Parenting Tip of the Month

From the Parent Project’s “Changing Destructive Adolescent Behavior”

Is Sleep Part of the Problem?

As we all know by now, managing the behavior of some teenagers is no easy task. When children are not getting enough sleep or eating properly, it only makes problems worse. In some cases, coupling a poor diet and lack of sleep with a behavior problem is like throwing gasoline on a fire. If you averaged just 4 to 5 hours sleep per night, drank 3 to 5 energy drinks per day, and ate nothing but fast food, how long would it take before you became just a little bit cranky? Many teenagers live this way, day in and day out.

Some research studies suggest that a poor diet and lack of sleep may be the main reason some children act out. Whatever the reasons, the numerous research studies on the benefits of a proper diet and a good nights sleep are clear. Addressing these basic issues may make the intervention process with behavioral problems easier. In this tip, we will discuss the benefits of a good nights sleep and explore some strategies you can use today, to help your children get more sleep.


As parents, we sometimes think that the older our children become, the less sleep they require. The fact is teenagers require much more sleep than do both younger children and adults. According to the American Sleep Disorders Association, the average teenager needs around 9.5 hours of sleep per night. Hormones critical to growth and sexual maturity are released mostly during sleeping and resting hours. Studies show that American teenagers average only 7.4 hours of sleep per night, far short of what they require. And some teenagers average as little as 4 hours of sleep a night.

If your child is averaging at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, you cannot breath easier. A Tel Aviv University researcher, Avi Sadeh, found that even 41 minutes less sleep per night negatively affects both our memory and ability to pay attention. And sleep lost during the week cannot be made up on the weekends. Lost sleep and its benefits, is lost forever.

A study conducted by Stephanie J. Crowley of Brown University in East Providence, Rhode Island, was based on high school students’ weekend sleep patterns. According to Crowley, When teenagers stay up late and sleep in over the weekend, the behavior resets their daily clock to a later time. This resetting can push back the brain’s cue to be awake on Monday morning for school. As a result, teens may feel worse and have poor performance in school at the beginning of the week. Essentially, teenagers may be giving themselves “jetlag” over the weekend without ever getting on a plane.

The bottom line is that children who get less sleep are FAR more likely to have car accidents, receive poorer grades, and experience behavior problems than teens that average more hours of sleep per night.

Okay. So how do we get our kids to bed on time? Good question. Let’s first look at some of the things that keep our children awake at night:


TV’s in bedrooms: As we stated earlier, allowing a child to watch TV in their bedroom rockets them away from family life. Now we have additional reasons to remove the idiot box from their bedroom. Kids who watch TV in bed obviously will not fall asleep right away. The longer and deeper we sleep, the more fully rested we are. There are 5 (or 6) stages of sleep. Stage 4 is the deepest. When kids fall asleep with the TV on, the constant noise will, most likely, keep children from falling into the deeper stages of sleep. Teens who listen to a TV when they sleep do not wake fully rested. And late night TV programs often contain content not conducive to sleep.


Computers and game players in bedrooms: Obviously when teens are on their computer they are not sleeping. Many teens participate in on-line video games and social networking sites and mobile apps late into the night or even into the early morning hours. This behavior is often addictive in nature and many teens do not have the self-discipline necessary to end their gaming and chatting.


Smartphones: Many teenagers today text with their friends until late at night and almost always without parents’ knowledge. If their phone is no longer available, teens often use the cordless telephone handsets (if you still have one) for quiet conversations with friends.


Music: While listening to some music may help us to sleep, quiet, restful music is generally not what our children listen to in the evening.


Too much caffeine: A late night cup of coffee or energy drink will make falling asleep far more difficult. After several deaths were attributed to Red Bull’s high levels of caffeine, the French actually banned this popular energy drink from their country.

The good news is everything listed above is just that . . .a THING! As parents, we control EVERYTHING in our house. So, taking possession of the cell phone / smartphone, house phone, iPod, and laptop computer when our kids go to bed should significantly increase the total number of hours our children sleep each night. Hint: Turning off your child’s cell phone while it is in your possession will allow you to get a full night’s rest.

In addition to limiting or removing the things above, parents should change the way the family looks at sleep. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Talk to your teen about sleep. Have a conversation with him about the importance of sleep. Educate your teen about how much sleep he needs and how it will positively affect his daily performance.

Help your teen to establish a sleep routine of at least 9 hours per night. Just because we press our teens to go to bed early does not mean they will immediately fall to sleep. Their internal clock has been set to sleep later in the evening. It may take some time to change that pattern. A set routine of going to bed at the same time every night will help. If your child fails to go to bed at the established time, remove the iPod, cell phone, house phone and computer an hour earlier the following night. Your son or daughter will not like it, but they will adapt and accept the new bedtime rules if the rules are backed up by the consequence the next day.

Encourage your teen to exercise everyday. Children, who exercise regularly, will find it easier to sleep at night. Organized school and community sports programs are best. Some experts recommend that exercise does not occur right before bedtime.

Make sleep a priority for yourself. Modeling what you want to see your teenager do goes a long way in changing their behavior.

As we discussed in earlier units, structure is not punishment. Forcing the issue and getting our children to bed earlier in the evening may not win us any popularity contests. But, we will soon see the benefits of our child’s additional sleep hours in their improved performance, attitude and behavior. They may see it as well.