Q: When my daughter was younger, she had difficulty falling asleep at night. She would read and fight sleep for hours. Now, she is sixteen. She is in her room by eleven most nights, but cannot – or will not – go to sleep at a decent hour. How can I make her understand how important sleep is for teens?
A: First, allow me to comment on the easy part of this question: You cannot make a teen understand anything! Teens are experiential learners. Teenagers typically commit behaviorally to what works out well for them, that is, those behaviors that are rewarded either internally or by the people they regard highly. This is why a teenager’s peer group can be so worrisome for Mom and Dad. It is her job as a teenager to resist your authority. Rather than attempting to explain anything, simply influence your teen by creating a reliable routine with calm yet firm regularity that enables her
to eventually experience success.
Your concerns about the poor sleep habits of your daughter echo throughout most American families. Sleep has become a common power struggle between parent and child that starts in the toddler years and continues through young adulthood. Similar arguments occur surrounding the food our children consume and the activities (or lack thereof) they engage in. Parents want to cling to those healthy eating, sleeping, and moving patterns characteristic of children from prior generations. Yet, we are confronted daily with a culture that does not support such choices. We simply cannot expect children living a twenty-first century lifestyle to exhibit 1950s habits.
We are all familiar with the pervasive implications of sleep deprivation. A sleep- deprived child fails to thrive academically, socially, emotionally, and physiologically. Of course, children began to avoid sleep when electric light became the mainstream. But with the mainstreaming of complex technology, sleep is no longer something our children simply avoid; it can be experienced as downright unpleasant.
As parents, we cannot assume that after all the activity, noise, and stimulation throughout a child’s day, that the child would be comfortable with the sudden quiet, stillness, and isolation of going to sleep. For most children today, a quiet brain is stressful. Quiet has become boring and boredom has become anxiety for today’s hyper-stimulated child. Now, sleep has become one more daily challenge. This relationship between our hectic lifestyles today and our children’s lack of quality sleep is undeniable.
While there are many changes we can make to reverse this trend of sleeplessness in our children, we can begin by simply committing to more quiet time in our homes.
By unplugging ourselves from every distraction for a generous period of time each evening, and demanding that our children do the same, we are encouraging the quiet our children need to begin the difficult transition from stimulation to sleep. Engage in calm activity with your child: reading, yoga or stretching, creating something, playing cards or board games, a quiet walk around the block. Offer your child the best of yourself each evening. Sitting with her in the low lights of her bedroom listening to her speak of her day will produce more change in her ability to transition to sleep than all the talking in the world.
Your question is a complex one. Space does not allow for a more varied discussion of the reasons children struggle with falling and/or staying asleep. I have chosen to focus on the cultural shift in contemporary lifestyle as a major catalyst in the transition from sleep avoidance to full-scale sleep deprivation. And I have chosen to address our lifestyle choices because this is what we can change, if we work toward that. There are many children who cannot sleep for reasons beyond lifestyle. Stay tuned for that discussion in future columns.