Everything Your Need to Know To Solve Your Child or Teen’s Sleep Issues
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I love most of the parents that I work with at MPS. Sometimes they have such great insight with what is going on with their families, and they often say the FUNNIEST things,
For example, one of my Dads had me laughing hysterically a few years ago.
I began helping this family shortly after the pandemic hit. I was working with this Dad’s teenager on their depression and lack of motivation. This teen (like many teens during 2020 and 2021) really struggled with keeping up with their online classes and maintaining friendships. They preferred to isolate themselves in their rooms all the time, and it took a herculean effort to get them to come out of their rooms and interact with the family.
After working with this teen for several months, Dad requested to meet with me before his teen’s session. This ALWAYS means that something is up, so I prepared myself to address a troubling situation. When Dad sat down in my office, he said to me, “Dr. Ballinger, you’ve got to help me turn around my teen’s vampire sleep schedule!”
I started laughing pretty hard, because I knew exactly what this Dad meant, but I had never heard this problem described like this before.
Many teens prefer a vampire sleep schedule – where they stay awake all night (usually plugged into something online like video games, Discord, or their smartphones) and then sleep all day. Teens gravitate to this sleeping schedule because it fits their current developmental stage: they crave independence and try to avoid any unnecessary tasks or responsibilities. So staying up all night while parents are sleeping allows them lots of unsupervised independence to do what they want. Then they sleep all day, avoiding arguments with parents, annoying siblings, and all the other things that annoy them about life as a teen.
Now the vampire sleep schedule isn’t the only sleep issue that plagues the young people that we see in our office. I would guess that probably 95% of the tweens to young adults in our office suffer from some form of sleep issue. Many young people report to us that they have difficulty falling asleep, and when they do finally fall asleep, they only stay asleep for about 3-4 hours a night.
Another common sleep problem is that the young person sleeps LONGER than 10 hours a day and STILL feels tired throughout the day.
If any of the sleep issues mentioned above resonate with you, then your child or teen probably could use some improvement in the area of sleep. And you’re not alone. According to a 2018 study, 73% of young people are not getting the recommended amount of sleep needed to function optimally throughout the day.
Today’s article is meant to give you the strategies needed to understand why sleep is so important for your young person, how sleep gets derailed, and the strategies needed to get your child or teen’s healthy sleep habit back on track.
Dangers of Not Getting Enough Sleep
First, let’s acknowledge what we’re doing when we’re NOT paying attention to our child or teen’s sleep habits. Getting enough sleep isn’t something that’s just nice to have, it’s a necessity for healthy and efficient functioning in so many areas of the young person’s life. Let’s discuss 7 areas that are significantly affected by a lack of consistent and quality sleep.
AREA #1: Higher risk of disease.
Study after study confirms that young people who get less than the recommended hours of sleep tend to mature into adults who are more prone to developing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke later. One recent study reported that individuals who made a habit of getting only five hours of sleep or less per night were 20% more likely to have been diagnosed with a chronic disease and 40% more likely to be diagnosed with two or more chronic diseases, compared to people who slept for up to seven hours.
AREA #2: Higher risk of being overweight or obese.
Recent results of a study published by the European Society of Cardiology found that young people ages 12 to 14 were 19% more likely to be overweight and 29% more likely to be obese if they slept 1-2 hours less than recommended. The stats were even worse for the kids who had 3 or more hours of a deficit per night.
A possible explanation for why young people who sleep very little tend to be overweight or obese comes from another 2022 study out of Brigham Young University. These researchers found that young people who had poor sleep habits were also more likely to overconsume sugar – at a rate of 4.5 pounds of extra sugar each year. The teenagers in this study consumed more foods that were likely to spike their blood sugar fast when they were sleep-deprived compared to when they were sleep-satisfied. Interestingly, this study also noted that unhealthy eating largely occurred in the late evening (after 9:00 pm), so staying up late in the evening seemed to coincide with unhealthy eating habits.
AREA #3: Cognitive deficits.
The areas of memory, intelligence, problem-solving, and decision-making are also significantly impacted by lack of sleep – and this deficit may persist over time. This means that if you notice your child struggling with memory or paying attention in class, just getting one or two good night’s rest WON’T be enough to correct the damage already done.
A study out of the University of Maryland School of Medicine looked at the long-term consequences of diminished sleep in adolescents and found that poor sleep actually shrank the amount of grey matter in the brain, and these changes persisted for more than 2 years. We need our brain’s grey matter. Our brain’s grey matter is super important for memory and information processing because of its highly dense neurons, so if we lose grey matter, we lose a lot of our ability to function well throughout the day.
AREA #4: Impaired academic performance.
I’m sure it’s pretty obvious that insufficient sleep contributes to poor grades and impaired attention and concentration abilities. Both adults and young people struggle to use their brains when they feel tired, making paying attention in class and working on homework very difficult.
I’m sure you’ve had experiences where you’ve fought to keep your eyes open and to concentrate after a poor night’s sleep. Your young person experiences this same struggle when they don’t get the recommended hours of sleep each night too. When your young person goes to school tired, they are set up to fail.
AREA #5: Difficulty navigating challenging social situations.
Insufficient sleep also leads to an inability to problem-solve during highly-emotional social situations and also leads to difficulty seeking help and support from peers to navigate these types of situations. This means that sleep actually helps our young people have better relationships with family and peers because they have a better ability to handle emotional and tricky social situations when they come up – and inevitably, these types of situations ALWAYS happen at some point.
If your child has problems keeping long-term friendships, sleep might be one of the tools that help them improve these relationships.
AREA #6: Increase in mental health problems.
This is another well-researched area. Over and over again, researchers confirm that lack of sleep contributes to higher levels of anxiety and depression in young people.
For most young people, sleep is especially critical because they’re at an age where they’re going through a whole range of physical, social, and developmental changes – all of which depend on enough sleep. Without enough sleep, they’re less able to deal with stressors, such as bullying or social pressures, that are directly linked to anxiety and depression.
AREA #7: Sleep problems in adolescence don’t stay in adolescence.
Sleep problems not addressed in adolescence persist into young adulthood. For example, sleep problems are a common complaint for college students and a key indicator of mental health problems for this age group. So the bottom line is that if your child or teen is having issues with their sleep now, they are likely to persist – or get worse – as they get older.
Now, I know this was a very research-heavy section. Still, I wanted to drive home the point that sleep isn’t just something that child therapists recommend as a nice-to-have habit, and the facts show that insufficient sleep in adolescence sets up our young people to develop problems that persist into way into young adulthood. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather set up our young people for a happy and healthy future, and if focusing on sleep is an easy and obvious solution, then I believe we need to address this issue.
The “Sweet Spot” of Sleep
So now that we’ve talked about the dangers of NOT getting enough sleep, exactly how much sleep should your young person be getting each night?
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, young people need, on average, the following amounts of sleep per day:
- Infants 4 to 12 Months: 12 to 16 hours, including naps
- Children 1 to 2 Years Old: 11 to 14 hours, including naps
- Children 3 to 5 Years Old: 10 to 13 hours, including naps
- Children 6 to 12 Years Old: 9 to 12 hours
- Teenagers 13 to 18 Years Old: 8 to 10 hours
The recommendations above are given to you as a range. How can you tell if your child or teen isn’t getting enough sleep? Look for these signs:
- Their grades start declining
- They have difficulty concentrating at home or at school
- They develop an inability to remember things
- They can have an increase in acne (for teens)
- You notice they have more instances of being short-tempered or easily frustrated
- Their weight increases
- You get reports from teachers or from the young person themselves that they fell asleep (or almost fell asleep) in class.
If you notice that your young person exhibits any of these challenges, then increasing the amount of sleep or rest they get each day could go a long way in eliminating these problems, but why is getting enough sleep so hard for this generation of young people? The answer might surprise you.
Why Kids Aren’t Getting Enough Sleep
The parents that I work with NEVER start with the goal of cheating their child of sleep – unhealthy sleep habits tend to creep up on families very slowly, and the cause is often not very obvious.
Let’s review some of the more common reasons why sleep issues begin with young people so that you can identify problems in your home that might contribute to insufficient sleep.
- Bedtime media use. Young people that use electronics the hour before bed sleep less than their peers who don’t. This includes smartphones, tablets, laptops, video games, and televisions.
- Homework demands. The pandemic has really changed the amount of homework young people have to complete. I constantly hear from teens in my office that they have more homework assigned to them now than before the pandemic. This might be due to the fact that educators need to help young people recover the education lost during the pandemic years.
- Being overtired from daily demands. Extracurriculars can add stress to your young person’s daily life. Activities that require your young person to be involved several days each week, or cause them to take on significant responsibility in addition to their academic work all contribute to stress. This stress directly affects their ability to “wind down” at night in order to sleep.
- Increased consumption of caffeine. More and more young people are drinking coffee, Red Bull, and soda which contributes to the inability to fall asleep or to gain restorative sleep.
- Inconsistent bedtime. When young people go to sleep at roughly the same time each night and wake at roughly the same time each morning, their bodies learn this routine and automatically go into “power down” mode the hour before bed. This, in turn, allows them to fall asleep fast and to wake up less during the night.
Conversely, young people with an inconsistent sleep schedule don’t allow their bodies to learn this routine, so their bodies never know when to “power down.” Then, when the body does get rest, it tries to stay at rest for as long as possible because it doesn’t know when it will get rest again in the future. This leads to young people who have difficulty waking up in the morning or to young people running out of energy too early in the day.
- Hormonal time shift for teens. Puberty hormones shift the teenager’s body clock forward by about one or two hours, making them sleepier one to two hours later. Yet, while the young person falls asleep later, early school starts don’t allow them to sleep in. This nightly ‘sleep debt’ leads to chronic sleep deprivation
- Lack of bedtime routine and enforcement of a clear bedtime. Finally, the BIGGEST reason that I see when young people have sleep problems is that parents allow their young person to go to sleep whenever they want. This leads to so many unhealthy sleep habits: the vampire sleep schedule, a confused body that never knows when to “power down,” and life-long sleep difficulties.
So now that you know the negative impact of insufficient sleep and why kids tend to develop unhealthy sleep habits, let’s learn some strategies to improve your young person’s sleep.
How To Improve Kid’s Sleep
Now let’s talk about improving your young person’s sleep so they can enjoy all the benefits of a healthy sleep habit.
First, let me address the #1 objection I get from parents when talking about changing their young person’s sleep habit: that their child or teen was just born a “bad sleeper” and this can never be changed because it’s part of their biology.
I’m here to tell you that any young person can improve their sleep if parents get involved – and research is on my side.
For example, a recent study looked at parental enforcement of bedtime of young people ages 14-17 and overwhelmingly found that in addition to getting more hours of sleep each night, the adolescents who had an enforced bedtime experienced higher levels of energy throughout the day and reported much lower levels of depression. This positive effect was seen across the population of participants – not just with kids who were labeled as “good sleepers” by their parents.
Essentially, this study found that when parents set a bedtime and enforce it, young people actually learned to get more sleep over time – even teenagers. YOU have so much influence on your child or teen’s sleep habit, so use this influence in a positive way.
Now, I know from working with so many parents that many of you struggle with enforcing a bedtime, so if you’ve struggled with that in the past, then let me provide you with my best strategies for improving sleep so that you can start becoming more involved in your young person’s sleep.
STRATEGY #1: Have a routine.
Routines help young people (and their bodies) predict – and prepare for – what’s coming next. We want your child’s body to learn to “power down” the hour or so before bed so they can fall asleep quickly and stay asleep for most of the night.
So what do I mean by a routine?
I think that you should come up with a before-bed routine that includes these three elements: self-care time, quiet time, and connection time with a parent.
- Self-care time is when the young person focuses on their health and hygiene. Many things can be included in this block of time, but the most popular task is taking a bath or shower. Starting the before-bed routine with a bath or shower jumpstarts the body into getting ready to power down, so this is a really good element to have at the beginning of the routine.
Other self-care tasks can include brushing teeth, getting an outfit ready for the next day, taking needed medication, having a snack, etc. This time can include anything that is individual to your child or teen when it comes to focusing on their health, but it should NOT include chores like cleaning their room or organizing their backpacks.
- Quiet time is when the young person participates in an activity that relaxes them instead of energizes them. Again, this encourages the young person’s body to begin “powering down” for the day. Examples of quiet time activities include reading alone, drawing, working on a hobby, playing quietly with non-electronic toys or games, participating in worship or other religious studies, or listening to or playing music.
Generally, quiet time should be done in a quiet place. I’ve had some families take quiet time together where they all gather together in the family room and do something quiet individually. Other families still have activities going on in other parts of the house, so their young people do their quiet time in their rooms.
No one has to do quiet time the same way. Figure out what works for your family and stick with it.
- Finally, connection time is an intentional time for you to connect with your young person. It’s important for you to stop what you’re doing at this point each evening and go into your young person’s room to connect.
For elementary school kids, this could look like reading a book together while you snuggle in bed. For Middle school or Junior High kids, this might be coming in with the cat or dog to play for a while or to chat about their day.
High schoolers are a little bit more challenging, but nightly connection time is still essential. Make a ritual of going into their rooms each night at the same time to ask about the best thing and the worst thing about their day. Talk about things they’re interested in. I’ve talked a lot about how I used Star Wars to connect with my son and celebrities to connect with my daughter when they were teenagers. I would never willingly watch the Kardashians or pay attention to their antics, but I did when connecting with my daughter. (And by the way…The Kardashians sparked a lot of discussions between us about life lessons, so while the Kardashians might not be the best role models for some things, I was able to use their examples to drive home my personal values when talking about them to my daughter).
The point with connection time is to CONNECT. When young people can predict that they’ll have regular time with you, they’ll be more likely to talk to you about their important stuff, and that’s the point of connection time.
Do NOT use this time to review your young person’s grades or to talk to them about their misbehavior. Your child can bring up hard difficult topics if they choose to, but you should save your intense discussions for a different time.
STRATEGY #2: Consistently Enforce bedtimes.
Consistency is THE KEY when it comes to improving your young person’s sleep. Their bodies won’t learn to “power down” at the same time each night if you don’t allow them the time to learn and practice this consistently.
Your young person most likely won’t want to be consistent with a bedtime willingly, so YOU need to get involved. It’s not going to be fun at first – especially if you’ve never had a bedtime routine before – so be prepared that it will be more work up front, but it should get easier for you and your young person over time.
STRATEGY #3: Take televisions and all electronics out of your child or teen’s bedroom at night.
Research tells us that electronics rob us of our sleep and rest.
A recent study examined what happened when a group of young people used electronics in the hour before going to sleep. This study found that the young people who did not use electronics during that hour slept longer AND had significantly better self-regulatory control than the participants who used electronics.
There is no easier way to improve your child’s mood, behavior, and attention than enforcing a break from electronics the hour before bed – even for teens. I’m getting asked more and more about recommending over-the-counter medications like melatonin – and sometimes even about prescription meds – but the EASIEST way to help your child or teen to fall asleep is to take a break from electronics the hour before sleep.
I’m a big believer in having a family charging station for smartphones and other hand-held electronics outside of the young person’s room. Many of my teen patients at MPS tell me that when they notice a message or other activity on their smartphone at night when they’re supposed to be sleeping, they can’t help but look at the message. Then, they’re up all night looking at their phones when they should be sleeping.
I did the family charging station for my kids when they were younger. We had a charging station downstairs by the kitchen where all our electronics stayed for the night. I would encourage you to take out all televisions and handheld electronics from your young person’s room so they aren’t tempted to use them during the night.
STRATEGY #4: Avoid caffeine.
Caffeine in coffee, soda, and chocolate can negatively influence your young person’s ability to sleep.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids ages 12-18 should have no more than 100mg of caffeine per day, while kids younger than 12 should not consume caffeine AT ALL. To give you reference, on average, a cup of coffee has 95 mg, a 12-oz can of soda has 34mg, and 1 oz. of chocolate contains 12 mg of caffeine. So if your young person has a Starbucks or soda habit, they are more than likely over-consuming caffeine and sleeping poorly at night.
In addition, it is also recommended to limit caffeine after 4:00 in the afternoon to set your young person up for a better night’s sleep.
STRATEGY #5: Get exercise.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University explain that mild aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow-wave sleep a young person gets each night. Slow-wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate.
It’s recommended that your young person get at least 45 minutes of movement – or light aerobic exercise – each day. They might get this in their PE class or sports team, but if they aren’t involved in these activities, it’s best to figure out ways to include movement in their day. A great way to do this is to build ina family walk each afternoon or evening. This gives everyone in the family the necessary amount of exercise and has the added benefit of building a strong parent-child connection.
STRATEGY #6: For anxious young people, allow them to talk about worries and then teach them to put their worries away for the night.
Anxious kids and teens tend to develop the habit of keeping their worries bottled up inside, and then when they have a quiet moment, all their worries begin to run amok in their brains.
Make part of your connection time with them each night as a way to help them learn how to express and manage their worries, and then teach them to put their worries aside for the night. This isn’t ignoring or pushing down the anxious thoughts; instead, it’s teaching them to confront them, be in charge of managing them, and then give themselves permission to take a break from them in order to be healthy.
STRATEGY #7: Assess your young person’s weekly schedule together and see if they are overcommitted. Help them to trim activities if they are.
It’s great when your young person is involved in activities that help them grow their natural talents and abilities, but too much time spent on these activities relative to other things in their life can cause stress and exhaustion. Teach your young person the life lesson of a healthy balance with responsibilities, family, and fun by monitoring their commitment level with their extracurricular or social activities.
STRATEGY #8: If your child or teen naps after school, make sure it’s short and not close to their bedtime.
Naps can be a good thing that can get really out of control quickly.
I don’t know what it is about the pandemic, but I’ve heard a record number of complaints about sleep since the young people in my area have returned to school, and one thing they all have in common is that they take LONG naps when they get home from school in the afternoon.
Taking a short 30- or 45-minute nap in the afternoon can be a good thing. It can help your young person stay refreshed for the remainder of the day and provide some much-needed rest time, but anything more than that interferes with the more restful nighttime sleep.
If your young person likes to nap after coming home from school, teach them to set an alarm for 30 or 45 minutes. Then monitor that they actually get up when the alarm goes off. Most young people will hit the snooze button, so get involved and make sure your child is learning to get up when the alarm goes off. This can help train them to wake up to an alarm in the mornings as well.
If you follow those 8 strategies, then you’ll see improvement in your child or teen’s sleep over time. However, I’ve been helping families tackle sleep issues long enough now to know that most young people are not going to make this easy on you. They’ll make it their mission to show you how following a routine or taking shorter naps will just not work for them, so this is where you need to plug into your own resolve and get ready to hunker down and focus on this topic for a while.
Eventually, they WILL give in to the routine and you’ll see progress.
If your young person continues to say they can’t sleep after implementing your new sleep strategy, use these 3 tips.
- TIP #1: Continue with the routine and bedtime. Having a bedtime routine for both young kids and older teens is not going to kill them – if anything, it’s going to improve things. Make the routine a new fact of life and consistently enforce it.
- TIP #2: Allow your young person to participate in something calm and non-electronic if they can’t sleep. Young people who are not yet used to sleeping at the same time each day are going to have some trouble falling asleep. Allowing them to do something calm and quiet in their beds is a good compromise – just don’t let them use their smartphones, tablets, or game consoles.
This compromise teaches your young person that you’re serious about rest. If they can’t sleep, then they can at least get REST, which helps them be less tired the next day and improves their mood and overall functioning.
- TIP #3: No electronics the hour before bed. I just have to further drive home the point that your young person should have a break from electronics an hour before bed. Just this one change will make such a BIG impact on your child’s sleep that I wanted to point it out again.
Take Home Message
So whether your child or teen has developed a Vampire Sleep Schedule like the child of the Dad that I told you about in the beginning of this article, or your young person struggles with other areas of sleep, when you implement the strategies that I discussed in this article YOU WILL SEE IMPROVEMENT WITH THEIR SLEEP.
Why am I so confident about this? Because I’ve seen this work over and over again with the families that I work with at MPS. When parents take my advice and use these strategies, I see so much improvement in their young person’s life, but there are always some families that don’t take my advice or they give up when things get tough. When this happens, I see their young person continue to struggle and it breaks my heart knowing that there is a simple solution to their problems.
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