This weekend my Coastside Leadership Academy Co-Founder and I gave a seminar for teens and their parents called “Let’s Talk About Rest.” We discussed the science behind needing to rest after a stressful day and also how important sleep is for teenage brain development. Below are the major takeaways from my part of the presentation and I have also included a video for those interested in learning more and watching our presentation.
A new study conducted in both New Zealand and the US showed that getting enough sleep was more important for positive mental health than diet and exercise. According to the CDC, the average American teenager is getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, so we can imagine the implications that means for our teenager’s mental health. When I gave this statistic in the seminar teens in attendance chuckled because we all know that many of them are getting way less than 6 hours during the school year and getting the CDC recommended amount of sleep of 9 and a quarter hours feels unattainable. Here are some ways that adults can help support teens prioritize rest and increase the amount of sleep they are getting.
Create a family sleep schedule– The entire family will benefit if parents step in and prioritize rest and getting 8 hours of sleep per night. During puberty the teenage body clock shifts and teens naturally start to feel tired later at night and are not able to wake up as early as they did when they were in elementary school. Teens begin to get tired later around 10:00 or 11:00pm, when before they probably were tired around 8:00 or 9:00pm. In addition, their bodies do not feel like it is time to wake up until 7:00 or 8:00am. This is not laziness, this is science, but I know it can cause a lot of strain on families.
During the week, my suggestion is to set a bedtime for 10:00pm on school nights and try to avoid setting an alarm for your teen before 7:00am. School can definitely be a challenge to this goal, and I have suggestions for that later. On the weekend, allow for some catch up sleep time, by having a bedtime at 11:00pm and letting the teen sleep in until 8:00 or 9:00am. Parents can help this by scheduling things on the weekend for 9:30 or a 10:00am start instead of during the teen’s prime sleep hours.
Create a bedtime routine– For many families of young children, the bedtime routine is elaborate with brushing teeth, taking baths, and reading books in bed in a cool dark room. All of this lead up time to sleep allowed the child’s nervous system to calm and be in a comfortable start for sleeping. It is a misconception that other age groups do not need a bedtime routine, but they do. Teenagers especially need the support of their parents to model good bedtime habits and help remind them of these tools to calm their bodies. It can take up to an hour for the nervous system to relax into a state where melatonin will be released, so finishing homework at 10:00pm and expecting to fall asleep right away is a tall order.
If 10:00pm is the target time to be asleep, by 9:00pm all technology should be put away. Encourage your teen to make some warm tea, turn on some quiet and calming music, read a physical book, or journal. It is ok to watch a non-stimulating show or movie on a far away TV screen, but we do not want a blue light screen too close to the face.
Phones sleep alone– This is one of my favorite things to talk about with teens and their parents! Phones are the ultimate sleep stealers and when I asked how many people slept with their phone charging next to their beds, nearly everyone in the seminar raised their hands. I am going to repeat, keep all technology out of the bedroom and parents will have to monitor and model this, because I know it isn’t easy. The blue light from phone screens act as a stimulant in the brain so the body does not release the melatonin it needs to feel tired and fall asleep. After putting the phone down, it can take an hour or more to decompress from stimulant, so this really throws off a sleep routine. Create a space in the hallway or kitchen for the entire family’s phones to charge and invest in an alarm clock!
Talk to the high school administration about start times and homework load– School is the biggest sleep stealer from teens and possibly parents as well. The optimal learning time of day for teenagers is from 10:00am to about 1:30pm so when school starts before that, at 7:30 or 8:00am, the teenage brain simply isn’t prepared or ready to learn. Their biology is telling them they should still be asleep! It is possible that students could go two periods during the school day without taking in any information because of this. Teenage students need parents to be their advocates and talk to high school administration, school boards, and parent- teacher associations about this issue on their behalf. The way high school is currently set up with early start times is not student centered or beneficial for their learning and needs to be changed. There is plenty of research to support starting high schools at 8:30 or later and administrators need to be open to supporting that.
Teens also need parents to monitor their homework load and say something to teachers, counselors, and administration when it is too much. Many teens are staying up into the early morning finishing all their assignments and this affects their mental health and performance in all aspects of their lives. We expect students to go to school for eight hours per day, and then do 2, 3, 4, and I hope not 5, hours of homework after school. They are full time students, plus another part time job of doing the homework on top of that, and it is unreasonable. If time is used efficiently at school, and teachers are effective in the classroom, homework is not necessary.
Prioritizing rest in our fast paced world is hard, and our teenagers need our help. Rest and sleep is critical for brain development. Teenagers are “super learners”, developing habits, and taking in information into their brains about the world they live in at a rate faster than in any other development period in their lives. Without sleep, their brains are not able to fully process and synthesize all of the information they are taking in and store it away for future use. It is hard to be excited about being a “super learner” when you are exhausted and your creativity is stifled. Let’s work together to support our teens to reach the recommended amount of sleep they need by making changes in our homes and having courageous conversations with school officials. Their future depends on it.