It’s 7 a.m. on my alarm clock. But while the rest of us are getting ready to face a new day, Liam (name changed for confidentiality) is in bed facing his bedroom wall. He’s been staring at it for hours, exhausted, but unable to fall asleep.
Liam is 16. He’s been struggling with insomnia for weeks. He’s anxious, frustrated and just can’t cope anymore. Like many of the teenagers I work with as a registered social worker specializing in sleep counselling at Straight Up Health, Liam feels like he is living his life in slow motion during the day, only to have his mind jump into overdrive at night.
Liam explains he’s struggling with the nuances of online learning. He doesn’t have structure to his day and he feels isolated from his social circle. He barely leaves the house, has no motivation to exercise and sleeps in whenever he doesn’t have an early morning class.
This year has been catastrophic for our mental health and sleep health. Nearly all of my clients, from children to adults, call out COVID-19 as a major source of stress that contributes to their inability to sleep. I’d be lying if I said that this pandemic has not brought some panic-filled nights into our household, as well. With so much uncertainty and constant change, everyone’s sleep has been affected at some point. When our sleep suffers, we’re less patient, more anxious and end up creating stress and tension in our home for all family members. Essentially, we are all carrying collective family stress, increased by the pandemic. This shared stress that we pass back and forth to one another makes it difficult for all of us to sleep at night. But it’s teenagers who may not have the tools to cope with these changes, like adults with more experience do. It breaks my heart to think of how quickly our children’s mental health can spiral out of control without the proper supports.
Liam’s case isn’t unusual. Teenagers have a natural shift in their circadian rhythm that makes them want to go to bed later at night and wake up later in the morning. For many teens, the pandemic has eliminated daily consistencies that help them regulate and cope with this circadian rhythm shift. These consistent practices include waking up at the same time every day, eating breakfast and getting sunlight and fresh air in the morning, as well as having bedtime rituals and not spending all day in their bedroom.
How can parents support sleepless teens?
Ditch black-and-white rules, embrace the grey
A 14-year-old’s parents noticed that her sleep was poor whenever she was on her phone before bedtime. They did what many parents do: they implemented a device-free policy in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was already struggling with feeling isolated from her friends — the strict rule made her feel antagonistic towards her parents and only pushed her further away from them.
The teen insisted that she be part of the process to set limits and boundaries for herself. She and her parents came up with a plan for her to stay up 30 minutes later each night, as long as those 30 minutes were spent winding down for bed, screen-free. We took time to discuss some relaxing rituals, like reading, practising yoga, colouring and journaling. She explored a few of these options and identified that drawing while listening to relaxing music was most effective for her. Ditching the black-and-white rules and embracing the grey gave the teen agency and helped this family strike a healthier balance.
Take the lead on healthy changes
I recently worked with a 17-year-old whose entire sleep schedule was delayed by several hours, and he was struggling to get it back on track. It turns out that, during the pandemic, his family collectively shifted its lifestyle and sleep schedule. The entire household would be bustling until 1 or 2 a.m., rather than their usual 10 p.m.
The teen needed a return to normalcy, and what helped most was engaging his parents in the effort. His parents committed to reducing noise and being in their room by 11 p.m. They also set up a study space for him so that he was not spending his entire day stressing about schoolwork in the same space in which he was trying to sleep.
Telling children — especially teens — what to do and how to improve their sleep is not as effective as showing them. Get outside with them during the day. Have a set routine for yourself and help them create their own. It’s for us parents to create the space and set the tone for what happens before bedtime.
Check in on your teen’s mental health
They might not say it, but teens need their parents. Such was the case of a 15-year-old I recently worked with. He seemed to be coping well all day, but when his head hit the pillow, his thoughts were racing.
What he found helpful was having his parents acknowledge their stress, thus normalizing his own. They also learned breathing and stress-reduction techniques as a family, so that they could practise together when he was anxious at night. “I’m stressed, too — let’s try to breathe together.” is much more empowering than “Go work on your breathing.”
Now is the perfect time for parents to start a conversation with their teen about mental health, because we are all stressed. It helps if we process our emotions during the day so we don’t bring them to bed with us. Check in with your teen. Check in often. Let them know that there is an open line of communication.
I wish I could help all the Liams out there. Liam doesn’t need to lie there all night, staring at his wall. Now is the time to work with teens, not against them. Being a teen is hard. Experiencing a global pandemic makes it even harder. Allow healthy sleep habits to be a work in progress.
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