Tips to Improve Sleep for Teens

Tips to Improve Sleep for Teens

One of the difficulties that so many of my young people are sharing with me at the moment are difficulties with sleep. Whether it is struggling to get to sleep, waking up through the night unable to fall back to sleep or just feeling constantly tired sleep problems can be incredibly frustrating.

It makes sense that sleep is difficult for so many people at the moment, our lives have been turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic; normal isn’t normal anymore. Routines have changed or gone completely out of the window, exercise levels have changed, and some young people might actually be spending more time in front of screens as classrooms go online. Life is stressful, uncertain and for many it is sadly filled with loss. Consciously or unconsciously our brains have switched into a heightened state of alert as our brains are watching out for the danger that Coronavirus may bring into our lives. This heightened state of alert brings with it more of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol which helps our bodies get ready to protect ourselves either through attacking (fight), running (flight), or keeping very still (freeze). Usually we can deal with the trigger for the stress or anxiety and as we do this the levels of cortisol drop, however in this situation the threat is not going anywhere and so if we’re not proactive in reducing those cortisol levels they start to cause trouble to the rest of our physical and mental wellbeing and in children, one of the first things that we notice being affected is sleep.

The biggest problem with sleep getting disrupted is that sleep is actually one of the main factors in keeping us functioning properly and manage stress.  Without good quality sleep we can feel tired, struggle with concentration and attention, struggle to make clear decisions and get easily agitated. If the disruptions go on for a long time then it can also have a significant negative impact on mood and our immune systems. Suddenly there is a vicious cycle with lots of elements maintaining the sleep difficulties.

With teenagers needing around 9 hours sleep per night, how can we help them achieve this? There are 3 main areas to address: The biology, the set up, switching off.


Understanding the biology

In addition to all of the stress that might be contributing to disrupted sleep adolescents also have to cope with a natural change to the way that their bodies produce melatonin – the ‘sleepy hormone’. Teenagers’ bodies start to naturally produce this later in the evening than ever before meaning that their natural sleep pattern means that they are more likely to fall asleep later in the evening and naturally wake later in the day. Indeed, the evidence is so powerful on this that some schools have started to change their start times for teenagers so that they are not forcing teens to study before their brains have naturally woken up!

In order to overcome this, there are some steps that you can take to ‘reset’ the circadian rhythm – the natural sleep/wake cycle – and bring sleep back in line. It is important to know that the circadian rhythm, and the production of melatonin, is strongly linked to light and dark. So we can use this to help the ‘re-rest’:

  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime
  • Dim the lights as you prepare for bed
  • When you wake in the morning, turn on the lights and open the curtains to let in the light
  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday, yes, even the weekends!

Food and drink can also play a huge part in disrupting our bodies so whilst it’s good to be mindful of this throughout the day it is particularly important to avoid sugary foods and drinks and caffeine after 4pm.


Setting up for sleep

It is important to think about the environment that you are in when you’re trying to get to sleep. It is really difficult to get your brain to switch off if the room that you are in is too noisy, too light or even too cluttered. For many teens the bedroom is a multi-purpose room so see if you can create ‘zones’ e.g. a work zone, a chill out zone and a sleeping zone. This will help to ensure that your brain doesn’t make unhelpful associations for example if the bed becomes your study area then your brain will stop associating it with sleep and start associating it with thinking. If you can, try and spend some time away from your bedroom in the lead-up to bedtime, again this will help with having a mental preparation for entering the room to sleep.

Using the hour or so before bedtime can be really helpful to prepare your body for switching off and going to sleep. Really think about how you are using this time. After all you wouldn’t expect your body to go into hard exercise without a warm up and similarly the brain and body need a ‘wind down’ in order to get to sleep.

  • Turn off screens! Most importantly at this time, Do Not start to look at the news.
  • Turn down the lighting so it is not so bright or direct
  • Start doing more calming activities, perhaps reading a book or listening to music or even tidying away the days activities giving your brain the indication that they are ‘done’
  • If you’re generally quite an active person perhaps do some yoga or other calming exercise like tai chi
  • Choose music wisely! Calming or more chilled out tunes for this point in the day
  • Perhaps have a bath and, if right for you, possibly add some epsom salts with essential oils like lavender
  • Make sure that the room is entering the right temperature for sleep (for most people this is between 16 and 18 degrees)


Switching off that brain

So the room is set up, your body has started it’s wind-down for the evening. Now it is time to switch that brain off which can be really difficult for some people. I often hear young people describe being swept away by thoughts creating ‘what-if’ scenarios that can be really anxiety provoking, or if anxiety if very high or has been high for a long period of time I often hear a description of the brain being full but it being difficult to work out what it is full with – almost like not being able to see the wood for the trees.

This is where mindfulness and relaxation exercises can really make a difference. There are lots of meditation apps that have specific sections on guided meditations to help with sleep such as headspace or smiling mind, for some people music can help to calm the mind or others enjoy listening to an audiobook. You might need to try a few to see what works for you.

Off technology there are also a lot of exercises that you can try:

Breathing exercises – Spend time working to deepen your breath and the real trick is to make the out breath longer than the in breath. It can be helpful to count whilst you are breathing to make this work for you, for example breathing in for the count of 3 and out for the count of 6. Find a rhythm that feels good to you. Make sure that you breath right into your belly, perhaps even placing one hand on your chest and one on your tummy to help guide the breath down into the body.

Body scan – Lying in bed, start to focus on your breath, then move the focus to where your body connects with the bed. Then, starting with your toes, scan up through your body, really noticing each part (if it makes it easier you could even say a little ‘good night’ to each body part), move slowly by purposefully all the way through your body to the top of your head. There’s a really lovely example of a body scan here to help you learn how to do it. Whilst the recording is a 10 minute version you only need to take a few minutes at bedtime if you want.

Replay your day – This great little exercise helps your mind to process the events of the day and reduce the likelihood of thoughts from the day randomly popping into your mind as you’re trying to sleep. Pretend you’re watching a review of your day on TV, starting at the beginning of the day work your way through every moment and imagine that you can press pause, just for a few seconds, on each event in the day. Go through from getting up in the morning, having breakfast etc. right through to getting into bed. At the end you can say to yourself ‘and now I’m here and now for sleep’.

Gratitude exercises – If you’re prone to thinking about all the ‘negatives’ that have happened in your day and these thoughts keep you up at night perhaps try keeping a gratitude journal. Simply write down 3 things that you have been grateful for that day, perhaps it was someone sending you a message or that the sun was shining. It can be anything that you remember as positive in your day. Perhaps keep a notepad by the bed to keep your notes in or get more creative and design a gratitude jar where you can keep little notes of gratitude from your day.

Journaling – Keeping a journal can mean different things to different people however the key idea is to get thoughts out of your head and put them on paper. You could keep a journal that is just a few bullet points of thoughts or reflections on your day or one that has a full essay – totally up to you.


If you would like any further help or advice around sleep or any other difficulties then please do contact me at [email protected].