Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.My teen won’t sleep, which is ironic because as a baby and toddler he was such a good sleeper my friends were jealous! I’d put him down in the crib, say goodnight, and he’d sleep. Easy-peasy. Now he’s 14 and he’s up all night. I’ve taken his phone, his tablet and his computer each night at 9 p.m. because I know screen time is bad for teens, but he still stays awake. He tells me he’s doing homework. Till 3 in the morning? His grades are good, though. He really is a good kid. I’m also worried he’s getting depressed, but I have no idea how to figure that out. He’s never been all that talkative. Now he goes to his room as much as he can. He’s real mad at me for taking his stuff. He knows you and respects you. Can you please help?

– Sleepless mom

Mary Jo’s response: Teens need more sleep than they typically get. Experts say adolescents need nine hours of sleep nightly, but less than 9 percent of them sleep enough. It’s interesting to hear you compare your son’s sleep habits with his baby/toddler years. Many parents tell me they want their “babies back” when their children enter adolescence. Your son is changing; puberty is challenging for parents, too. He’s still your son, just different.

Adolescent brains change at puberty, moving from a child’s circadian rhythm (biological clock) of early rising and early-to-bed to an adolescent pattern of late rising and late bedtime. Many educators know teens learn and retain material best when it’s taught later in the morning. Some of your son’s sleep patterns aren’t in his control.

Your son may genuinely be tackling homework; many teens tell me they’re stressed with large homework assignments, especially if they take advanced courses. Pay attention to his work. Remember when he first started school? You probably went through his backpack with him and commented on his school papers. I know he’s growing into adulthood, but your interest in his work can reinforce his self-worth. Be careful to make positive comments. Affirm his efforts. Let him show you what he’s working on and listen to his interests.

With respect, have you tried talking with him about your concerns without being punitive? Taking his connections away at 9 p.m. may feel like a harsh punishment to him. His anger shows his frustration. Phones, tablets and computers are intricate parts of 14-year-olds’ lives.

Try spending time alone with him. Take him to lunch or talk with him while driving. Ask him how he feels about sleep. Does he feel tired? Is he sleeping during daytime hours when alone in his room? Is he feeling stressed? Why does he want screen time after 9? Is he playing online games all night? His friend community may be other gamers. They may matter to him. Could he play these games earlier? Could he play on weekends? Could he play some nights and sleep more other nights?

Listen to his responses. Respect him. Then, discuss what he thinks is a reasonable time to stop and start screen time. I agree with him avoiding all-night screen time but think he will respond to your guidelines if he’s part of their creation. For teen biological clocks, 9 p.m. isn’t late. Consider his perspective. Perhaps a compromise?

Spending time in his room is typical at this age. You know your son. If he’s never been a talkative person, however, please don’t assume all is well. You’re wise to be concerned about depression.

Decreased sleep is associated with an increase in feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on the brain’s emotional regulation.

Recent studies show as many as one in five teens experience depression. Prompt, professional help may be needed. Adults matter in the lives of young people. You matter in his life. As his parent, please look for signs of depression:

  • School performance drops
  • Recurrent anger
  • Sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of energy or motivation
  • Pulling back from friends
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor acceptance of criticism
  • Restlessness
  • Eating habits change – overeating or lack of appetite
  • Sleeplessness
  • Substance abuse
  • Resistance to authority
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Seek professional help if you notice these symptoms.

Your son is still your little boy; connect with him as a teen and hear his concerns. Teens need more connection with parents, not less. He needs you to hear his voice. He needs to respect you and be respected. Growing up isn’t easy, but caring adults can ease the way. I’m sure you can find a compromise that gives him less stress and encourages sleep. Good luck and thank you for being an involved parent!

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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