The teenage brain is in high gear all day—rushing from one class to the next, texting friends, doing homework late into the night. This makes for an active, energized, and hyper-alert brain. And when teens are ready to sleep, they can’t just turn off these active brains like an on-off light switch. Brains don’t operate like that. They operate more like a dimmer switch, gradually calming down, gradually slowing down, and gradually winding down as they prepare to sleep. Taking thirty to sixty minutes at the end of a hectic day to wind down and calm active minds is one of the most helpful sleep habits your teen can practice. Here are five tips to help teens build an effective wind-down routine:
Prepare for Wind Down. Help teens prepare for the nightly “me time” in the morning before school or the first thing after arriving home from school. Suggest they grab a favorite book, cue up the relaxation or music playlist, pull out the yoga mat, or whatever they use to dim their brains, and place them near their beds. Preparing the wind-down routine ahead of time will make it easier for teens to start the routine at bedtime. Remind teens that they’ve earned this “me time” and to enjoy it.
Put the Day to Bed Too. An hour or two before bed, suggest to teens that they write down any upsetting events or conversations from the day to clear their minds. Sometimes teens lie in bed thinking over and over about something important that they want to remember to do the next day. It’s better teens write these down on a pad next to their beds and add things that they remember as they wind down. Last, suggest to teens that they write down any unsolved problems, such as a difficult math assignment or an argument with a friend. Then, encourage them to write down possible solutions that they’ll try the next day. If they begin to worry about the problem, they can tell themselves that they have a solution, and that after a good night’s sleep that they’ll solve the problem faster and better.
Transition to Non-Screen Activities. It’s difficult to imagine a teen who can do any homework without a screen these days. However, once teens begin their wind-down routine, it’s best that they put away phones, tablets, computers, and TV for the night and dim the lights. Light activates our brains, so dimming the lights notifies our brains that it’s time to calm down and move toward sleep. If teens must work on a screen in the evening, use the warm color setting most devices have now to eliminate the blue light that keeps brains awake.
Transition to Calm-Mind Activities. Help teens substitute screen activities for calm-mind activities without screens. Help teens select wind-down activities that are enjoyable, and relaxing in a passive way. Reading, listening to music, stretching, or soaking in a hot bath are great examples. Crafts or hobbies are also great wind-down activities. Knitting, drawing, and strumming a guitar are all great ways to enjoy the wait for our minds to prepare to sleep. Encourage teens to avoid activities that are likely to turn on their minds, such as strenuous exercise or watching a scary movie.
Make the Wind-Down Routine into a Ritual. When we do the same thing over and over at bedtime, we build an association in our brains between the activities and sleep. For example, if we read before heading to bed, our bodies know that reading at night signals sleep time. If we take a warm bath before bed every night, our bodies recognize that it’s time to slow down and relax. Wind-down routines teens do at about the same time every night, and do in about the same way, send powerful sleep signals to their brains cueing their minds and bodies that it’s time to rest. This powerful habit doesn’t just work for teens! Why not try to cultivate this habit for yourself and other members of the household?
Michael A. Tompkins, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed psychologist who is board certified in behavioral and cognitive psychology. He is codirector of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy; assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley; diplomate and founding fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy; and trainer and consultant for the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He is author or coauthor of numerous scholarly articles and chapters on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and related topics, as well as seven books.