As a culture, we’ve somehow gotten to a place where a good night’s sleep is typically seen as a luxury. Sleep deprivation is de rigueur for many adults all year long. And as summer fades away and a new school year looms on the horizon, it’s about to be even more true for our kids.
It’s not hard to see why sleep has fallen to the bottom of the priority list for many families. Our lifestyles are crowding it out. Our kids often have not just one but several extracurricular activities, each of which requires a significant time commitment. And let’s not forget homework: most kids have plenty of it to fit in between soccer practice or music lessons or karate class.
By the time we’ve picked up the kids from whatever practice they’re at, shoveled in dinner and gotten them started on homework, it’s already late. By the time they’re done with assignments and study time it’salarmingly late—but what are you going to do?
The thinking goes like this: we live in a super-competitive world where getting a good job requires getting into a good school which requires getting good grades in tough classes…and building up a good, application-worthy slate of extracurriculars. To fit all of this in something has to give. And that “something” is sane bedtimes.
These kids are just going to have to suck it up and get used to running on less sleep, parents may think.There’s really no other choice.
It’s true that there are no easy answers for solving the “sleep deficit” our kids are suffering. Yet it’s also true that this is no trivial issue. Getting too little sleep doesn’t just make kids cranky. It makes them depressed, cripples their relationship skills, and affects their memory. In extreme cases, problems caused by lack of sleep may even lead to suicide.
Studies show that kids who get less sleep are more likely to report suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Alternately, teens whose parents actively set appropriate bed-times are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts. Once thought to be a symptom of depression, it is beginning to appear that a lack of sleep promotes depression.1
And even teen crabbiness is being tied to a lack of sleep. Kids who don’t get enough sleep or who don’t sleep well (waking up for repeated texts) have more difficulty processing emotional information. That means they aren’t getting it right not only with you, but with their peer group as well.2 Their misreading of your facial expression easily leads to outbursts of “Why are you being so critical?” when you were simply thinking about whether to have chicken or fish for dinner. Teens who are self-centered naturally to begin with, hardly need another factor to add to their difficulties in being tuned in to others.
To overcome the drowsiness caused by sleep deprivation, many kids resort to taking “study drugs” like Adderall (meant for kids with ADHD), which can impair long-term learning and can produce fatal arrhythmias. (While few parents condone the use of study drugs, neither do they do anything to stop it. If the child is on the honor roll and seems okay staying up half the night, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to exactly how they’re achieving so much.)
Evidence like this strikes dread into every parent’s heart. We’ve always heard “Kids need their sleep!” but they also need to be able to compete in a tough global workplace once they’re grown and on their own. So what’s the solution? First let’s be clear on what the “right” amount of sleep is for kids at different ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children get 10-12 hours of sleep each night, preteens get 10 and teenagers get about 9.
Do children differ in their sleep needs? Of course studies always look at groups of children not your individual child. So, while I can’t give one-size-fits-all advice (no one can), I can offer some guidelines and common sense perspective that may get lost amidst the handwringing about how “it’s just not possible” given the amount of homework she has.
Set a consistent bedtime – Kids who have a consistent and appropriate bedtime learn the basics of “sleep hygiene” or good sleep habits early in life. You can’t force a child to sleep (a real problem with teens whose biological rhythms are at odds with their school schedules). However, you can optimize the chances of sleep by making sure kids are lying down in a quiet and dim room.
Make sure kids have a half hour or so before bedtime to “unwind” – Figure out with your children what relaxes them – a hot shower, a good book or a backrub. It’s hard to go from full throttle to sleep without some winding down. Learning to relax has many benefits from easing your child into sleep, to learning how to calm down before a test, to knowing how to soothe himself when he’s upset.
No electronics in the bedroom – Kids do not need one more iteration of the day’s drama before trying to go to sleep. So no cell or texting. The light thrown off by computers has been shown to stimulate the retina and make sleep more difficult. Younger kids in particular should not have a computer in the bedroom.
Talk to your child’s school about keeping homework in line with best practices – the reason most kids don’t get enough sleep is because they are struggling to complete homework after a long day. If your child is doing more than 10 minutes or so per grade of homework in elementary school, an hour or so in middle school and 2- 2 1/2 hours in high school then they are working past the point of homework providing any advantage.
A single letter grade doesn’t determine a future. Neither does an Ivy League education. Your child’s success or failure as an adult isn’t set in stone in high school. To parent as if it does is to create an exhausting, unfulfilling blur of a life for your child—and ironically, it causes other problems that work against your child’s long-term health and happiness.
You wouldn’t withhold food or water from your child in the quest for academic success, would you? Don’t withhold sleep, either. It really is the same thing.
Insist on a sane bedtime this school year. And don’t worry so much about the future: happy, healthy, wide-awake children will have the energy and resourcefulness to create a rewarding life for themselves. If you can create the conditions for that, you’ve done your job as a parent.
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.