Remember the days when you wished your kids would sleep better so they would be kinder, more reasonable human beings? Turns out those days keep popping up for parents. You’d think they’d have the sleep thing all figured out by the time they are adolescents, but it turns out that teens and sleep have a complicated relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, they are made for each other but thanks to biology and their circadian rhythms, they often do it at hours the the rest of the world deems unacceptable. Add in that they are frequently feeling over-scheduled, stressed out and often on social media all hours of the night, and things get complicated. And they don’t really want to hear “Go to bed!” from mom and dad.
William Stixrud, PhD, co-author of The Self-Driven Child and a clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center, addressed the importance of sleep and offered valuable tips for parents on how to ensure their adolescents are getting enough in our recent Q&A. Sufficient rest is so central to the physical and mental well being of our kids that I thought this discussion merited its own post.
Between Us Parents: On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it for kids to get enough sleep if we want them to be self-motivated? Is sleep an area where it’s reasonable for parents to step in and make sure kids are getting appropriate amounts, especially with teens?
Dr. Stixrud: Many experts believe that sleep is the most important thing for the developing brain.
Regarding children’s self-motivation, the importance of sleep rates an 11 on a scale from 1 to 10 (like the amplifier setting in the classic movie, Spinal Tap).
Because the brain functions much better when it is well rested – everything improves with more sleep – including the ability to self-motivate. Being adequately rested allows children to set priorities, plan, and follow through to meet their own goals – and to be less easily sidetracked by frustration, discouragement, and anxiety. Because sleep strengthens the ability of the prefrontal cortex (which can plan and think logically) to regulate the amygdala (which senses and reacts to threat), young people who are well rested are much better able to follow through and to stick with things when they start to get hard, which reinforces self-directed effort.
With adolescents, trying to enforce a bedtime becomes increasingly challenging, in part, because teens are often willing and able to stay up later than their parents – or to get out of bed after their parents have gone to sleep. As one of the sleep experts in our book says, if adolescents are not interested in developing good sleep habits and getting more sleep, there is not much point in trying to force them.
A good place to start is saying to a teenager, “I know that you know what it feels likes to be tired, and I’m sure you’re aware of how much better the world looks – and how much better you do when you get more sleep. If there is a way that I can help you to be better rested. I’m happy to do anything I can.”
Parents can also model good sleep habits, and they can insist that all family members charge their phones at night somewhere other than in their bedrooms. If necessary, parents can engage in collaborative problem solving and say things like, “I can’t let you have your phone in your room at night because I feel like I wouldn’t be doing a good job as a parent.”
Framing it this way commonly results in a child’s being willing to negotiate and compromise in a way that is satisfactory to both parties. If necessary, we advise parents to not pay their kids’ phone charges if the kids keep their phone in their room at night.
We also believe that, because it is so hard for young people to limit technology and manage all of the demands of contemporary life and still get to be on time, providing some kind of financial incentive for going to bed earlier can make sense (e.g., extra allowance if they report getting more sleep – or simply making allowance contingent on going to bed earlier).
Children should be informed of the tremendous research on the benefits of sleep for athletes, as well as for academic performance and mental health.
They should also be introduced to the idea of “pay yourself first,” which means thinking about how much sleep you need each week and planning the rest of your week accordingly. However, nagging or lecturing kids about sleep or technology never works. Because adolescents are often much more willing to “buy advice” from someone who is not their parent, we recommend that kids discuss sleep with their pediatrician, a psychologist, or even a sleep specialist.
Parents can also make the privilege of driving contingent on a certain amount of sleep. Although, it is impossible to monitor how much sleep a child is actually getting, parents can, using the “honor system,” require their teen to keep a sleep log to demonstrate that he or she has slept enough to not be a danger on the road.
You can read the rest of the Q&A with Dr. Stixrud here.
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