Dave Gibson
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General sleep tips

How to help teenagers get better sleep during Covid

Whether in term time or during holidays teenagers have found lockdown and coping with Covid 19 more stressful than adults.  They have also lost more sleep.

That’s not to say that British teenagers were getting enough sleep in the first place. It’s well documented that British teenagers are sleeping less than the required 8 to 10 hours a night. School pressures and problems with social media are regarded as the main reasons.

If your teenager is struggling with sleep during lockdown here’s a three-step plan to help to set up a good night’s sleep.

Step 1 Create a healthy daily routine.

Just as adults who are remote working are essentially living at work, children are effectively living at school during the lockdown.

The key is to create a healthy schedule which balances study, rest and play, and especially socialising. This in turn reduces stress and sets up the best opportunity for a good night’s sleep.

In the mornings

It would be great if the family all start the day with breakfast together. Then, encourage your teenager to pop outside, to stretch the legs, even for 5 minutes to get a bit of fresh air. Here they can mentally prepare for the day ahead.

Getting daylight, especially first thing helps strengthen the body clock which aids sleep at night.

During the day

Use the 20/20/20 technique. Every 20 minutes they should look at something about 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. This helps reduce the eye strains caused by looking at digital screens all day.

Encourage them to stretch especially the legs, back and neck in the short breaks between online lessons.  With the lower back, stretch slowly down the sides, with the arms gliding down the outer leg. Then, gently rotate from side to side keeping the hips straight so that the movement happens in the lower back. For the neck gently tip the ears to each shoulder. Then rotate your neck to look around each side. Finally,  stretch out the shoulders by linking your fingers behind the back and pulling down, feeling the stretch in the muscles at the top of your shoulders

At lunchtime

Help them with their lunch if you are at home. You could also get lunch prepared in the morning so there’s more time to relax during the lunch break. Always get outside, ideally for a short walk to get fresh air, sunlight and Vitamin D. Avoid eating sugary food, especially at lunchtime as it gives an energy burst and then as your blood sugar drops soon after, there is a crash during afternoon lessons. Complex carbs are better, and protein-based foods which take longer to digest. Always eat at regular meal-times, three times a day This is proven to keep your body clock healthy and aid sleep at night.

After lessons

Recreate the wind-down they would have had in their journey home. Get them outside again, and a have chat with a friend. Make sure they get a total break from the computer screen.

At the weekend

One of the biggest problems for teenagers is that they want to lie in bed later at the weekends to catch up on lost sleep from the week.

For teenagers to get the average recommended sleep of 9 hours, and wake up at 8.00 am for school, they would need to be asleep by 11.00 pm the night before. This is a tough call for all, and it’s not just to do with social media. During adolescence, the teenage body clock shifts later by up to three hours. Thus, teenagers become ‘super-night owls’ meaning that they naturally want to go to sleep even later than adults. Getting up at 8.00 am for a teenager is equivalent to 5.00 am for an adult!

The problem with having longer lie-ins at the weekend to catch up on sleep debt is that it throws the body clock out of sync. This is because this natural sleep clock is set to the same time give or take 2 minutes each day. Ideally, if your teenager wants a lie-in to catch up with sleep, one hour is the time to aim with a maximum of two. If they go longer than this it creates a condition called ‘social jet lag’, which has the same effects on the body as long-haul travel. Instead, encourage them to also catch up with a short nap in the siesta period just after lunch.

Step 2 Reduce the stress of Covid.

As with all change, coping with Covid 19 and lockdown is stressful. It’s important to set a positive role model and to remind the family that you will get to the other side. Don’t forget to lead by example and set healthy boundaries for all in terms of exercise, food, social contact and sleep. Also, make more time to check in with them about any worries they may have. If worries are troubling them at night get them to write them down so they can talk them through in the daytime rather than ruminate in bed.

Keep up social contact

Research by the University of Oxford has shown that 35% of young people are reporting high levels of loneliness under Covid restrictions. The research also showed that teenagers are feeling the effects of isolation far more than adults. Encourage your children to keep in touch with their friends regularly. This could be through video calls, or even better get them to arrange to do a walk with a friend outside at the weekend ( 2m apart of course) too.

Do something which is motivating and rewarding.

Encourage your child to nurture themselves by doing something which makes them feel cared for. Or even better ask them how you can make them feel more loved. Create a caring list, include things like something nice to eat, or a hot bubble bath, watching a programme they love on TV. Rewards should be easily and quickly actionable.

Write a gratitude list

Studies of gratitude lists and journals have shown that they significantly improve mental wellbeing, relieve stress, and improve sleep, creativity, and happiness

If your teenager is feeling overwhelmed and stressed writing down a short list every morning, or evening, of things which they are thankful for can help. The list could include the big things they are grateful for, like good food and a safe place to sleep. They can add smaller things too, like a great song they have heard, or cracking a difficult subject of study, or for friendships too. Researching other gratitude lists on Instagram or Pinterest is great for ideas.

Step 3 Switching off after Study.

If your teenagers are finding it hard to switch off and get to sleep easily it’s important to persuade them to create a routine which helps them to wind-down.

Make time to relax

Relaxation techniques are an obvious place to start. Many focus on slowing the breath, which is a great way of calming the mind and body. Equally, stretching, gentle exercise and yoga can all help to bring them ‘out of the mind and into the body’ after a night of studying. If mindfulness is something your children are interested in exploring, one of the free mindfulness apps can help.

The key is to have a similar relaxing wind-down routine each night such as a warm bath then reading a book before getting ready for bed. Try as much as possible to have the same bed and wake times as these are proven to help you get to sleep more easily. The brain finds routine relaxing and the body clock, which helps us get to sleep, is strengthened through consistency.

Distract to de-stress

If a relaxing wind-down routine isn’t your teenagers ‘type of thing’ you could encourage them to distract themselves in a hobby. Ideally, get them to do something which is both physical and absorbs them mentally. This is called ‘losing yourself in the flow’ and is proven to relax us and increases our sense of wellbeing too.

Tech boundaries – the tough one

It’s important for teenagers to use the blue light filters on all tech as they are 10 times more susceptible to it’s ‘waking up effects’ than adults. However, the problems with tech and sleep aren’t just to do with the light it emits. Using tech, social media and being online is stimulating to the brain. Encourage all to switch off tech about 1 hour before sleep.

Remember, as with all behaviour within families, if the parents are role-modelling healthy behaviours adolescents are more likely to buy into the changes they are being asked to take on board.