You’re tired. It’s the end of a long day, and your patience and temperament are likely wearing thin. When you’re at this point, mustering the ability to end the night on a positive note with your kids, especially when they’re teenagers, may feel like a stretch. By doing so, though, you’re not only helping to create a more peaceful household environment — you’ll also be helping them get a better night’s sleep.
That’s the takeaway from recent research examining how parent-teen interactions impact sleep.
In a study published earlier this year, researchers had tweens and young teens (ages 10-14) and their parents complete questionnaires rating the warmth of their interactions on a scale of zero to 100. The other key measure evaluated as part of the study was autonomy — the degree to which the child was in charge of bedtime and wake time (this was also measured on a scale of zero to 100). The participants filled out a daily sleep diary to determine how long they slept and also rated their sleep quality on a scale of zero to 100.
The researchers disccovered was that the adolescents’ perceptions of warmth had the biggest effect on how long they slept and the quality of that sleep.
Warm interactions from parents matter
The parents’ perceptions of how warm their interactions had been generally tracked with what the kids said, but it really was the kids’ perceptions that had the biggest impact on sleep, notes Heather Gunn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, who was one of the study’s authors.
The kids’ ratings of how much their parents were in charge of their bedtimes didn’t have the same effect, she noted; instead, what mattered most was when adolescents thought the interactions had been warm and loving, Gunn says.
When this rating fluctuated — when the kids rated their interactions as more or less warm — their sleep quality was affected. This relates to attachment theory, Gunn explains because "that affiliation seems to be evoking feelings of security, and that helps them sleep more easily.”
Structure matters too – but so does how you go about it
That’s not to say structure doesn’t matter, though, Gunn cautions, especially with this age group.
“There can be structure there, and there should be structure there,” she says. “But what we're finding is that warmth also really matters.”
The ideal, she says, is “warmth, with structure, but also with some autonomy.”
For parents of tweens and younger teens, it can be a balancing act. Parent involvement in setting and maintaining bedtime rules isn’t as pronounced as it was when kids were young, but at the same time, adolescents (especially younger ones) aren’t at the point yet developmentally where they can manage bedtimes entirely on their own. “It’s somewhere in between: ‘Here’s the set schedule’ that’s very defined by the parent — and ‘Just make sure you’re in bed by 11,’” Gunn says. “Especially when you’re talking about 10 or 11 years old, they’re just not ready for that level of responsibility.”
She suggests that parents involve kids in setting the parameters. “It probably looks something like: ‘In order to get enough sleep to do the things that you need to do, we have some parameters that we need to follow so that you can feel your best. How would you like that to look at night?’” Those conversations will also likely involve screen use before bedtime, as well as bedtime flexibility on the weekends and during summer, she says. “There’s structure, but allowing for some autonomy,” she says, “and in that is warmth and caretaking.” Above all, “it’s an active, involved process.”
Parents of older teens also influence sleep
The level of parental involvement continues to decrease as teens get older, but having these existing guardrails in place is still important, given the increased time demands older teens face.
However, even though the balance between parent-imposed structure and teen autonomy shifts for older teens, the importance of warmth doesn’t change, Gunn notes.
That’s echoed by results from a study last year that looked at the quality of family interactions and how they affected sleep for older teens (15 to 18-year-olds). In addition to completing daily surveys about their mood and how well they got along with their parents and other family members, the teens wore actigraphy watches to record their sleep.
The study found that teens’ relationships with their parents had an immediate and dramatic effect on their sleep. Following days when the teens said they’d gotten along with their parents, they clocked 26 more minutes of sleep regardless of how they rated the overall level of family stress.
As Sunhye Bai, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health at the University of Oregon and lead author of the study, explains, “Even if you live in a stressful environment — if you felt like you got along with your parents that day, you slept longer.”
The implication of this “same-day effect,” Bai says, is that “it’s important that you got along with your teen today because that says something about their sleep tonight.”
Takeaways for parents of teens
Bai’s advice for parents: “Really think about what you can do that day — what sort of positive interaction you can have with your child today to strengthen your relationship, even if it's not for the whole year, but even if it's just for a day. These little steps matter.”
Being able to focus on short-term interactions with teens can feel more manageable, Bai points out, and yet “over time, those little interactions and those small impacts on emotional and physical health accumulate.”
At the same time, parents of teens should keep in mind that parenting is a long game, Gunn says.
In the short term, parents may feel they need to exert control to get their kids to bed on time, but in the long term, teens need to develop the autonomy to take ownership of their sleep. “Does the adolescent feel like they have a say? Because ultimately, what you’re trying to do with all of this is help them set up lifelong sleep habits that they can do themselves.”