No... Teens shouldn't choose their own bedtime!
By Linda Stade
Rites of passage are the stepping-stones to adulthood. They mark our increasing faith in our children’s ability to take responsibility and act autonomously. The obvious traditional steps include getting a driver’s license, voting, and moving out of home.
In the younger teenage years, this growth is more difficult to reward. What are the steps? A common one chosen by parents is letting kids choose their own bedtime. It’s a mistake.
When we hand over responsibility for sleep, we hand over responsibility for one of the most powerful foundations of health, wellbeing, and learning. Our kids are simply not ready for that responsibility.
Put it this way, when your young teen is in their room at 9 pm which of these perspectives would they consider most important?
Regular sleep of 9 hours per night will allow my body time for maximum brain development and emotional wellbeing
9 hours of sleep tonight will set me up for a more productive day tomorrow
Watching this Netflix show while messaging my friends is giving me a sense of joy and connection right now!
Of course, most kids will choose the short-term option which provides immediate gratification. Whether it be gaming, chatting, or watching YouTube videos and sharing them, they are feeling good and they are gaining social capital with peers. That is priceless for our kids, and we are naïve if we think our child is different to any other teenager.
Our kids need us to say no
Lourdes Hill clinical psychologist, Kristina Morgan says, “Parents need to be the bad guy. We need to take responsibility for setting bedtimes and enforcing them. It is much easier for a teen to say, “I have to go. Mum’s making me switch off my device,” than it is for them to make that decision themselves.”
Kristina reminds us that kids are often relieved when we say no and set boundaries. It means they don’t have to lose face. She says, “When you don’t parent, your child has no win available to them. They can’t choose the benefits of sleep without losing social currency, and they can’t choose social currency without losing the massive benefits of sleep.”
There may be protests, there may be eye-rolling, but ultimately, it is our responsibility to set the rules around sleep and then to enforce them. The lovely follow-on from our actions is we empower other parents. One by one the parents of your child’s friendship group will see they aren’t ‘the only mean ones’ and they will start setting sleep boundaries too. Parent empowerment is contagious, and it results in better outcomes for everyone.
What if my teen is staying awake to study?
There are times of the year when your child may be staying up late to study for tests or exams or to complete assignments. They believe that ‘pulling an all-nighter’ will help them get the marks they want. And let’s face it, we’ve probably all been there. I certainly remember waking up at 4.30 am in boarding school to sneak into the warm laundry room and cram for exams!
The reality is, the learning would be much more effective and long-lasting if they did a little study daily over a longer period. We retain very little of what we cram into our brains in these periods when our brains should be resting and restoring.
How much sleep do adolescents need?
The average tween or teen needs at least 9 1/4 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, the average Australian teen only gets 7 – 7 1/2 hours of sleep a night. That means their sleep debt is growing daily.
The typical way this sleep debt is repaid is by having very long sleep-ins on the weekend. It seems like the perfect solution and it is better than nothing, however, this yo-yoing in sleep periods has been proven to disrupt metabolism and circadian rhythms, which makes it harder to sleep on a Sunday and Monday night, thus eliminating the intended benefits. This sleep business is hard work!
Impact of lack of sleep
Adolescence is a time of massive development in the brain. New neural pathways are being developed, but that can't happen without good quality sleep. Think of it as the road works that happen on our major freeways. The construction is done at night for the effective flow of traffic during the day.
The areas of the brain under construction in adolescents are crucial for planning, attention, analytical thinking, consolidating new learning, working memory, abstract thinking, problem-solving, and decision making. All of this is needed for learning. Our kids need lots of sleep to allow for the road works!
Ongoing sleep deprivation also has a big impact on emotional health.
Every thirty minutes of extra sleep that a child gets makes a difference to their physical, and emotional health. It also builds their capacity to learn.
What can we do to improve our kids’ sleep?
1. Have set bedtimes that are enforced. Neurologists recommend this for everyone, not just teens. Be open about this routine with other parents. It is easier for all parents if there is a shared community understanding that sleep is important.
2. Shut down devices at least an hour before bed. Devices need to be stored in family space, not bedrooms so that kids aren’t tempted to check them during the night. A friend of mine uses a lockbox that all family devices go into at 8 pm. She says it has improved the family’s quality of sleep and the quality of interactions they have in the evenings.
3. Buy alarm clocks. For about $10 each, you can buy an alarm clock for your child. This eliminates the belief that they need a phone in their room so they can use the alarm function. Research shows that the mere presence of a phone in the bedroom, even if it is turned off, impacts sleep. Bizarre but true!
4. Establish a wind-down ritual for your child. It might include showering immediately before bed, turning on a bedside lamp instead of overhead light, reading, journalling, or having quiet talk time with you. It could take about four weeks to have real effects, but it will be worthwhile.
5. Make sure bedrooms are quiet and dark. Block out blinds and curtains are among humankind’s greatest achievements!
6. No caffeinated food or drinks before bed, including coffee, tea, cola drinks, or chocolate.
7. Explore meditation programs. There are lots of free programs available and some are specifically aimed at teenagers. My favourite app is Calm. There are also programs available from Headspace, and Smiling Mind.
We are not a still or quiet culture. We seem to worship at the altar of being busy. Our teens are particularly prone to the 24/7 onslaught of light, music, and interaction. If that is the case, we need to share our wisdom with them.
Shut it all down for at least 9 hours a night and let our kids’ busy brains rest and restore. We can find other rites of passage to help celebrate their growth and development. Sleep is too important to compromise.