I hear from many parents that they struggle to get their teens to go to bed at a reasonable hour. Consistent sleep schedules are difficult for teens because there are many environmental factors—including school schedules, homework, extracurricular activities, and jobs—that regularly force teens to adjust their schedule in an unnatural way. The biological clock or circadian rhythm of a teen is actually designed to shift toward a delayed schedule; that is, teens naturally want to go to bed late and wake up late.
We notice this circadian shift starting around puberty, and we think it happens for two main reasons. First, teens are the strongest, fastest, have the best immune response, tolerate pain and extremes of temperature better than adults, and they are more likely to take risks (like put themselves in harm’s way). As a result, teens and those in their early twenties (“adolescents” in today’s parlance) are the best suited to protect the cave and clan while others sleep. So, the adolescents stay up until the wee hours, while the adults sleep. The oldest among us then awaken early and relieve the young protectors, who can now go to sleep as the dawn is breaking and the threat of predators has considerably lessened.
Second, teens have reached puberty and so are ready, by evolutionary standards, to begin coupling and reproducing. And so, they need time alone with other teens, without the watchful eyes of parents, to get to know one another, measure up, and decide who belongs with whom; there’s no better time for this than late at night when the parents are asleep. For these two reasons, teens and young adults typically have a delayed sleep schedule.
While studies show that teens actually benefit from later high school and college start times—and the CDC actually has advised that high schools not start before 8:30AM—fewer than 20% of American schools adhere to this recommendation. If your family is struggling with getting your teenager on a consistent sleep schedule, here are some helpful tips:
Learn about sleep and teach your kids. There are many great books, and the data on getting more sleep is compelling. I teach a college class on sleep at NYU, and I’ve learned that young people really do want to understand their sleep and get better at it. I talk with my own kids about the effects of not getting enough sleep, from the physical to the neuropsychological. Things like immune system functioning, digestion, height, concentration, muscle growth, skin strength, decision-making, memory, anxiety and mood, and so many more factors all improve when you get a good night’s sleep. And on the flip side, illnesses, wrinkles, weight gain, exhaustion, and irritability are all side effects of not getting enough sleep.
Take away screens an hour before bed and limit their use. Screens are distracting and keep us awake. Remember, moms and dads, you own the phone.
Limit sleep-disrupting light exposure. Try eye masks and/or heavy curtains to keep the light out of their eyes while they sleep. Download apps like lux or use ‘nightshift’ on their smartphone so that the blue light that blocks melatonin is removed from their screens. Light is the most influential factor in setting our internal circadian clocks, so we want to control light and make sure that we live in dim light for about 3-4 hours before bed, at the least.
Keep the last few hours before bed calm. Try and do something that’s not stressful before bed, at least for the last 30 minutes. Don’t watch a thriller or action adventure movie before bed—it will jazz your kids up. Instead, read something relaxing, watch something easy like the food channel, or do something else that eases your mind.
Figure out a schedule that allows for sufficient sleep. As parents, try to help schedule your children’s lives so that they can get sufficient sleep. Make sure homework gets done as early as possible. Make it clear to your kids that while school performance is important, they shouldn’t pressure themselves to stay up all night long to work or study. In fact, we know from lots of data that people remember and learn much better when they’ve slept 8-9 hours than when they sleep less. Students who get more sleep do better in school.
Start going to bed earlier yourself.Parents are the role models—when we take sleep more seriously, our kids will as well.
From the Real Experts at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone:
Jess Shatkin, MD, MPH, is a professor in the Departments of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. He also serves as the Vice Chair for Education in the Department of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Director of Undergraduate Studies for Child & Adolescent Mental Health Studies (CAMS) at NYU College of Arts & Science. He’s also the author of Born to Be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe.