Q: There's so much advice out there about children and bedtimes. My kids are getting bigger (upper elementary and middle school age), and I would love advice on ways to support good sleep habits in age-appropriate ways. Should we keep a set lights-out time? For how long? Weekends vs. weeknights?
First, many tweens and teens have far more homework and activities than many of us parents had, which extends their evenings. Second, technology, technology, technology. Third, many (but not all) tweens and teens seem to have an internal clock that moves them into later and later bedtimes, hence their exhaustion in the morning. Finally, the pandemic has done a number on teens’ sleep schedules. Lack of exercise, sunlight and socialization, too much technology, dark rooms, depression, anxiety and poor diets have wreaked havoc on children’s sleep habits, tweens worst of all. And although some people may feel as if we have gotten back to normal, this is not the case. Terrible habits have taken root in many homes, leaving parents feeling frustrated, exhausted and hopeless.
Although you can mostly get a little kid to go to sleep, you truly learn that you have no control over your children when you try to force a tween to sleep. You simply cannot. And the battles that ensue are brutal.
Sounding hopeless? It isn’t. The first step to moving the needle toward healthier sleep habits is to accept the reality in front of us: As children age, their sleep habits change. One of the main reasons parents suffer is that we struggle with typical developmental growth, and we want things to stay the same. Bedtime works until it doesn’t, and we fight and kick and try to drag our children back in time. We have to stop doing that.
The second step to establishing good sleep habits with your growing children is to work with them, not against them. Will there be reminding, nagging and some occasional threatening of consequences? Yes, because you are human. But, as much as possible, you should try to work with your children to create routines that work for everyone.
However, I need to be clear about this: The outcomes will never make you totally happy. This is one of those parenting issues, like getting children to eat veggies and fruits, that are there until they leave. As you age, you get more tired in the evenings. As children grow older, they want to stay up later. This is tough, so work with them to get the best result you can.
Before working on a solution together, get serious about one topic: technology. We know that the blue light, endless gaming and rewards of social media create temptation, which will always trump good intentions and, therefore, sleep.
If you don’t do this already, make sure technology leaves your children’s bedrooms by a certain hour every night. You may have homework issues, gaming arguments and more, but as long as you can, hold the line against all technology being charged in their rooms. Your children will make persuasive arguments about alarms, homework and friends needing to game with or text them, and they will also let you know that, “Rupert’s parents allow him to have all his tech in his room.” Do your best to stay strong while acquiescing to other demands. The longer you can keep tech out of bedrooms, the better sleep your children will have.
As for ever-changing and extended bedtimes, commit to having family meetings where you all can hash this out. Lights-out times can be established at these meetings, but be ready for these rules to change, such as during holiday breaks or summer vacation.
And although sleep experts will recommend you keep your sleep and awake times the same every day, I haven’t met many tweens or teens who jump out of bed at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. This is not a battle I would take on, but you can try it (at your own risk).
What is important is that you co-create bedtime rules, because you need their buy-in to make it work. You may prefer for them to go to bed earlier, and they may argue for later, but as long as you come to some kind of compromise, their bedtimes will work (fairly well).
And as much as possible, get your children to move their bodies. Sunlight and exercise do more for sleep than any rule you make, so do your best to ensure that they are physically tired. Good luck.
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