My 17-year-old son’s sleep is all over the place. Since lockdown in January, he rarely goes to bed before 2am.
He can’t get up in the morning and has been zoned out of online school most of the time. At weekends he doesn’t surface before 1pm and over the Easter holidays I could still hear him mooching around or on his Play Station at 3am in the morning. Any suggestions?
Adolescents experience a natural shift in their internal body clocks once they enter their teenage years, which regularly keeps them up half the night and in bed half the day. Whilst most teens are able to cope with moderate lack of sleep, it can become chronic if we let our sleep routine get too far out of kilter.
Whilst your son is getting lots of sleep, he is getting it at the wrong times and, as such, his body clock is completely out of whack. By getting up at 1pm he is, in effect, getting up on New York time. Similarly, at 3am he is going to bed on Beijing time. Over time, he has become chronically jet lagged and, as a result, his concentration and mood are being affected.
Daytime sleepiness isn’t helping either. As his sleep problem gets worse, his decision making and impulse control has been affected. Timing of when he sleeps is vital. The quality of our sleep is better earlier in the night.
Technology use can exacerbate this as it stimulates the brain into thinking that late at night is main activity time instead of during the day.
We get our most restorative sleep between 10pm and 3am. By going to bed at 3am he is getting little or no restorative sleep, even if he sleeps until 2pm the next day.
Getting out of bed is the hardest but most important part of regulating our sleep.
Overcoming sleep problems is determined by what time he gets up at, as opposed to what time he goes to sleep.
You don’t need to be a math genius to work out that if he has to get up for school at 7:30am, he needs to get to sleep at 10:30pm. So, our focus must be on encouraging him to hit the deck in the morning. Even at weekends, lying on shouldn’t be for more than an hour or so than usual.
We have to help him retrain his brain into viewing daytime as activity time and night time as sleep time. Therefore, our strategy must be in two parts. However, he needs to be on board with this or it will fail. Start by reading him this feature and discussing its contents.
Agree on what is a reasonable time to work towards in getting to sleep and waking up. What can you as his parents do to help him? When he gets up, have a structure for what he can do to keep himself occupied. School reopening can be a great help with this but have something arranged to give him structure at weekends.
Unplug earlier. Gaming is a high-adrenaline, high-stimulation activity. It takes time to come down from the high of gaming. Even if he is talking to his friends online or watching something relaxing on YouTube, it’s still better than high-octane gaming.
Exercise reduces the time it takes to get to sleep. Get at least a 20-minute walk twice a day. Similarly, our food choices affect our sleep so eat healthily. Eating late affects our metabolism which in turn affects our sleep. So no heavy meals in the evening.
Regulating our sleep is all about routine, routine, routine. By adopting healthy habits our bodies eventually regulate themselves.
Enda Murphy is a cognitive behavioural therapist who focuses on supporting adults to support young people. For more details go to www.seeme.ie. Please email your own queries for Enda to firstname.lastname@example.org