House Call

Improving the Zzzzz’s:

Helping your teenager sleep better

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel
Improving the Zzzzz’s:

I’m a single mom with two daughters, ages 12 and 16. The academy teachers say my 16-year-old seems chronically tired and falls asleep in class. She was an A student before, and is now barely getting by. What can I do so she will sleep better, improve her performance, and discourage my “tween” from following her sister’s path?

We can only assume that the problem you are highlighting is “poor sleep” in your teenager. As a general principle, all students at academic risk should be screened for a comorbid sleep disorder or other medical conditions, so a medical evaluation is strongly advised. We commend you for taking your girls’ risk seriously.  

As children go through adolescence, they may normally experience a shift (delay) in their circadian rhythms and an accompanying slowing of the “sleep drive.” To the internal biological and psychological developmental factors associated with adolescence, academy (high school) may also contribute some external pressures, e.g., extracurricular activities, excessive homework load, evening use of electronic media, and use of energy drinks. The combination of these factors may cause inadequate sleep among teenagers.

Poor or abruptly declining academic performance may be a tip-off to other consequences of inadequate sleep in your daughter. Apathy, irritability, inattentiveness, mood disturbances, and impaired ability to concentrate and retain information may accompany the academic slump you are seeing. Unfortunately, the risks may go even deeper, to her potentially engaging in behaviors such as alcohol and substance use; an increased rate of car accidents; increased risk of obesity and metabolic conditions; and high-risk negative thoughts.

Constructive two-way communication with your girls is essential and of the highest priority. Form an alliance with their teachers and school administrators. Seek feedback from them as to your daughters’ behavior in school. Offer support and understanding, and help your girls manage their schedules to allow for sufficient sleep.

Actions speak louder than words, so be a role model for the girls to the best of your ability and work with them to develop a consistent sleep schedule and a workable, relaxing routine that includes age-appropriate family devotions and excludes screens and strenuous exercise for at least one hour before bed.

Since regular exercise or manual labor can promote better sleep quality, academic performance, and overall well-being, encourage your daughters to engage in these activities during the day. Help your teen to eliminate caffeine use, and as a family, avoid heavy meals close to bedtime. If necessary, establish reasonable consequences for late-night activities that violate the home routine (e.g., time-limited curtailment of social outings, or screen access). Last, create a sleep-friendly bedroom environment: cool, dark, quiet, and free of electronic devices. In general, a wholistic lifestyle and improved study habits are closely intertwined and can significantly impact academic performance and overall adolescent well-being. And don’t stop praying. To paraphrase James 5:16: The prayers of a righteous, devoted mom are powerful and effective!

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference. Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.