Mini-Episode: Help Your Teen Value Better (and More!) Sleep

About this Episode

On this mini-episode of the Brainy Moms podcast, Dr. Amy Moore talks with cohosts Teri Miller and Sandy Zamalis about a listener’s question regarding how to help your teens value better sleep.

About Dr. Amy Moore

Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist at LearningRx in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at the headquarters of the largest network of brain training centers in the world. She specializes in cognitive training and assessment for neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, brain injury, learning disabilities and age-related cognitive decline. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals and presented at conferences around the country. She has been a child development specialist, education administrator, and teacher of teachers with a PhD in psychology and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Dr. Amy has been working with struggling learners for 25+ years in public, private, and government organizations, so she knows a little about thinking and learning. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a TEDx Speaker, host of the Brainy Moms podcast, a licensed pastor, and a board-certified Christian counselor. Dr. Amy is married to Jeff Moore, a retired Air Force fighter pilot now working as a surgical nurse. They have three incredible sons (ages 18, 22, and 24) and a very mischievous but soft Siberian cat. Originally from South Carolina, Dr. Amy has called Colorado home since 2006.

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Read the transcript for this episode:

Dr. AMY:  So we have received a question on Instagram from a listener who wants to know, is there a way to help your teens value better sleep? That is a tough one. Really, because we’re talking about teenagers and it’s difficult enough to even share suggestions with a teenager, much less convince a teenager that they’re not getting it right.

TERI: Yeah. Right.

Dr. AMY: So, we kind of have like this double whammy battle, you know, when we’re talking about most teens. So, I think we ought to start first by talking about why do we think that there’s even a struggle. Like, why is there, why are teens struggling to get enough sleep in the first place? And then maybe we can come at some potential solutions to toss around.

TERI: I remember when I was growing up and I’m 53, so it was a completely different world, and I remember the staying up late was for things like reading a book or talking on the phone, you know, to my boyfriend or something, or my girlfriend, you know, whatever. Talking on the phone, reading, you know, doing homework, but that was it. There weren’t any other options. It’s not like you were … I mean, I guess some kids, if they had a TV in their bedroom, you know, they’d stay up on watching TV. But then, I mean, even up until good heavens, middle school maybe, TV went off at midnight. When did like HBO —

Dr. AMY: It played the national anthem and then went fuzzy!

TERI: Right! It ended. You didn’t get to stay up until two o’clock. Yeah. Two o’clock in the morning watching TV or playing a video game or whatever that didn’t exist. And our kids live in a vastly different world where there is 24/7 entertainment, not just kind of there, but actually actively trying to suck them in. I mean, what, how did, how do we, how do we fight that?

Dr. AMY: Yeah. It’s hard because I mean, we’ve interviewed people who specialize in technology problems, right, and treating technology addiction. And they talk about those algorithms and they talk about how they’re designed to keep you completely engaged.

TERI: Yeah.

Dr. AMY: And so, right. It’s super hard to compete with that. And even, even just building a knowledge base isn’t necessarily enough to compete for the motivation.

TERI: Yeah.

Dr. AMY: You know, one of the things that’s unique to teenagers that we don’t see with younger kids or even full-grown adults is that shift in circadian rhythms. And so like, you know, research has shown us that teenage brains function better from late morning to late evening, right? That having your teenager up at 6 a. m. is actually fighting against their biology. And unfortunately, the school systems, for the most part, have not found a solution, right? Because what I hear with school systems who have tried to have elementary schools start earlier and then middle schools and then have the latest starts be the high school so that it can kind of match those circadian rhythms better, is it messes up the bus schedules and it messes up the sports schedules.

TERI: Yeah.

Dr. AMY: And so what is that solution? Right? And so they haven’t been able to land on one that I’ve seen. And so we just have to know that we’re fighting against biology by forcing teenagers into that schedule.

TERI: How I’d love, you know, to hear from you, Sandy, and, you know, you, Amy, and I can share a little bit like what’s been your experience in trying to encourage your, you know, young teen, older teen, whatever, to encourage your teenager to get sleep when everything in our culture, everything in their life is pulling them to be on social media, on the phone, entertain, whatever, until two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning? Until they literally like pass out because they’re so consistently getting three, four hours of sleep at night? What have you said that has helped or? What have you just said? What are, what arguments or conversations have you had, Sandy?

SANDY: Well, it’s weird because I don’t know that I’ve actually had this battle with my kids as much. We homeschooled for a really long time. So we just kind of rocked our schedule. Whatever our schedule was is what we did. You know, I used to have some rules about, you know, phones or back then it was just iPads or iPods, whatever, whatever tool that couldn’t be in the bedroom at night. But it’s really funny ’cause both my kids, my son is sleeper, he’ll sleep anywhere all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a moving vehicle, he’s out even, even to this day.

My daughter, on the other hand, was never a sleeper, even as an infant. And so, you know, part of that, I think in our house was picking your battles. I just knew my son would find a time to get the rest he needed and we would go with that. Whereas my daughter, like she was up late because she really couldn’t sleep. I mean, we were trying lots of, we’ve tried everything, for her, but she’s always battled with insomnia. So, I don’t know that I have much to offer in that other than you just have to know your child and pick your battles, I think a little bit on that one. If they’re doing okay on, you know, the few hours of sleep, you know, they’re not grumpy or taking your head off in the morning, then, you know, they’ll find their way. If, but you know, if you need to suggest a nap, like, “Hey, you know, you’re really tired. I think we need to rethink the strategy. It’s not working well for you.” But yeah, sleep was just never a battle in our house in that way. So, I don’t know, take that for what it’s worth.

TERI: Well, we’re all jealous.

Dr. AMY: Actually, we didn’t have a sleep battle in our house either. But I’ll tell you why.

TERI: What is wrong with you people?

Dr. AMY: Well, no, but this is, this is why I think we didn’t. I refused to micromanage my children’s schedule. And so I am a firm believer in natural consequences. And so if you stay up too late and you were too exhausted to pay attention in class and you failed a test because you weren’t paying attention in class, right, then it’s an opportunity for me to go back then and help deconstruct that with you. “Hey, why do you think you did so poorly on that test? I can see you’re super disappointed.” Right? And so once you kind of get your kids trained to have those conversations, right, the first couple are painful, they don’t want to talk about it, right? But once I was able to say, “Let’s see if we can brainstorm some possible solutions.” Right? So to keep that from happening again, and so it then gives me the opportunity as the parent to go in and empower them with a little bit of information. You know, I kind of would pull the, “I’m a scientist, psychologist card.” Right? “I want to explain to you what happens in your brain when you sleep.” Right? “That sleep is how we consolidate memories. And so when you study and then sleep, it actually will help your brain remember what you studied before you slept. But if you don’t sleep, then those memories can’t be consolidated.” Right? And so I’ll give them a little bit of science there. You know, I talk about how, you know, sleep is like putting your brain through a car wash. That these toxins build up all day during the day. And so we have to sleep in order to get that whoosh. Do you like my sound effects?

TERI: Yeah.

Dr. AMY: Of fluid that washes the brain. It’s like turning a faucet on and off, right? And then it cleanses your brain and then your brain works better than that, right? And so I would just pull science out and say, “So knowing that, like, what could you do differently the night before a test this next time?” I find their pain point, right? Like, “What are you upset about? What is the struggle?” And like, and let’s brainstorm some solutions together. And that worked better for me than trying to micromanage a sleep schedule. Hey, it’s 11 o’clock, lights out, done, right? Whereas Jeff, Jeff wanted to micromanage the sleep schedule. And it was a battle, right? It was pushback, pushback, pushback. Now I will say he would shut the internet off at midnight if there was a problem, right?

TERI: That’s smart.

Dr. AMY: And so I can’t tell you how many nights I’d have a crying teenager or crying school-ager in our doorway. “The internet went off!” “No, it didn’t go off. Dad shut it off.” What about you, Teri? I’m hearing you say that you guys had more of a struggle.

TERI: Yeah, and it’s, I think it’s also just because I’ve got so many kids with so many different personalities. And so I’ve experienced so many different things with the kids. My experience is that it’s really girls and boys and my family, and maybe this was just dysfunctional crap in my family, I don’t know, but girls and boys react differently to being over exhausted and my daughters, especially a couple of my daughters staying up really late. Yeah. Social media, you know, entertainment, whatever, talking with friends, connections, getting really little sleep at night. So going to sleep at one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning, I think they just finally passed out and then my daughters are struggling with depression with like, then two or three days of that. I mean, it just through the school year, it just builds up, it builds up, it builds up and they’re just exhausted, over exhausted all the time. And so everything becomes so dark, you know? Like some social thing happens at school. And it’s like, they’re devastated, laid out, so depressed and upset, you know, just can’t see their way out. And then a few nights of good sleep, you know, and we all know, we know that psychologically, the lack of sleep makes us awfulize. It makes things look a lot darker. And then in my sons, I saw irritability and anger. So more of this, you know, angry, you know, “I don’t want to,” arguing with each other, you know, just being real persnickety and obstinate and, you know, just the angry. And so I saw the psychological emotional changes in them from lack of sleep. And that’s super frustrating because it’s like, hey, natural consequences. Sure. You’ll deal with it. Well, no, guess what? The whole family deals with it. And so that’s really hard. And I mean, I think that’s out there. I think there’s other families that have struggled with that, where it does impact everything. It doesn’t just impact that one kid. And I don’t know, I don’t have the answer because I’ve done the battle with some of the kids where I’m like, “No, lights out, go to bed, give me your phone, internet’s off.” You know, we’ve done that. I have one kid, my youngest and bedtime is very strict because she has some deeper struggles. If you’ve listened to this podcast, she’s the one with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, our youngest adopted daughter. And she’s got enough already deeper problems that that lack of sleep cannot happen. And then my oldest son, Caleb, he had epilepsy. So, oh, I was a sleep Nazi. You talk about controlling sleep. I mean, it was, I was adamant. He got 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night because if he didn’t, he’d launch into seizures. So I don’t know. I have had the full range of experiences. What about what happens in the brain, Amy? So you talked about with learning. What happens in the brain long term when kids, let’s talk about the full, the school year. So, you know, they’re, they’re six months into the school year and they have been sleep-deprived for months. What’s going on in their brains?

Dr. AMY: Yeah. I mean, like I said, if we don’t sleep, then toxins build up in the brain. And so we don’t know what the long-term impact of that is, except there’s some emerging research on an association between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s disease.

TERI: Goodness.

Dr. AMY: Because there is some early research that suggests that sleep actually helps remove those plaques that are building up that are leading to Alzheimer’s. So that is not an argument that will help us win the sleep battle with a teenager because they don’t think long term like that, right? But it does kind of put it in perspective for us, you know, to know that it isn’t just what happens tomorrow in your brain. Right? This is going to be a longer-term struggle with thinking and learning efficiently if you can’t consolidate memories because you’re chronically sleep deprived. I mean, if you can’t remember things, that’s going to impact every single subject. That’s going to impact your performance on the sports field. That’s going to impact your ability to memorize music if you’re a musician, right? Like, we could look at where you need memory consolidation in any sport, any hobby, or any subject in school that’s applicable to you as a teenager. And so that’s why I said, like, we have to find their pain point. Like, what are you struggling with? And see if we can make the suggestion that sleep is directly impacting that struggle.

TERI: I think compassion, I’m thinking about what, what would help, thinking about, you know, curiosity, thinking, okay, first curiosity. So to go to my daughter and say, “Hey, I noticed that you’re up, you know, I got up to use the restroom at 1:30 in the morning and I noticed that you were still up, your screen was glowing in your face, in your room. And, you know, so what’s, what’s going on? I mean, what’s drawing your attention? So maybe just to first be curious. To open that conversation. And I know, oh, that sounds so nice and good parenting, but I know moms and dads, I know moms out there, you know, curious, they’re still going to get annoyed. I know. Let’s be real. It looks good on paper. She is still going to say what, you know, she’s still going to be defensive. But then if I can offer compassion, I think, okay, number two, compassion. “Hey, I know you have things pulling at you that I cannot fathom. That’s that doesn’t pull at me in my life. I’m not sitting there at one o’clock in the morning with my work friends having to respond to snapchats for my well-being and my fitting in at work like you have to.” And so I think compassion is really, really good. And then the next step maybe is that collaborative solution. What’s a collaborative solution? So maybe to just talk to her. Say, “What can I do? What can I do to help? Because are you, I know you’re, you’re probably feeling, I shouldn’t say I know, maybe you’re feeling exhausted and overly emotional and how can I help?” Maybe that’s the conversation. I wish I had an answer.

Dr. AMY: No, I love coming at that from a, from an attitude or mindset of curiosity. “Hey, let’s collaborate on a potential solution.” And you know, your child, right? Like some kids haven’t, their brains don’t like to think critically. Right. And so sometimes those conversations are annoying to them. And so, you know, for a child like that, I might say, “Hey, like, I wonder if you’ve considered this.” Right? Like, they’re not doing well in something, right? They’re really struggling and they’re expressing frustration. And I’ll say something like, “Well, I wonder if you’ve considered that your sleep might be impacting that. You should research that.” Right? Like, when we were kids, we had to go find an encyclopedia to look something up. But, like, our kids have a second brain at the end of their palm. Right. “You should research the impact of the number of hours of sleep on school performance or sports performance or hobby.” Right?

And then let them look it up and see for themselves. Oh, wow. Maybe I should get an extra hour tonight. “I wonder what it would look like if you just added one hour. If you just wanted, if you just went to bed one hour early, I wonder what that would look like for you the next day.”

SANDY: And then I would offer up, but I do think exercise helps. I think if your kids have an outlet for exercise that helps sleep at night. I know my son—both my kids swam. My son swam longer, but you know, all that extra energy that went into swimming made it so much easier at night to crash. And I know when my kids didn’t have sports, it was harder for their brains to shut down. They just ended up going a little longer. So having some kind of activity, I think in your day can help as well.

Dr. AMY: I think that’s a great point. I always, I always laugh when I say that, you know, my first didn’t take a nap until he learned how to walk, right? Because then once he could walk, he ran laps around the house. And then he’d pass out. So I was chronically sleep deprived until my first child learned to walk. So yeah, Sandy, I think that’s a great suggestion. Yeah. So look, listeners, we don’t always have all of the answers, but hopefully just putting our brains together today and, sharing what has worked and what hasn’t worked for us, you know, might give you some ideas for getting started.

TERI: Hey, can I okay, so let me share what did work.

Dr. AMY: Yeah.

TERI: Maybe. So I’m going to use his name, but anyway, well maybe I shouldn’t, he might like it anyway. Okay. One of my sons who he’s a teenager, he’s had trouble sleeping. Sandy, like you said, and Amy yours, like he did not sleep even as a little one. We have hilarious stories and even some videos. He walked super early, talked super early. He would launch himself out of his crib. He’s like 13, 14 months old. I don’t know. Like he would climb out, not like fall on his head, but he knew how to climb out and he would come to the door, we would have to lock the door. And he would ultimately, many times, way later, fall asleep against the door. He’d come to the door and stick his little fingers under the space of the door and his little face would be like, he’d be like, “Waah!” You know, he just kind of, he wasn’t crying even. He was just like calling for interaction like late. And we’re just like, “Dude, I’ve got to go to bed.” So he’s always had trouble sleeping. And so then of course, in his teenage years, it was that like, I have insomnia, I just can’t go to sleep. And then, you know, if I do go to sleep, then I wake up three or four hours later and I’m awake for an hour in the night. So just has really struggled. And that was a hard one. Cause he wanted to be up late. He would say it helps me go to sleep. If I I’m up gaming or on my phone or whatever until I pass out. I tried to have some of that like control for a while and then ultimately let it go. And he talks now about how that was what he needed because he experienced that total exhaustion. Now he is very dedicated to his studies. He’s extremely academic. He’s very smart. He’s 17, but he’s already a full-time college student. And so he wanted to be doing better, to be able to focus better, to do well on his tests. And so it took about a year, but he learned that balance. And there are times when we’ll have dinner, you know, things are happening in the evening and he goes to bed at eight o’clock. And then there are some nights where, depending on how he feels and what’s going on, he’ll be up till two because he’s just kind of wired, but then a day or two later, you know, he’ll have that go to bed at eight night and he kind of makes up for it and he’s achieved, he still struggles with sleep, but he’s achieved this kind of balance that works for him. And I think he’s a success story because he learned it, you know, on his own. So maybe that’s an idea too.

Dr. AMY: Yeah, no, I love the idea of letting them experiment with what works for them and catching them on the bounce.

TERI: Anyway, okay, so, Amy, your conclusion was wonderful. Yes. Back to your conclusion, but I hope some of this helps.