It’s 1 a.m., and you get up to go to the bathroom. As you stumble back down the hall, you notice that your 14-year-old’s light is still on. It’s a school night, so you poke your head in, only to hear, “I can’t fall asleep! I’m worried about my algebra test tomorrow.”
For the parent who successfully got their infant to sleep through the night and kept a bedtime routine through elementary school, this new kink can be daunting. Even the best sleeper can let short-term stressors — a big test, tryouts for the team, a drama or band audition — keep her up at night. Other anxieties can be harder to identify; social or family issues can weigh on a young mind without the child even realizing their effects.
Should you worry?
Should parents worry or try to intercede? Preetam Bandla, M.D., a pediatric sleep specialist at the Sleep Center at Northwest Hospital, believes you should.
“Adolescents’ circadian rhythms get delayed and push their bedtime later,” Bandla says. “Their brain is not telling them to fall asleep until 11 p.m. or midnight. They lie in bed and ruminate about everything that’s going on, because their brain is still awake.” He notes that if there is an acute stressor — like a test — added to the mix, it’s difficult for kids to shut down for the night. If this happens more than once in a while, it can have serious repercussions.
“Very few people recognize what sleep deprivation can do,” says Bandla. “Sleep deficits are cumulative. Most adolescents need nine hours of sleep on average; at least 50 percent are not getting enough. If they lose an hour each weeknight, by Friday they’re five to 10 hours behind. Their performance is as if they had stayed up for 24 hours.”
Insufficient sleep can cause the exact problems your child is worrying about: loss of cognition, memory and learning ability, and/or a decrease in motor skills. Your child may not do as well on the test/tryout/audition if he only had a few hours of sleep the night before.
How to help
So what’s a parent to do? Experts recommend going back to the tried-and-true methods used when our children were small. Home remedies such as chamomile tea, warm milk and lavender-filled sachets can be helpful sleep aids.
Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., director of Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety, is a firm believer in a bedtime routine that includes a wind-down and unplugging from electronic media — especially social networking sites like Facebook, and online gaming. Late-night texting can also be a contributor, so children should be encouraged to turn off their cell phones. “Most teens are texting right up until bedtime and can’t wind down,” says Chansky.
Dr. Bandla stresses what experts call “good sleep hygiene” — and says the whole family should get in on the act. “The whole household should be geared toward sleep — sounds from a TV in another room can be a major distraction. Make sure the environment is cool, dark and comfortable.”
He sees children who worry that they’re going to forget something important. In those cases, he suggests writing things down — a “mental dump” list of things to do or remember. “It can be a list of thoughts,” says Bandla, “‘I’m worried about blah-blah,’ so it’s sitting beside your bed in the morning.”
Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., founder and CEO of The Stress Institute, recommends relaxation techniques, exercise, healthy foods rich in B6 and omega-3s, and avoiding excess sugar and caffeine after 4 p.m.
Debbie Mandel, M.A., author of Addicted to Stress, has these tips for the night before a challenge: “Objectify the fears. Help reframe the new school, the test, the first day or the sports meet with a positive interpretation. Explain that should your teen fail, it is part of mastery — one learns from failure to turn it into triumph.” To parents, she cautions, “Don’t become overly concerned and anxious; your teen will absorb your mood.”
Maddie L., the mother of middle-school student and a competitive gymnast, says that her son likes to watch a comedy before bedtime to help distract himself from pre-meet jitters. Jane C., mother of a 14-year-old Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer, uses an herbal wrap her family fondly calls the “warmy-uppy-thing” to help her child relax before a big audition. Both moms admitted that occasionally their children will ask to be kept company while they fall asleep, but that is happening less and less as they approach their midteens.
If you’ve tried all of the holistic techniques and your child still can’t turn off his brain in time to get at least seven hours of sleep before the big challenge, what other options are available?
Many parents will try an over-the-counter remedy like Benadryl or Tylenol PM to make their child drowsy. Dr Bandla would prefer they didn’t. “Antihistamines can help the child get to sleep, but the overall quality is lessened. In some kids, it can have the reverse effect and cause paradoxical agitation.” Noting that there are no FDA-approved prescription sleep aids for adolescents, he suggests instead the use of naturopathic sleep aids such as melatonin — but only on occasion. Older teens with persistent sleep issues can consult their physicians to see if a prescription sleep aid — like Ambien or Lunesta — is advisable.
The final word is to be aware of your child’s sleep patterns. As our children head into their teen years, it is important to remember that they are still figuring out how to cope with a variety of issues. Parents may still need to help them find their way to dreamland — despite their child’s reluctance to take their advice.
Andrea Leigh Ptak is a freelance writer and graphic designer who lives with her husband and 14-year-old daughter in southeast Seattle. The entire family could use more sleep.