Helping your kids get enough sleep

Research has shown that not getting enough sleep can have an impact on children’s behavior, emotional well-being and school performance.

Today’s kids are getting less sleep than children from past generations.

Certain aspects of modern life, such as heavy use of cellphones, computers, iPads and other electronic devices, are interfering with the amount of sleep children get.

Things parents can do to encourage their children to get the sleep they need:

  • Set regular bedtimes for your kids and consistent bedtime routines. This helps young children develop a sort of rhythm for sleep and waking.
  • Try to get your children off the computer (and other screens) at least an hour before bedtime.

Computers, televisions, tablets and cellphones (and the light they emit) stimulate the brain in ways that make it harder for kids to feel ready for sleep.

  • Help your child wind down before bedtime. Do something relaxing together – read stories, listen to quiet music or do some belly breathing (deep, slow breathing that helps to reduce anxiety and stress).
  • Encourage your child to get exercise earlier in the day. Research shows that children who are physically active during the day fall asleep faster and get more sleep than kids who spend a lot of time sitting.



Teenagers’ internal clocks work differently, they tend to stay up late – it is hard for them to feel sleepy at the time when we think they should be going to bed, and then have trouble getting up in the morning. Many teens are chronically short of sleep. This can affect their mood, school performance and more.

This is a tough one for parents. Here are a few strategies that may help:

  • Have a weekday bedtime and a curfew on weekends. Of course, you can’t make kids sleep, but having a time when they need to be in their rooms without a cellphone, computer, tablet or gaming console, may help them wind down for sleep. A set bedtime also gives them the message that you think sleep should be a priority.
  • Don’t make sleep a battleground. Talk to your teenagers about why sleep is important, and encourage them to get enough (without nagging). Do some research together to learn about how sleep promotes learning and overall health.
  • Have a “no cellphones in bed” policy. Studies show that teenagers send and receive text messages at times when they should be asleep. Some are even woken up by text messages from their friends. Make nighttime the time when everyone charges their cellphones.
  • Some professionals discourage sleeping in on weekends, but teenagers do need to catch up on their sleep, so weekend mornings are the easiest time, as long as they do not sleep in to cause insomnia troubles on Sunday night.



Understanding Teen Emotions

The sad music starts. Pictures of hopeful puppies, their faces pressed against the cages, flash across the screen. One lonely white puppy stares glumly as the other pups are carried away by their new families. Then, finally, the cage door opens, and the puppy wriggles with joy as he’s finally chosen. It’s another commercial encouraging people to adopt abandoned pets, and as the tears start to flow (I’m a sucker for sad puppies), I reach for the box of tissues. Surprisingly, so does my then 12-year-old son, Jeremy. He looks at me with tear-filled eyes and hisses: “Don’t tell my brothers!” I didn’t. It probably wouldn’t matter if I had, though, since his brothers (and his sister) also went through a stage when they could easily be moved to tears by touching or sad movies or stories, or by upsetting experiences.

Why do many kids, even those who seemed in control of their emotions when they were younger, find their feelings overtake them at times once they hit the teen years?

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a professor of educational psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says this seems to be a common aspect of maturing. “There’s research to show that children do have more negative emotions like sadness or anxiety at this age. Part of it may be that they are better able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. If they see a dog suffering, for instance, or children hurt in an earthquake, they can vividly imagine what it would be like if that happened to them, and it hits them emotionally.”

While tears may be normal and even beneficial — Rinaldi explains that it is not good for anyone to keep feelings bottled up all the time — they can be embarrassing for teens and make parents feel uncomfortable and often helpless. “Parents can deal with a two- or three-year-old who is crying, but not a teenager. We want to make it stop, make it go away, but sometimes they just need to cry,” says Schonert-Reichl.

As a parent, your reaction is important. Rinaldi adds that often parents want to quickly intervene, but that’s rarely the best approach. “Let your teen go through the process of experiencing the emotion and deciding how to handle it. Be supportive and be there for her, help if she asks for it, but don’t try to take over and solve the problem. Sometimes you need to step back and give your child a little space to be sad. Other times she needs a hug or someone to listen.”

Probably the least helpful approach, Rinaldi says, is to tell the child, “You shouldn’t feel this way” or “Buck up and stop crying.” This response is most likely when the tearful teenager is a boy, Schonert-Reichl says. “Parents tend to be more negative about emotional reactions in boys, and the same is true of a boy’s peer group. They need you not to make a big deal about it, but just accept that they are feeling upset. You communicate as much by what you don’t say as by what you do say.”

As Rinaldi points out, nobody wants to hear “You’ll get over it” — at least not when they’re in the middle of an intense emotional moment — even though it’s the truth. You can convey that message in a different way, though, by sharing your own experiences, and supporting your child as she finds her own emotional balance.

Should I be concerned about my teen’s tears?

Some emotional or tearful times are not unusual at this age, says Schonert-Reichl. But this is also an age when depression becomes more common, so it’s important to be aware of signs that could indicate problems. If your child is not just occasionally sad, but also shows these other signs, consider seeing a physician to be sure all is well:

  • crying frequently or for long periods of time
  • not sleeping well, or sleeping longer hours than normal
  • not eating well, or eating constantly
  • not socializing, avoiding friends, withdrawing from activities usually enjoyed
  • being uncharacteristically irritable and negative

Originally published in Today's Parent, July 2010

If you have and questions or concerns regarding your teen’s emotionality please contact Kelly Schmaltz, Elementary Family School Liaison Counsellor, 403-771-4350. Or Tamara Menzies, High school Family School Liaison Counsellor, 587-433-3928.