Why bedtimes matter, and how parents can enforce them.
Posted Jan 15, 2020
The majority of the teens and young adults I work with are sleep deprived. They come to therapy stifling yawns with bags under their eyes, and my heart sighs heavily for the impact this is having on their mental and physical health.
I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but my observations are on par with the literature. In fact, countless studies have revealed that the vast majority of teens aren’t getting the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 8-10 hours per night (as a mom to a one and a half-year-old, I don’t know when I last saw 8-10 hours either, but I digress…)
All kinds of things have been touted as being the “cause” of this sleep(less) epidemic: unrelenting school demands, early school start-times, omnipresent screens, and chronic overscheduling are some of the major culprits. Most likely, it’s a complicated cocktail of all-of-the-above (and then some). And the list of consequences is just as long – a host of studies have linked insufficient sleep in teens to things like depression and anxiety, impaired academic performance, impulsivity and aggression, and somatic complaints, ,,.
The physical, emotional, and behavioural consequences of this chronic sleep deprivation are profound for our young people and can leave parents feeling a bit helpless. However, a recent study published in Sleep by Peltz, Rogge, and Connolly  found that a major way to help tired teens sleep longer is actually pretty simple: it’s about parents setting earlier bedtimes — or simply setting bedtimes at all.
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in the Modern Family Poll, only 35% of parents of 15-to-17-year-olds actually enforced sleep-related rules (things like limiting afternoon/evening caffeine intake and pre-bedtime screentime). However, Peltz and his colleagues found that greater enforcement of bedtimes predicted longer sleep durations for adolescents and was indirectly associated with decreased depressive symptoms (mediated by adolescents’ daytime energy levels).
Some parents might be thinking that trying to enforce a bedtime for their teen all of a sudden is just a recipe for a power struggle. They may also be thinking: shouldn’t my teen be able to make their own responsible decisions about their sleep by now?
Well, yes and no. Adolescents don’t always exhibit a lot of self-control or good judgment. This is partly because the prefrontal cortex – the decision-making center – is the last area of the brain to develop. Luckily, parents can have an immense influence on their teen’s developing brain, helping to strengthen positive brain connections when it comes to building good sleep habits.
Obviously, setting bedtime boundaries is going to look different for a teen than it will for a toddler or preschooler. For older kids, parents need to take an autonomy-promoting stance to firmly and fairly enforce bedtime rules and responsibilities. Here are some tips to help:
- Be collaborative. Teens need boundaries to promote safety and consistency, but they also need opportunities to negotiate those boundaries. Rather than definitively setting a bedtime sans discussion, talk with your teen about why having a regular snooze schedule is important. And decide what your own hard-line is: Is it a certain time? Absolutely no screens in the bedroom? Or screens allowed for music but not social media? Then, ask your teen what they think is a healthy bedtime routine – chances are, they’ll set a pretty reasonable schedule (sticking to it will likely be the harder part). Balancing guidance with clear limit-setting is important, and making your teen feel trusted and heard will likely be more effective than splitting hairs over a 10:00 vs. 10:30 bedtime.
- Be consistent. Like many things in life, consistency is key. Obviously, sometimes bedtime will need to be flexible, but shooting for an 80% success rate can help negate some later nights.
- Be mindful of biology. According to the National Sleep Foundation, changes in circadian rhythms (our internal biological clocks that regulate our sleepiness and wakefulness throughout the day) change during adolescence, causing a “sleep phase delay” . This can make it difficult for teens to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Unfortunately, early school start times mean that many youth struggle to get their recommended 8-10 hours before its time to get up for class. Getting plenty of daytime sunlight and limiting screen and light exposure close to bedtime can help shift these internal clocks, and consistent sleep hygiene habits are key (the National Sleep Foundation has a helpful list of solutions here).
- Be a good role model. Parents don’t always exhibit the healthiest decision-making when it comes to our own regular bedtimes, either. Obviously parents don’t need to have the same rules and restrictions as their children (keeping in mind that adults are recommended 7-9 hours a night), but modeling healthy bedtime behaviours is vital.
For more, see:
1. Krietsch, K. N., King, C., & Beebe, D. W. (2019). Experiemental sleep restriction increases somatic complaints in healthy teens. Sleep, 42, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz067.223
2. Meltzer, L. J., Beebe, D. W., Jump, S., Flewlling, K., Sundstrom, D., White, M., Zeitlin, P. L., & Strand, M. J. (2020). Impact of sleep opportunity on asthma outcomes in adolescents. Sleep Medicine, 65, 134-141. Retreived from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389945719302515
Alfano, C. A., Zakem, A. H., Costa, N. M., Taylor, L. K., & Weems, C. F. (2009). Sleep problems and their relation to cognitive factors, anxiety, and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents. Depression and Anxiety, 26, 503-512. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/da.20443
Peltz, J. S., Rogge, R. D., & Connolly, H. (2019). Parents still matter: The influence of parental enforcement of bedtime on adolescents’ depressive symptoms. Sleep, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz287