I’m a psychologist married to a psychiatrist. And, yes, I know how many of us it takes to screw in a light bulb! Between us, we treat people aged 2 to 92 and attempt to raise three of our very own offspring. Ask us what we worry the most about with our clients—and offspring—and we’ll say sleep deprivation. Hands down, sleep deprivation is the most common and insidious threat to mental health.
With teens, we call staying up all night vamping—like a vampire, but on screen media. And kids who stay up all night tend to sleep all day. Anybody who has parented a teen (especially during the summer) knows this is common for teens left to their own devices in the stinky, cluttered landscape of their “crib.” (Note about the author: sprinkling slang terms into conversation makes my teens freak out with indignation. It is a hobby of mine. The consistency of my kids’ contempt ensures that all is right with the world. Feel free to try it.)
So how can you avoid the slippery slope of teen vamping? Read on for tips to help your child improve their sleep habits.
No screens in the bedroom. Screens wake up our brain. Screen media stimulates the photo sensors in the retina that signal the brain to suppress melatonin production (our sleep-regulating hormone). Less melatonin disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. In other words, screens train us to be awake in bed. If we are often awake in bed, our bodies will automatically believe that the bed is an awake-only zone. If we only rest and sleep in bed, our bodies will be cued that bed is a sleep-only zone. Although it is a challenge to stop teens from living their full life cycle on their beds, this habit can create sleep problems.
Make the “No Screens in the Bedroom” rule BEFORE it’s necessary. I know it’s asking a lot to say no TV, no video games, no tablets or phones in the bedroom. But believe me, intimate spaces can eventually lead to intimate gestures like sexting and the viewing of inappropriate online content. The best case scenario is starting out with this rule from the very beginning. But, even if you’ve allowed it, it’s not too late. Stage a discussion and go slow. Yanking their freedom abruptly may trigger a backlash that could damage your hard earned parent-child connection.
Screens off 30 minutes before lights-out. Psychologists have discovered that one of the most disabling features of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD (an impairing anxiety disorder that results from trauma) is the sleep deprivation that results from nightmares. If we are troubled upon falling asleep, poor sleep quality may result, and we will be unable to awaken feeling refreshed or rejuvenated. This can seriously impair mental health.
Although emotionally triggering screen activities like gaming, texting, or viewing activating content aren’t as troubling as real life trauma, they stimulate the same brain regions. Limiting screen media activities at night, and giving your children time to soothe prior to bedtime, will likely result in better quality sleep overall.
Encourage a soothing nighttime ritual. We are creatures of habit. Habitual activity during the 30 minute bedtime wind-down signals the body to anticipate rest. Components of a soothing ritual may include soft lighting, quiet repetitive sounds, and comforting activities. Avoid eating, triggering discussions, and intense exercise. Sticking to a consistent bedtime schedule is also important.
Stage the room to be restful. I know it’s nearly impossible to motivate teens to unclutter their dens. However, research is clear that a soothing environment contributes to a soothed mind. Offer your support in creating a more grown-up environment with a fresh bedroom makeover that reflects rest and relaxation. Light paint colors, organized closets and bedside tables, subtle lighting, and crisp, cleansing smells can turn a chaotic hovel into a relaxing paradise.
Teach sophisticated self-soothing strategies. There’s preliminary evidence that screen media delays the onset of sleep, negatively affects sleep quality, and results in difficulty awakening and feeling refreshed. It also decreases REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep time. Children and adolescents who use screen media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep, and report more daytime sleepiness. Sending texts or emails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens (even if it’s only once per week).
As a psychologist, I can attest by firsthand experience that using cognitive-behavioral exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, yoga, imagery, and cognitive restructuring can fend off even the most severe anxiety and mood disorders. Teach your kids some of these techniques to help them relax in order to get more quality rest. (EDITOR’S NOTE: For a few examples, check out the National Sleep Foundation’s relaxation exercises here).