How to Get Your Teen to Sleep
By Lisa L. Lewis
It’s easy for busy teens to fall into a pattern of skimping on sleep in order to squeeze in homework, extracurriculars, social demands, and down time. If your teen regularly clocks less than eight hours, everything—including, oh, say, family interactions—can be much more difficult.
Sleep-deprived teens are also at increased risk for depression, anxiety, accidents, injuries, difficulty in school, and even suicidality. Especially given the added stressors of the past few years, helping your teen get enough sleep is a crucial way to support their mental health.
Until age 18, teens should be getting eight to 10 hours of sleep for optimal well-being and functioning. Most teens don’t get that much—and it may seem like a lot in these busy times—but teens are still in the midst of the tremendous changes of adolescence and their sleep needs reflect that.
There’s more than just a physical transformation under way. Their brains are doing critical work pruning away unnecessary neurons and strengthening connections that speed up how they process information, and much of that takes place while they’re sleeping.
Kids also experience a circadian rhythm shift during adolescence, which means they don’t feel sleepy until later at night (approximately 11 p.m.) and also sleep later in the morning than they used to. Unfortunately, school schedules don’t make the same shift, so early school starts make it really hard for teens to get enough sleep.
Here are seven ways you can help.
1. Take a Look at Their Schedule
If your teen regularly stays up late just to get everything done, it may be time to see if they need to be doing everything. Add up the time spent on homework (remembering that some classes may require extra study time), sports and other extracurriculars, and jobs or chores. Is there still a window of at least eight to 10 hours left for sleep?
If not, you may want to work with your teen to figure out a way to pare down the schedule. It can be hard to push back on schoolwork and extracurriculars when success is often defined as being at the top of the class, excelling in other activities, or getting into the “right” college, but success is broader than that. Regardless of what your teen’s goals are, getting enough sleep is critical for managing stress and becoming resilient
2. Help Head Off Last-Minute Studying
If your teen typically stays up late cramming the night before a test, try to help them plan ahead by asking them how they felt after cramming and how you can help next time. If they are open to hearing it, let them know that last-minute studying is far less effective than learning and reviewing material in chunks over a longer period of time.
3. Encourage Them to Disconnect From Tech
Getting into emotional group chats or stumbling across something upsetting on social media close to bedtime can be activating and make it hard for teens to sleep. Plus screens are a source of blue light, which can make them feel more alert—the opposite of what you want late at night.
But getting teens off their screens is a battle a lot of us want to avoid. A more effective way is to set a house-wide rule of no tech before bedtime. The official recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to shut down tech at least an hour before bedtime, which may not always be feasible but is a goal you can work toward. You may want to make use of phone settings that cut off certain functions at a specific time to avoid an argument every night.
4. Watch Weekend Sleep
Many teens try to make up for lost weeknight sleep on the weekends. If your teen regularly does that, it can reinforce a pattern that makes it even harder to fall asleep when Sunday night rolls around. Research shows that teens fare better when they have a consistent sleep schedule, with weekend wake times generally not more than two hours later than weekday times.
5. Enlist Your Teen’s Buy-In
Skeptical teens may be more convinced by trying some of these changes and seeing the results for themselves. Encourage them to take the lead on making a few sleep-friendly changes and observing what happens. They can do it on their own or use an app such as Doze, a free app for teens that offers information and recommendations based on the priorities they indicate.
6. Model Good Sleep Hygiene
Prioritizing sleep for all members of the household, including caregivers, strengthens the message. If you’ve taken some of these steps to help improve your own sleep, let your teen know. They will probably roll their eyes, but the message will still land.
You can even start a wind-down routine with the whole family. It may include a family rule that all tech devices are charged overnight in a central location such as the kitchen rather than in bedrooms. Remember that when you’re well rested everything—including parenting teens—is easier!
7. Be Patient and Empathetic
Keep in mind that the stressors of the past few years have taken a particular toll on teens, affecting mental health as well as sleep. During COVID, many teens shifted to later sleep schedules and also increased their tech and social media use, says Lisa Meltzer, Ph.D., a pediatric sleep psychologist. Even though school and other commitments have ramped up again, many teens have struggled to get back on a “normal” schedule, she says.
Having ongoing conversations rather than issuing rules can help get your teen involved in their own healthy sleep plan. Shifting to better sleep habits may not happen instantaneously, but you can continue to set a good example, identify challenges your teen is facing, and work together to make sleep a priority.
Share these resources with your teen to help them make changes to their sleeping habits:
The High Schooler’s Guide to Getting Good Sleep