How can we help our teens get more sleep?

Photo of a Young Teen sleeping in front of a laptop computer and on a bed

By Molly Wadzeck Kraus

I’ve been a bit obsessed with sleep lately. Any parent of a child under ten can usually relate to this sentiment. We are bleary-eyed caffeine chasers, relishing in the chaos of tiny humans who bring unrivaled joy into our lives yet are the cause of pure exhaustion. It’s a surreal time in parenthood, the physical, emotional, and mental demands punctuated by the delight of big firsts: smiles, laughter, walking, words. What awaits us on the other side of this taxing period, more experienced parents tell us, is the bliss of sleeping when they become teenagers. We are sold this idea that, once our kids enter teendom, we will be rewarded for our years of persistent night waking and 5:30am. jumping on the bed contests. Somehow, we’ve all been convinced that sleep is something we no longer must consider, save for catching up on it ourselves. Though I’m not willing time to accelerate, I do look forward to the day when weekends mean I can sleep in, and midnight comforting snuggles or bathroom assistance duty are behind me.

Like most things in my parenting career, I should have considered that I would end up being (somewhat) wrong. In Generation Sleepless, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, authors of the bestseller, The Happy Sleeper, reveal just how wrong we’ve all been about teens and sleep. What the authors call a “perfect storm” of biological needs, pervasive technology, and academic demands is decimating the sleep needs of teenagers. Teenagers, who as it turns out, possess growing brains in need of just as much attention as we give to our babies and younger children. We rearrange our entire lives (and bedroom furniture!) to accommodate the sleep needs of our little ones but have essentially left our teens to fend for themselves, confident they are independent enough to figure it out on their own. 

Turgeon and Wright’s years of reporting and research show just how short-sighted these assumptions are. Their new book is an exploration of all the factors making teens the “most sleep-deprived group of any individuals the world has ever seen.” Teens’ anxiety and depression rates are in the news and on the rise, and everything from our policies to our school schedules is operating in a way antithetical to teenagers’ sleep health. Sleep is foundational, and we aren’t connecting issues like mental health struggles to sleep deprivation.

The good news is that Turgeon and Wright also have some ideas about how to fix it. The second half of their new book discusses how to build healthy habits, advocate for change, and navigate the storm together with your teen through collaboration and communication. I recently spoke to them about Generation Sleepless, and here’s what they had to say.

In your previous book, The Happy Sleeper, the proposed solutions to sleep struggles are clearly aimed toward parents and caregivers. Other than parents, who else would you say is a target for the message in Generation Sleepless?

More than any other group, teens need community support for sleeping well, rather than just parent support. That’s because teens are up against so many constraints and pressures that steal their sleep from all angles. We speak directly to high school administrators and teachers, as well as athletic coaches about ways that they can make proper sleep possible for teens. We also highlight the ways in which technology companies are responsible and can be part of the solution. We want the audience to really be all the people who come into teens’ lives.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about teenagers and sleep, and where did those originate?

One of the biggest misconceptions about teen sleep is that they need less of it than younger kids. Sleep needs increase during times of big developmental changes, and adolescence is a major one, if not the major one. A teenager’s brain goes through remodeling, which means that parts of the brain are getting stronger, more efficient, and more integrated. Teens need their highest and most sophisticated skills of reasoning and judgment in order to make good decisions and learn, and all of that requires proper sleep. I think people appreciate how teens are changing on the outside, but we don’t appreciate the leaps their cognition and emotional development are taking. In fact, no one talks about “leaps” anymore after the first five years of life! Many teens need more sleep at age 16 than they did at age 10.

Something that surprised me in the book is learning how teens have a biologically determined sleep clock that is at odds with society’s demands. How can parents and teens use this information to adjust the few things they control in their homes and daily lives? 

Teenagers’ biological sleep clocks shift later by about two hours, starting in puberty and phasing out in their early 20’s. This brings about a sleep onset delay, meaning their melatonin and other sleepiness hormones are released later, making it hard to fall asleep until about two hours later than previously. They also need to sleep two hours later in the morning to complete their night. Too early school start times, prevalent in the US, make it very difficult for teens to get adequate sleep due to this natural shift in their sleep clocks. Despite this, and until policy change can move school start times to 8:30am or later, training their internal clocks to go to sleep on the earlier side is possible, with a regular bedtime and weekend wake time (within one hour of weekday wake time), held consistently.  

Using wind down time to simulate sunset by dimming the light in the home, turning off screens an hour before bedtime and creating a calming and pleasurable bedtime routine that includes things like writing in a journal or even watching a movie—versus being on an interactive platform like social media—all support the earlier bedtime. Empathic communication helps to build their self-motivation to get to bed earlier, along with addressing sleep as a family. Parents often worry they don’t have any influence at this age, but the research shows they do. The expectations and rituals around sleep, as well as how parents model their own sleep habits and technology use, are very powerful. Avoiding overscheduling of after school activities can open up time in the evening.  Exposure to early morning sunlight helps teens feel more alert and focused at school and also makes falling asleep that evening easier.

How can families use this book as a guide to facilitate conversations with their teens in an effective but not condescending way?

We all know that teens don’t respond well to being told what to do—they’re busy becoming autonomous beings. Listening to them actively and letting them know you understand them is the first step in tapping into their self-motivation for making changes around their sleep. These are your opportunities to listen actively, reflect back what you hear and wait patiently for the right moment to explore what they might want to change. Learn about sleep together and talk with them about your own sleep and what changes you want to make. We outline a Family Sleep Challenge that can be a fun and effective way to jump start some new habits around sleep. The science on how to create less friction for new desired habits and more friction for old undesired habits also contributes to this quest.

In your research, was there anything you uncovered that surprised you? 

When we looked at this crisis of increasing sleep deprivation among today’s teens, along with its dire consequences, especially to their mental health, we were surprised that society appeared to not have connected the dots. Why don’t these entities see how they are guilty of ignoring the most basic needs of our teenagers and why don’t they all step back and see their part in this perfect storm of factors stealing their sleep?  Imagine representatives from school districts, college admissions, big technology companies and lawmakers sitting together at a table, not allowed to leave the room until each proposed an effective change. Schools would move start times to 8:30am or later and reduce homework loads, college admissions would create a reasonable expectation for applications, big technology would shift to responsible designs and lawmakers would work to change any laws needed. The tragic thing about this crisis is that it’s eminently fixable. This is what surprised us most, and also what compelled us to write this book. 

Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer and mother of three. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. She writes essays and poems about feminism, mental health, parenting, pop culture, and politics. She would really like a nap. 

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