, the power of understanding helps me “bear with one another in love,” and show that love in patient ways to my teens. And if I can’t give my teens the sleep they need, at the least I can give them understanding and love.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
— Colossians 3:12-14 (ESV)