Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Toddlers

Like cranky toddlers, middle schoolers need food and sleep.

I love middle school kids. I love them for all the reasons that drive other people crazy. They’re noisy. They have more energy than anyone ever should. They’re SUCH drama queens. They love to argue – loudly, passionately, and often ineffectively. And they box me into corners so I have to stammer out explanations for things that I KNOW are true, but have never really been challenged on before.

But parenting – and teaching – middle school students can be challenging. This is the first of a three part series talking about why early adolescents act the way they do.

Critical Fact Number 1: Middle school students grow as fast as toddlers.

During the adolescent growth spurt – around 12 for girls or 14 for boys – middle school students grow about as fast as toddlers. Growing that fast is DEMANDING. Kids are physically tired. And kids are hungry. It takes a lot of energy to build that much body mass. In addition to the obvious change in height, boys and girls increase both fat and muscle mass and need large amounts of calcium to support rapid bone growth.

Parents usually notice the hunger immediately – suddenly the refrigerator is empty.

The exhaustion is more subtle. Because middle school tends to come with more homework and new extracurricular activities – in addition to the hanging out time that kids need after school - bedtimes tend to be pushed back. Combine these time pressures with the tendency for adolescents' internal clocks to favor late night hours and earlier school start times and you have a recipe for disaster. Middle schoolers often live in a state of chronic sleep deprivation.

Just like toddlers, when adolescents are tired and hungry, they get CRANKY. Adolescent sleep deprivation has been blamed for everything from soaring ADHD rates to aggression and alcohol use. In addition, a study out last week suggests that sleep, eating, and obesity are related. Infants, children, and adults who don't sleep enough develop cravings for unhealthy food (fatty, salty snacks) and are 50% more likely to become obese within five years.

What’s a parent to do? The first thing I suggest is to go back to basics. Think about what you did to stave off those temper tantums when they were younger: have snacks ready at hand and put them to bed.

  • Provide lots of good, healthy food. This includes breakfast (yes, and that does mean they’ll have to get up early enough to eat it), a big lunch, a healthy snack after school and dinner. Kids can easily fill their stomachs with high fat, high salt, high calorie food. Don’t let them. That's not what their bodies need. You're the parent and you do the grocery shopping. Take control.
  • It is easier to leave lots of healthy food around and let them eat whatever they want than to forbid them from eating tasty food you don’t want them to have. Hungry kids will eat anything – even fruit, cereal, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They can't eat cheese doodles for dinner if you don't buy them. If they buy their own afterschool snacks, don't sweat it. But have lots of healthy food around for them to fill up on.
  • Sit down and eat together. Kids who sit down with their families and eat have better eating habits, tend to be thinner, and eat healthier. Sitting down together also gives you a chance to talk about what’s going on in their lives and to remind them what good table manners look like. (An earlier post describes other advantages of rituals like family dinners.)
  • Count the hours until the alarm clock goes off. My 6th grader has to be at school at 7:50. It takes him 20 minutes to walk to school. It takes him about half an hour to eat breakfast, get dressed, and pack his backpack (we’ll ignore the shower he’s supposed to take but often doesn’t). And it takes him about half an hour to make his bleary way from bed to living room and wake up enough to do those things. Let’s say a 6:30 wakeup call.
  • Adolescents need a bit more than 9 hours of sleep a night. Those needs are probably higher during their peak growth spurt. That means – for my son – every minute he’s not asleep after 9:30PM is a sleep deficit. He doesn’t like going to bed that early – who does? – but I know from experience that if he misses that bedtime more than twice a week, we’re in trouble. He’s grumpy and argumentative, his homework takes longer and longer to complete (pushing his bedtime back further), and his teachers start complaining that he’s not paying attention.
  • When your child argues that "nobody goes to bed that early", let THEM do the math. And remember that old line from toddlerhood: "I didn't say you were tired, I said it was bedtime." This isn’t you being arbitrary: it’s what they need. And in their heart of hearts, they know it
  • Don't sleep late on Saturday. A great deal of excellent research on adolescent sleep patterns and their correlates shows clearly that kids can't catch up on weekends. Left alone, overtired middleschoolers will happily lie in until noon on Saturdays. Don't let them! Sleeping late reinforces that shifting sleep cycle and moves them towards lying awake at midnight. And even if they can't sleep Sunday night, they still have to get up Monday morning. A steady sleep schedule - maybe lying in until 9AM instead of that early 6:30AM alarm - is much better for them in the long run.
  • Practice good ‘sleep hygiene’. It’s not just kids who don’t get enough sleep, lots of parents don’t either. All experts make the same recommendations
  • Remove distractions in the bedroom. Beds are places to chill, be lazy, and sleep. They’re not a good place to play exciting video games if you want to sleep later.
  • Ease from active to quiet activities as bedtime gets nearer. Maybe your child would sleep better if they played video games after school, then did their homework after dinner, then read in their pajamas before lights out. Maybe they should shower in the evening before bed rather than in those early morning hours. But think about timing and sleep. It’s tough going from Grand Theft Auto to sweet dreams in just a few minutes
  • Exercise. Nothing makes sleep easier than a hard workout. And that’s good for them in other ways too.

When parents call me for advice, they often talk about "raging hormones" and how hormones have turned their sweet little kids into the Incredible Hulk in a rage.

There is actually very little evidence that the rise in sex hormones - what parents are almost always talking about - do anything much to adolescents' moods. But in a way the parents are right. The hormones that cause physical growth - and the accompanying needs for food and sleep - can make kids downright crabby.

Left to their own devices, middle schoolers will happily fill up on snack foods, stay up until midnight, drag out of bed at dawn, and yell at you at dinner time.

But that doesn't mean you have to let them.

And the whole family will be happier if you don't.

The rest of the series . . .

Part 2 :What Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Lawyers

Part 3: What Parents Should Know: Adolescents are Like Kindergartners

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

More from Nancy Darling Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Nancy Darling Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today