Three Things to Teach Your Teen About Sleep and Their Brain | Deborah Farmer Kris | 4 Min Read

When I was a college freshman, I pulled my first all-nighter. After triumphantly printing out the English paper, I dragged my roommate to the dining hall for breakfast. 

“Can you hand me a . . . you know . . . that, um, stick with a circle-thingy on it,” I asked her.

“You mean this?” she said, holding up a spoon. 

Sleep — and the lack of it — does powerful things to the brain. My inability to recall the word “spoon” became an inside joke, but it also reveals some powerful insights that we can share with teens about why sleep benefits them. 

Parents who are concerned about their adolescents’ sleep (or other!) habits will often warn kids of the consequences of their choices.  But remember, teens are more motivated by pleasure than pain. So focusing on the positive outcomes of good choices is often more powerful than emphasizing the negative consequences of poor choices. 

Here are three insights worth sharing.

1. Sleep is a study strategy

Students often think that it’s a choice between studying or sleeping. But it’s not an either-or proposition: sleep is a study strategy. Lack of sleep slows our mental recall — which is why I couldn’t remember the name of a utensil — so staying up that extra hour to study will make it harder for them to recall and process the information quickly on the exam the next day. 

Also, the brain processes our day while we sleep, moving information into long-term memory.  Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin found that many of our synapses shrink at night as the brain weeds out information that it no longer needs — which is why you probably don’t remember what you ate for lunch last Tuesday. Sleep also flushes out toxins that accumulate during the day.

And you learn while you sleep!  In one study from Harvard Medical School, researchers asked college students to complete a challenging maze. After students worked on it for a while, they took a nap. Students who reported dreaming about the maze improved their ability to solve it. One of the researchers noted that taking a nap after a study session or reviewing notes shortly before bed might increase your odds of dreaming about the material.  We only remember a fraction of our dreams, but that doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from them. 

2. Sleep is a mood regulator

As adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour told me, “Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together.” 

When we are sleep-deprived, we are less emotionally resilient. And our kids know this! When I asked a group of middle schoolers to finish the sentence “When I don’t get enough sleep …” they had a lot to say: I can’t think clearly; I get grumpy; my head spins with negative thoughts; I am more sensitive; my emotions are just out of whack; I yell or cry for no reason.

As one girl, summarized, “When I don’t get enough sleep, everything is harder.” 

So what’s the positive flip side? Remind teens that sleep is a proven way to decrease anxiety. They have all had the experience of feeling upset, getting some rest, and discovering that the problem felt a little more manageable. So when they find that they are struggling emotionally, help them think about how to improve their sleep. As Damour told me, the first question many clinicians ask teens who come in for anxiety is, “How much sleep are you getting?”

3. There Are Practical Ways to Improve Quality of Your Sleep

Teens often feel like getting more sleep isn’t possible, given the demands placed on them (and part of what they are telling us is that expectations placed on teens, particularly in high-pressure academic environments, are unsustainable — but that’s an article for another day). 

That said, there are practical strategies to improve the quality of their sleep. 

  • Limit caffeine intake, particularly afternoon: caffeine stays in the bloodstream for hours and affects the quality of sleep. 
  • Move your body: regular exercise correlates with improved sleep.
  • Turn off screens at least an hour before bed: blue light affects melatonin production.
  • Silence social media notifications: put devices on sleep mode — because that random comment in a group chat at 2 a.m. can cause a rush of adrenaline that will interfere with sleep. Your kids know this. Help them make a plan to avoid it.
  • Establish a sleep routine: When your kids were little, you probably had a set bedtime routine. Those work because routines tell the brain it’s time to wind down. When kids get older, they need to establish their own routines. Dim the lights in the bathroom and take a hot shower? Read in bed for 15 minutes? Play a song that calms them down? Do a mindfulness meditation to calm the body and brain?
  • Try Using the Pomodoro Method: This simple-but-proven method can help teens take control of their evening time and manage their time more effectively. Read about it here.

There’s no silver bullet to this, but part of our job as parents is to coach our kids to make thoughtful life choices. As KJ Dell’Antonia, author of “How to Be a Happier Parent,” told me: “If you teach your kids why sleep is important and what it can do for them, they can genuinely want and learn to change.” 

Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)

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