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Parenting the “Sleepless Generation”

If you could protect your child from unnecessary anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, and foster a greater sense of happiness and well-being in their lives, wouldn’t you?

In the book, Generation Sleepless, Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, authors of the bestseller, The Happy Sleeper, uncover one of the greatest threats to our teenagers’ physical and mental health: sleep deprivation. Caught in a perfect storm of omnipresent screens, academic overload, and unnecessarily early school start times,  Generation Sleepless illustrates how our children are operating in a constant state of sleep debt while struggling to meet the demands of adolescence.

Drawing on the latest scientific research, Generation Sleepless reveals that today’s teenagers are, in fact, the most sleep-deprived population in human history and, at a critical phase of development, need more sleep than their younger siblings. Yet, they’re getting drastically less.

Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.

What You Will Learn: 

  • What is the ideal number of hours of sleep for teens?
  • The factors that steal teens’ sleep.
  • What the impact is on teens due to lack of sleep.
  • Signs of sleeplessness for parents to look for in their kids.
  • Tips on how to help your teen get more sleep.
  • The importance of a wind-down routine, bedtime routine, and morning routine.

Where To Find Heather and Julie: 

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you’re failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well, and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our family and to impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and to become more of the mom and the woman that you want to be welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL: Julie and Heather, welcome to The Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. I’m so happy to have you here.

We’re talking about some really important stuff today that parents are really struggling with right now. And that is sleep and getting our tweens and teens to sleep, especially coming out of this pandemic. 

You both have written a book that’s called Generation Sleepless. So, we’re going to dig into that. 

But first, I’m so curious for you to share how you met and came to write this book. And this is not the first book that you’ve written together; you wrote a sleep book for parents and caregivers to help their babies get to sleep. So I would love to hear a little bit of what you’re up to, what you’re doing, and how you met. 

HEATHER: That is exactly how we met. Julie and I were working with new families, so families who have babies and little kids. We felt like there was something missing from the conversation about the baby’s sleep. And so we wrote The Happy Sleeper to help parents reconcile these two polarizing camps and when babies sleep: sleep training and cry it versus attachment parenting and emotional attunement and responsiveness. 

We felt like these two polarized camps made no sense. And parents felt like they had to sacrifice one for the other. We wrote the Happy Sleeper to say you can have an excellent sleep and an excellent emotional attachment to your baby. Here’s how. 

We wrote that happy sleeper a number of years ago, and we’ve been working with families for many years on sleep. But what we started to notice from the research and in our clinical practice was how teenagers are really the ones who are suffering the most. They’re the ones who really need our help the most. It’s in every research study that you look at about sleep. Teenagers are the most sleep-deprived population ever in human history

They’re the most sleep-deprived of all of us. Babies and little kids get generally get good sleep, about 60% of adults get good sleep, but only about 10% of teenagers get healthy sleep. So it’s an absolute drop-off. And a complete crisis that hits in high school starts in middle school and hits in high school really hard. We wrote Generation Sleepless to say this is a major crisis, and we need to fix it. And we all need to come together to do that.

SHERYL: Wow. And so you were both at the same practice. And that’s how you met. 

JULIE: We weren’t in the same practice, but we worked in the same fields, and our paths overlapped. The first time we met, we couldn’t stop talking. We realized how much we thought like and how much we both felt there was something missing from the discussion about sleep. 

So whether you’re talking about babies, little kids, or teenagers, our starting point with sleep is that sleep is natural. We’re all born with the ability to sleep well. It’s very hardwired into our brains. That’s sort of part of our message also to parents of little kids and babies. 

It’s the same thing when you take teenagers out on camping trips, where they eliminate artificial light and technology and all these other activities and homework. They find that after they make up for lost sleep by sleeping about 12 hours a night, they settle in at about nine and a quarter. In reality, they’re vastly underslept – most teenagers. Most high schoolers are getting closer to about six hours of sleep by the time they’re seniors. 

Their sleep loss is really devastating. Sleep for teenagers has been on the decline for decades. But the advent of technology took it on a nosedive. The pandemic really wreaked havoc also with teenagers’ sleep, so we describe in Generation Sleepless the perfect storm of factors that steal teenagers’ sleep.

The first one is just a natural delay in their sleep clock. Their sleep clock is naturally delayed. Their melatonin and sleepiness hormones rise later in the evening. So they’re just not tired as early as they used to be – up to about two hours. This means their bodies want to sleep that much longer in the morning to get the sleep that they need. So that’s the first factor.

Then you have a ridiculous amount of homework and activities that teenagers have or feel pressured to do, whether it’s to show up on their college application or just the amount of homework they have to do that takes into the evening. A lot of times, they don’t even get home until six or seven at night. And then when you so they’ve got the natural delay, the homework, the activities, and then you’ve got technology. 

Technology takes this and runs with it and takes them ours later into the night. So their bedtimes have gotten later and later and later. I never did four or five hours of homework when I was in high school, not even close. 

Then on the other end of their night, we have early school start times, squeezing their sleep from the other end, which just gives you this mathematically impossible situation where they literally don’t have enough time to get the sleep that they need.

SHERYL: For our listeners, so many of you are struggling with getting your kids out of bed. So to be able to have that understanding and empathy that this is tough because their biological clocks aren’t waking them up. 

Our school has a late start now. I think they started – my kids are out of high school. But I think it starts at either 9 or 930. I am north of Chicago. I think a lot of schools there are starting to do that. I think it is maybe Tuesday or Thursday, or maybe Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. The ways that they changed their class, the length of their class time is changed in order to do that. They’ve been getting creative. Do you see that more schools are doing that?

HEATHER: Some schools are, unfortunately, it’s been a slow build because organizations like Start School Later and different groups that have been trying to raise awareness about this have been really working on this for 20 years. This sleep science is really showing us that teenagers biologically go to bed later and sleep later in the morning. 

The morning hours contain a lot of dream sleep, or REM sleep, which is really important for emotional processing and learning, and memory. So if you shave off those two hours in the morning and expect a 16-year-old to get up at 6 am, knowing that they need two more hours of REM sleep, you’re basically depriving them of their overnight therapy. 

They’re not getting the emotional processing they need, and their memory is impacted by those two hours. That’s been very clear from the science for a long time. It’s slow going to get high schools to hear that and to really make changes. 

Some states are considering doing it as statewide legislation. So, in California, starting this fall, high schools will not be able to start before 830, which is huge. For all high schools in California to make that shift is a huge public health initiative. So other states are considering that as well.

SHERYL:  It makes a lot of sense to me that this is a problem because, as you mentioned, They have more of a homework load than you’ve got the technology, and they’re trying to connect with their friends, and they’ve got FOMO and all of that. I even noticed when I go to bed that I’m tempted to look at my phone just to unwind, but it has the opposite effect, it affects sleep. I can see, for our kids, it has become a habit that they’re looking at their phones.

JULIE: It’s a habit. It’s also extremely addicting. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the European Union enacting the Digital Services Act. What it’s designed to do is something that we would wish for so much in this country, which is asking technology companies to show their algorithms to show what they’re doing to create a more responsive design to be more transparent. 

So that they can be regulated the way the Food and Drug Administration regulates our food and our drugs. We’re just pouring content out into the atmosphere, and children are consuming it without any regulation. 

I feel like we’re all part of a big experiment, and nobody asked for this. We’re all feeling it. Everyone feels the pull of technology. It’s very insidious, and it is especially alluring to teenagers who, by the end of being in school, being in activities, doing homework, they haven’t had enough time to connect with their friends to be social, to just hang out and be silly, or chat. All of those things that everybody needs. 

So it makes sense that they want to go on their devices or just spaz out and play video games for a while. We all need downtime. But we’d much rather they have downtime with their friends outside after school, face to face, running around, hanging out. Studies show that the time they spend on their devices, trying to connect socially, is not nearly as positive as if they were to get that social connection, and even connection within their families, as face to face. 

Technology is a big part of the problem. In the book, we write a lot about how to change habits and how to set up new rituals and routines within the home. It does take a lot of attention and a lot of working together. A lot of really listening to your teenagers and helping them become self-motivated to make these changes. 

It’s not an easy thing to do. But we find that teenagers really like to learn about their brains and their bodies, and they like to learn about sleep as long as you don’t come at them, telling them what to do in a what’s good for the kind of way. If you really listen to what they care about, you can almost always find a way that relates to sleep.

SHERYL: Yeah, well, I want to dig into that. But first, I want to briefly talk a little bit more about what you were talking about, Heather, with the cost of this (not to freak everybody out that’s listening) because it does elicit some fear. But you are mentioning that they’re not getting REM sleep in the morning. So then it’s affecting their brains. What else are the studies showing? What are some of the signs that maybe parents can be looking for?

HEATHER: I think the first thing to know and the most relevant right now is that we hear a lot about the mental health crisis in teenagers. More than one in three high schoolers reports feeling a persistent sense of sadness or helplessness. 

Thoughts of self-harm are way up from 10 years ago. It’s truly disturbing, and it tops every parent’s concern list. Sleep and mental health are inextricably linked. So, if teenagers are missing two hours of sleep every night, they are essentially doubling the risk for depression. If you are concerned about your teenager’s mental health, the number one step right now is to look at their sleep. 

Eight hours is what we would consider adequate sleep on a school night. So, every night of the week, getting eight hours of sleep is what we consider adequate, but nine hours is actually optimal. If you really let teenagers sleep as much as they’d like, most will sleep nine or nine and a half. So looking at just the number, sometimes it’s hard for parents because they go to bed before their teenagers. So it’s tricky, but counting the hours is actually the best way to figure it out. 

Mental health goes down. The risk of depression and thoughts of self-harm go way up when kids are sleep-deprived. Because sleep deprivation changes the brain, it activates the more negative reactive centers of the brain, and it kind of dulls down the frontal cortex. So, we don’t feel as much perspective, or we lose our judgment, and we don’t have as much of a soothing sense from our frontal cortex. Instead, our negative – frustration, sadness, and anger are way up. 

You can see that in brain scans when people are sleep-deprived. When people feel like teens are grumpy or moody. It’s no surprise when they’re sleeping six or seven hours at night when they really need nine. I think mental health is the number one thing that we see parents being concerned about.

SHERYL: It makes so much sense. I even think when I’m not getting good sleep, I act differently. You’re just more and more reactive, more impatient.

HEATHER: You feel pessimistic, like, you don’t know how things are going to go. They don’t seem like they can work out, you don’t have as much creative energy for problem-solving, and you feel more hopeless. Whereas when you sleep well, you feel like you’ve got the brain energy to figure it out. And you feel more hopeful and more optimistic.

SHERYL: Julie, would you add anything to that? 

JULIE: I thought it made sense because what happens is relationships suffer. When we’re feeling that way, it’s hard to have good relationships. It’s hard to interpret the things people say in a positive light. It’s hard to make sense of things. We see relationships suffer not only with friends but also within the family. As parents, we all know what it’s like to try to have a conversation with an exhausted teenager. So, relationships suffer. 

The other things we see with sleep deprivation are more poor decision-making, risk-taking, more accidents, more car crashes, and more substance abuse. It’s literally the list of things that parents worry about are negatively affected by not getting enough sleep.

SHERYL: It seems like we’re not talking about this enough. That’s why we need your book.

JULIE: We couldn’t write this book. It was the missing link to so many issues and not being thought about, not being prioritized. People worry about so many things. And we understand that they worry about their kids’ happiness and their mental health. And are they going to get into a good college? And are they okay with their friends? 

It’s almost like people just forgot about sleep. Sleep got pushed to the bottom of the list. I think a lot of people think teenagers are, not only like many adults, but even more resilient than adults, like they could even get by on less sleep than an adult. I think people just don’t really understand how important sleep is. 

We haven’t even talked about this yet. But teenagers’ brains are undergoing a massive period, a very distinct and massive period of restructuring and remodeling. Again, I think a lot of people don’t realize that this is a really transformative time. It’s very similar to the time we worry so much about their sleep in the zero to three years when so much is going on with brain development. 

It’s a similar period for teenagers. There are just a million reasons why sleep should be a priority. Heather and I often say we think of sleep as foundational to your being alive, like air and water and food and sleep. Because in reality, if we don’t sleep, eventually, we will die. Most of us don’t get to that point. But sleep is foundational to every aspect of our health, both physical and mental.

SHERYL: Wow. And it seems like it’s like we’re treating the symptom, but we’re not getting to the root cause. I’m not against medication, but things may just correct themselves – is what I hear you say – with them getting more sleep.

JULIE: It’s really true.

SHERYL: Yeah. This leads me to share a question. This just came in the other day. A mom asks me a question when they have so much homework and a sport that is every day, how do we get them to get the sleep they need? It is all too much. It feels like something is going to break. Everyone is pushing themselves too hard. 

Her question is, what do I do to get my kid to go to bed and get the sleep they need when they’ve got all this homework, and they’re playing a sport? What would you say are a few of the things that they can begin to implement in their homes?

HEATHER: I think that the way to look at it from a bigger perspective is that perfect storm that Julie was talking about. The homework and the activities and the technology all play into it, and then you’ve got some more practical things that parents can do at home. 

We basically like to spread the responsibility out, we don’t want parents to feel like this is all on them and they have to fix it. That’s why we do presentations for high schools and why we talk to sports coaches and why there’s a lot of information in the book. 

LeBron James uses sleep to increase his sports performance. Sleep is important to athletic performance. Sleep loss is the number one predictor of sports injury. So if you have an athlete who’s a high school athlete, and their coach is not talking about sleep, their coach is missing some information. 

So that’s where we get the generation sleepless is not just about making parents get their kids to bed. It’s about calling everybody out on their role in not allowing teenagers healthy sleep

I would say, if you’re a sports coach or a PE coach, or a club coach, you have a responsibility to make sleep a priority and talk to your athletes about that. 

We have swim meets that start at 6 am. So there’s something really wrong with that because it doesn’t actually work for their athletic performance. I think part of it is that we have to spread the responsibility out. We have to talk to high schools about limiting homework. 

But also, teens do tend to procrastinate because of their technology. So what feels like three hours of homework sometimes can be a “wait a minute, we have to talk about healthy boundaries with technology because you’ve got your phone in your room while you’re trying to do a paper and then your friends texting you and then you’re not really focused.” There are good healthy boundaries around time management and study habits. 

And then we’ve got the routines that you need to actually allow your sleep chemistry to unfold. So you want to look at a wind-down routine. In Generations Sleepless, we have a wind-down routine, bedtime routine, and morning routine. They’re all super important. They create what we call the sleep bubble. So you want to have a wind-down, you want to have a bedtime routine. And you also want to have a morning routine. 

On the weekends, you want to get up within an hour or two maximum of the time you get up during the week. This is something that parents can look at to help teenagers fall asleep more easily during the week. You want to get them up within one to two hours on Saturday and Sunday from when they have to get up during the week and get sunshine at that time or just be outside even sun through the clouds. 

I think for a parent who’s understandably like, “what do I do about this?” It has to be holistic. You want to look at it holistically. But the things you can do immediately in your home are set those three routines up and talk to your teen about them. Get their buy-in to work on what time they wake up in the morning on the weekends. Talk about technology boundaries because that is one of the number one things that’s keeping them up. Most of them have their phones in their room. A lot of them actually have their phones on their pillow.

SHERYL:  What time should they hand in their phones? 

JULIE: Well, one of the things Heather and I say is if you have a younger teen like a tween or a middle schooler, don’t let go of those rules and those boundaries. It all depends on what time they have to wake up in the morning but let’s say your 14-year-old has to be in bed by 10 o’clock – would that work?

HEATHER: That’s what time my 14-year-old gets in bed. I mean, he gets to bed at 930, but he gets in bed at 930 and turns out the light at 10. But he has to put his phone away at 8. That’s two hours before his bedtime is when he puts his phone away. So that’s a two-hour buffer. Then he has a bedtime routine that’s like half-hour long. He reads, and then he shuts off the light at 10. And he wakes up around seven.

SHERYL: How nice that he reads. Kids aren’t reading anymore because of the phone too. Well, Heather, how did you get him to do that? Of course, you’re asleep, consultant and psychotherapist. I’m sure you’ve started this early on. 

But parents get a lot of pushback. And a lot of fighting. Working with parents myself, I’m hearing, “I keep telling them they have to hand it in, and then they’re resisting me and they don’t want to hand it in and, I’m always knocking on their door. You’re supposed to hand it in by 930 and you’re not.” They say it’s my alarm clock or listening to music to wind down.  

HEATHER: You’re naming all the things. My son has not known this as a way of life. So that’s where we say if you have an elementary schooler, don’t ever let it be a thing that you start doing, where they have their phone in their room. Do more than you think you need to do because it’s hard to rein them back. It’s hard to get back to those healthy habits once you’ve let go. But it’s not that it’s not possible. 

I would say that when you have a wind-down routine that doesn’t involve screens, the way to think about it is not just getting rid of your screens but what you are adding that is fun. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun or we can’t do things we enjoy before bed. 

If we put our phones away, but the whole family watches a movie, or watches a TV show, or does something that everybody enjoys. Walk the dog or play cards. Do something that’s actually enjoyable. You can watch a movie together in the living room. If you make it a draw to come out of your room and do something with a family and let your phones go, then it’s better than just saying you can’t be on your devices and just trying to take them away. Think about adding some fun things to do during the wind downtime.

SHERYL: I love that rather than just trying to take it away – what to replace it with? That really depends on what your kids are into. 

HEATHER: You could do charades. The easiest thing is just to watch a TV show. Find one that you all like, find some kind of reality show that’s fun, find something that the whole family is into, and just make it make that a priority and put the phones away before that so that there’s something fun to come to.

SHERYL: Julie, do you have any other thoughts that you’d like to add? 

JULIE: Everything that Heather said is really helpful. When we work with families, we also hear from teenagers that their parents are on their phones all the time. And we hear from families that parents give up and go into their room and they get on their device, and their teenagers are in the other room, and everybody’s off in their own separate corner. 

We find it’s really helpful to talk honestly with your teenager about your own technology use and your own sleep. And if you can do that and come to some realizations that things that you want to change about your own sleep as a parent, then you can work with your teenager and say, “Listen, I’m going to park my device at 930. Let’s all park our devices. And then let’s create some new rituals. Let’s do something fun or everybody can have time to read even if people don’t want to come together.” 

Everybody’s going to want to do different things sometimes. I think parents model the use of technology, and they also model poor sleep habits often, and I think it helps a lot to talk about sleep as a family. 

We put forward in the last chapter of the book a sleep challenge. So, a family can take the challenge, a group of friends or a sports team or theater group or whatever can take the sleep challenge. It can be fun to take the challenge and then check back in after a week or two and see how everybody did and how they’re feeling. 

It’s like with any really addictive habit. It’s hard at first to change. But if you stick to it long enough, now you’re creating a new habit, a new, healthier, more desired habit. We can do that – we can change our habits. We also like to talk to teenagers about big tech and how they don’t have teenagers’ best interests at heart and give them that feeling like you’re getting the behind-the-scenes of these companies.

All they want is your money and your attention. They don’t care about you. So talking to them in the way of helping them feel like they have a little bit of an inside scoop on what’s going on here. I think some teenagers really like that angle and feel like, “Hey, I want to control my technology. I don’t want it to control my life.”

SHERYL:  Social Dilemma is a good movie to watch together. Gosh, that was powerful. Just seeing how it’s all working behind the scenes to create that addiction to your phone and get sucked into it.

JULIE: Imagine sending your kid to bed with a tray of beer and weed. You wouldn’t send your kid to bed with a bunch of substance, addicting things. You also wouldn’t give them a big old mug of coffee at bedtime. But technology is really something that we want to be judicious about it and really thoughtful and use in a really informed way. We don’t want to demonize it. We’re not going to get rid of it. But we want to be in control of it. 

SHERYL: I love including yourself in the process of modeling because that is true. Have your kid hand in their phone at nine, but you’re on your phone. Asleep challenge – I love that idea. I feel so much better when I get good sleep. My brain and everything work better.

JULIE: You can’t fall asleep if you’ve just been on your device. The activation and the engagement create a state of flow. All of those things make it very difficult to then just lie down in bed and expect to be able to fall asleep.

SHERYL: Any closing words? You’re making me feel so passionate about this, just with the connections of how important sleep is and giving them beer or weed before they go to bed. It’s going to affect them, and yet we don’t think about sleep in the same way. So very powerful to think about. 

In your book, you share a lot of ideas on how to create that connection because we’re so isolated. I really want to recommend to our listeners to get your book and how to engage and talk about these things. We do need help and how to have these important conversations and those positive things that we can replace technology with, so they want to connect with us and engage more in the positive. Any parting words?

HEATHER: We would love for people to get the book, talk about the book, and share it with people who are in their high school and on their sports teams, and in their communities. And not just think of this as a parenting book, because there’s a lot of really cool stuff about the teenage brain in this book. It’s really looking at this from a lot of different angles. 

At the same time, Julie and I cannot help ourselves from being very practical and very user-friendly. So the book, almost every other page, has a takeaway or a tip or something that you can actually use. 

Check out the book, and our website is https://www.thehappysleeper.com/. That’s our first book about babies and little kids. TheHappySleeper.com, and they could find it there, and anywhere books are sold. 

SHERYL:  And that’s your Facebook page as well. It’s very good because I was like, “Oh, they have baby stuff here but a lot of stuff for teenagers and about your book.” 

Are you speaking to schools? I’m imagining you’re trying to bring about changes. Are you talking to schools? 

JULIE: We actually spoke to a group of students at Yale a few weeks ago. And the students were so engaged, they were so thoughtful, and they were so tired. It was clear to us that this is definitely an issue for college students as well. But yeah, we’re speaking to several schools in the near future. And we’d love to speak to more.

SHERYL: Okay, good to know because we need that third-party influence. Coaches are talking to them, so it’s not just coming from the parents. I thought this is like MADD: mom’s against drunk drivers. Where you’re raising our awareness and our consciousness of this is really important stuff. So thank you for what you’re doing.

JULIE: Drowsing driving is very similar to drunk driving. We say you wouldn’t hand your keys to your teenager if you knew she’d been drinking. But we hand our keys to sleep-deprived teenagers all the time. Heather and I fantasize about a roundtable with big tech here, college admissions here, high schoolers here, state legislatures here, and sitting down and saying, we can’t leave this room until we solve this. Another parting word is that the cool thing about this is that it’s fixable. This is not a problem that we cannot solve. It’s a solvable issue.

SHERYL: Yeah, that’s how I picture it. I think that you’re bringing change, and that’s very encouraging. I know a lot of our listeners are going to want to get that book and read it and be able to make these changes in their homes. So, thank you for coming on and sharing with us.

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