It’s 11 p.m. on a school night, and the light is still pouring out from under your teen’s door. You do some quick math. If they fall asleep … NOW … they’ll get just under 6.5 hours of sleep before they have to be up and out the door.
That’s definitely not enough, but what can you do? Hold their eyelids closed? If it were that easy, we’d all have tried.
It is one of the great frustrations and ironies of parenting that getting your child to do something so necessary, unavoidable and pleasurable as sleep has to also be a daily battle.
In my work with teens for the past 15 years, and in my own experience as a parent, I’ve seen and engaged in these battles firsthand. It’s caused me to wonder why we adults have so many strong emotions invested in our how our kids sleep?
It starts at birth. “Sleep is one of the first markers of whether or not you’re nailing it as a parent,” explained psychologist Kristin Daley, who serves as chair of the national clinical practice committee for the Society for Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
Comparison might be our downfall
Over the past 20 years, Daley said sleep has become an even more emotionally loaded issue for families. “Along with the idea that we should have it all, we now have comparisons,” Daley said, and often those comparisons leave us feeling we’re falling short.
Parents don’t just put their kids to bed, wring their hands and hope they’re doing it right. Now they put those hands to work, scrolling through family lifestyle accounts on Instagram, parenting groups on Facebook and mom blogs, finding a stream of cheerful advice and peaceful photos of sleeping kiddos with fresh-faced parents gazing over them appreciatively.
“Sleep is an area of health and medicine that’s strongly politicized,” Daley said. “You have the attachment parenting people and the rigorous sleep training crowd, and so starting from infancy there is a marker of ‘how I’m doing as a parent can be seen in how regulated my kid is.'”
This feeling doesn’t go away once our kids start sleeping through the night. There may be a reprieve in bedtime battles and parental insecurity for a short time until kids hit puberty.
Cue the family fights again
“I know she’d do better if she would just sleep more!” says the tired parent. “This is just one more area of my life you want to control!” says the independence-seeking teen.
Scenes like this play out all the time in Daley’s private practice. As an expert in adolescent sleep, Daley advises clients, “don’t fight what you can’t control.” You can’t change a person’s biological clock. Circadian rhythm — the internal clock that tells you when to be awake and when to get sleepy — shifts during early adolescence, turning even formerly great sleepers into night owls.
But you can optimize the environment for more success.
What can parents control?
The biggest impact on your child’s sleep may surprise you. More than weighted blankets, blackout curtains, limited access to electronics, or temperature-controlled bedrooms — all of which can certainly help — the single thing that has the greatest influence on a young child’s healthy sleep habits is how much a parent prioritizes, values and is consistent with sleep in the home, according to a 2016 study.
That means if you protect the time and environment around bedtime, your child is more likely to reap the benefits of good sleep, of which there are many. In addition to renewed energy and mood, Daley said that long exposure to sleep during dark hours is what optimizes human growth hormone.
Got a teen who wants to be taller? This may be the one approach that convinces your child that sleep is worthwhile.
Ways parents can protect and prioritize sleep
Scheduling is critical. Kids who don’t get home from extracurricular activities until well after dinner, still needing to eat and do homework, are at a big disadvantage for meeting their sleep requirements. Valuing sleep as a parent often means making hard choices when you also value sports, theater, grades or family time.
It’s not just nighttime schedules that matter. A consistent wake time, exposure to light and a good breakfast send signals to the brain that it’s time to get moving, even when school’s start doesn’t align with your teen’s new circadian clock. Those are the natural ways our bodies regulate time. And of course, devices in rooms are notorious for pushing a teen’s normal schedule much later than is healthy. Watching TV across the room is not bad for a teen near bedtime, Daley said, but a light source that is 18 inches or less from eyeballs will really interfere with a teen’s ability to fall asleep.
Take care of you (really)
Here is one final thing you can control: your mood, health and well-being. These are huge factors in your child’s relationship to healthy sleep. Prioritize your own sleep, and your kids will eventually follow suit.
While teens are much more resilient when it comes to sleep loss, Daley says a night or two of bad sleep can derail a parent for much longer than it would a teen. Leave your devices out of the bedroom, shut the door and get the sleep you need, first and foremost. You’ll be a happier person, and your child will probably thank you for it.
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