Encourage Teens to Sleep Well

Teen Sleep: A Key to Health and Stress Management

It’s a conversation about sleep that’s repeated too often.

“How’s it going?”


“How about you?”

“Exhausted! No time to sleep.”

Sound familiar? It has become a badge of honor to work ourselves to the bone and sacrifice sleep. Our kids are watching us and setting themselves up to repeat this harmful cycle.

Sleep affects our health, mood, and ability to succeed. Stressful situations easily managed when well-rested can put us over the deep end when fatigued. Sleep is necessary to move newly learned knowledge into memory. So, it isn’t surprising that school and job performance declines with lack of sleep.

Sleep experts say that adolescents require 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night (9-11 hours for tweens), but most aren’t getting nearly enough. When we teach our teens how to be efficient during the day, tuck their worries away at night, and recharge with restful sleep, we prepare them for a successful future.

Sleep Interference

Distractions are one of the most common causes of sleepiness. These can include spending too much time on school work, gaming, or cell phone use. But other things interfere with falling asleep or cause nighttime awakenings. Stress is a chief culprit. Worrying in bed can keep us from falling asleep and wake us throughout the night. Stimulants like caffeine can prevent both falling asleep and interfere with sleep quality. Although medical conditions are less common causes of sleepiness, they are important to consider. If your child often has trouble sleeping or is unusually tired during the day, talk with a health professional.

Adolescents’ biological clocks shift during puberty primarily because the brain’s sleep-timing systems switch on later at night.

Teens are Night Owls

Our teens become more active later at night just when we want to turn in. As a result, they often have trouble waking up early. This is a source of conflict in many homes but is not rooted in rebellion – it is based in biology.

Adolescents’ biological clocks shift during puberty primarily because the brain’s sleep-timing systems switch on later at night. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools have a later start time (no earlier than 8:30). Many schools have made that shift but it is not yet a widespread practice. As a result, many teens start their days before they are fully awake.

Problems and Brief Solutions

The good news is there are solutions to many of the common issues that interfere with teen sleep. Greater detail is offered in Building Resilience in Children and Teens and more information on creating the right environment for sleep is also available from The Sleep Foundation.

Caffeine and Stimulants

Possibly the easiest issue to address is the use of stimulants. Caffeine is a real drug and should be used sparingly. It can take 6 to 10 hours for caffeine to get out of the body. It is found in coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate, and at very high levels within energy and power drinks. Teens who drink caffeine in the afternoon and evening have more difficulty sleeping and are more tired during the day. Caffeine does keep us alert for a short time, but doesn’t overcome excessive sleepiness and does not pay back a sleep debt caused by lack of nighttime restfulness. In other words, it works in the short term but can add to overall sleepiness.

Other common stimulants can be found in cold medicines and other medications. For example, medications for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may cause teen sleep problems. If your child has ADHD and is on medication, consult a health care provider about side effects including sleep interference.


Digestion takes work. Large or spicy meals before bedtime can cause indigestion. A lot of liquid before bed can create the need to wake up to use the bathroom during the night. A small snack with a soothing drink like warm milk or herbal tea may support healthy sleep.


The body’s natural circadian rhythm regulates patterns of wakefulness and sleep. People are diurnal, meaning we are designed to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Anything that interferes with allowing the body to stick to that rhythm may interfere with sleep.

Artificial light has affected this natural design. When we use light and darkness appropriately we can return to our natural rhythm. Encourage your teens to raise the shades in the morning and dial down the lights as bedtime nears. TV and cell phone screens give off a hue of blue light that stimulates the brain into wakefulness. Suggest your teens set their phones to automatically turn on night settings at least a couple of hours before bed.


The brain can still hear noises even when we are asleep. Because the subconscious mind tries to make sense of these sounds, noise can wake us up or disturb our dream patterns. Ideally, create a quiet spot for your teens to sleep in. If that is not possible, consider using white noise, soothing music or nature sounds. A starting point for white noise is a fan or air conditioner. These sounds can be calming and can cancel out other sounds. It may take a while to find the sound that works best for each person. Support teens to find what works for them.

Mental Activity in Bed

We are more likely to stay asleep when we associate the bed as being the place for sleep. Any mental activity done in bed increases the possibility of sleep problems. The subconscious mind wants to “complete” this mental work and may awaken to do so. When teens do school work in bed, the bed can become associated with anxiety about grades and tests. When they text, use social media or talk to friends in bed, it can become associated with excitement and social pressures. The brain doesn’t turn off when we sleep. It’s just dialed down, like a computer in sleep mode. And it’s easily started up when subconscious thoughts come close to the surface. To sleep well, we must encourage our teens to do all of their “work” – academic, emotional, social, or otherwise – somewhere other than the bed.


Too often, the first chance to be alone with our thoughts is when our head hits the pillow.  Many of us use the bed to do some of our best and often toughest thinking. We can be so busy that we lack the downtime to process thoughts and feelings or even plan for tomorrow. When the bed becomes the place to deal with important issues, it becomes a workstation. We’re working too hard to fall asleep and may wake up in the middle of the night to complete the work. We haven’t allowed our minds to turn off. Support teens to create a space to work through feelings and develop solutions to their problems before bedtime and away from the bed.

Non-Stop Activity

When our minds are revved up, it is hard to fall smoothly into sleep. When we move from activity to activity without winding down, we hit the bed still spinning. Our body is more geared for a run or fight than it is for giving in to sleep. The answer lies in dialing down the activity at least an hour before bed. This is called practicing good “sleep hygiene.” Help teens develop a relaxing routine before bed. This could include taking a shower, brushing teeth, listening to calming music, or doing some light reading.

A Regular Sleep-Wake Cycle

The body learns what it is supposed to do. It likes patterns. The more we go to bed and awaken at a predictable time, the better our body will expect to sleep at certain times and be alert at others. Life does not always offer predictable routines, but we should try as hard as possible to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. This means relatively routine bedtimes – although being too rigid on this may backfire with teens. Help them to see the benefits of a regular sleep-wake cycle, rather than make it a subject to battle over.

Perhaps even harder is helping teens learn that sleeping late and napping for long periods (especially before bedtime) actually interferes with sleep. Educate them. If they want to make an exception, consider it. But ask them to pay attention to how their body reacts. They’ll likely learn that the short-term pleasures of a long nap, usually backfires. On the other hand, short power-naps (20-30 minutes), can restore alertness and may interfere with sleep less.

“But I have a test tomorrow!”

Late night cramming is almost a rite of passage for teens in many schools. Just as adults take a strange kind of pride in saying we are “busy,” some teens like to show that they had to work late to get everything done. This emphasizes their efforts as well as serves as an opportunity to complain about how overburdened with work they are. For other teens, it’s a matter of procrastination. They don’t begin working intensely until they have no other choice. In these cases, many feel convinced that the extra hour (or three) of studying will make a difference. The problem is that fatigue the next day prevents them from accessing their memories and decreases performance. Also, they may have difficulty listening well and focusing in class. This can cause them to fall further behind, feeding the vicious cycle of needing to work harder the next night.  In nearly all cases, a good night’s sleep is the best option!

Create A Plan

Hopefully, the tips above will help both you and your teen get a better night sleep. But some people need even more targeted help. For those truly struggling with sleep, either having difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep, consider these additional suggestions.

Get Ready to Let Go

For people who have a hard time falling asleep, it may help to become intentional about the process of winding down. Not all of the suggestions must be followed. They are ideas to draw from. The last thing we want to do is create more stress around sleep!

  • Put aside worrisome thoughts. Stress Management: Support Teens to Release Emotions offers ideas to help teens get things off of their minds. The key is to do worrying somewhere other than in bed.
  • Plan the next day. Set aside a list or planner and say, “Done.” Also do this somewhere other than in bed.
  • Dim the lights an hour before bed. Set cell phones on an automatic night mode.
  • Have a bedtime routine about the same time each day. This tells the body, “I’m getting ready for bed.”
  • Take a leisurely bath or shower an hour or so before bed to help relax the body and prepare it for sleep.
  • Drink some herbal tea or warm milk. When it becomes a routine, the natural sleep substances in these drinks and the pattern of slowing down and sipping for a few minutes provide a natural way to relax.

Create a Space for Sleep

The bed should be a special, almost sacred place. It should only be used for sleeping, not doing homework, eating, reading, listening to music, playing games, or dealing with social drama.

Beyond Counting Sheep

Counting sheep is a strategy designed to distract from thoughts. Nice concept, but too boring for many people. It leaves lots of room for intrusive thoughts to creep back in. We suggest a technique that takes full advantage of controlled breathing and allows little room for intrusive thoughts. For this strategy to work, you must first know what is meant by a deep breath. It is not a rapid chest breath. Instead, it is a deep, slow breath that starts with the diaphragm. It will look first as if the belly is filling like a balloon. Then the chest expands. Check out a demonstration of this here. And work together with your teens to try out this technique by following these steps:

  • Lay on your back.
  • Breathe in deeply and slowly while counting to 4.  Focus on both your breath and the counting.
  • Say “hold” to yourself and do nothing for two or three seconds.
  • Exhale slowly while counting to 6. The count of 4:6 is the most common rhythm, but your teen (or you) may find another count more comfortable.
  • Your mind should be occupied with counting and your body should relax as your nervous system calms with each deep breath.
  • Place your hands on your belly with your fingers interlaced loosely. If you are doing this right, then your fingers will slowly move apart as you inhale. Notice as they come together when you exhale.
  • Repeat this 4 or 5 times. Focus on nothing but your breathing. Allow yourself to drift away to a comfortable night sleep.

This meditative breathing requires full concentration and relaxes the body after a few cycles. The mind is too preoccupied on the cycle of breathing to also focus on worries. This strategy can be helpful even for those young people with a long history of insomnia. In many cases, results can be obtained the first night.

Getting Back to Sleep

When the mind is active, we sometimes awaken in the middle of the night. Sometimes repeatedly. If this happens frequently, or if something important is planned the next day (like a test, big game, performance or interview),  it’s common to become really worried about sleep itself. To fear that a poor night’s sleep will have a big consequence the next day. Worrying about sleep in bed only activates the mind and body, and leads to restlessness. As anxiety builds, the chance of getting back to sleep decreases. Encourage teens to get out of bed, leave the lights off, sit in a chair, and return to bed when drowsy.

Expect Resistance

It’s not uncommon to get some resistance when suggesting your teen focuses on sleep. Your practical advice may seem disconnected from reality. Teens may worry they won’t have enough time for homework or friends.

Challenge them to endure a trial period of exercise, good nutrition, and adequate sleep. Their increased efficiency and focus, and improved ability to handle everyday stress, will make up for all the time they “wasted” taking care of themselves. It’s possible that they won’t learn the lesson until they’ve experienced the results first hand.

“How’s it going?”

“Good! Love what I’m doing. Taking care of myself. How about you?”

Stress Management Plan for Teens
It’s great you want to help your teens to manage stress. They can build their own plan. Everything they need is right here. Suggest they get started today!

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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