Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Help My Teen Learn to Mute His ADHD Brain at Bedtime?

During the day, your teen blurts out answers and acts on his every impulse. At night, he tosses and turns, unable to get a second of restful sleep. How are these two ADHD problems interrelated? Our Teen Parenting Coach explains.

Q: “My son (age 13-15) has a difficult time getting to sleep at night. Is that common with ADHD? Also, he is very impulsive. I have told him to count to 10 before speaking or taking any actions. Any other suggestions?” —GKathie

Dear GKathie:

Your question hits on two common issues for kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD): impulsivity and trouble falling asleep. These may not appear obviously related, but let’s look at how these challenges actually are linked — and what you can do to assist your son.

Just as it’s challenging for your son to edit himself before speaking out loud, it’s probably hard for him to slow down and disengage from the world at bed time. The ability to manage yourself — self-regulation — is an executive functioning skill that matures slowly. For people with ADHD, this may not happen until their mid-20s, believe it or not.

Of course, many of us struggle to turn off our thoughts when our heads hit the pillow. This is how self-regulation, a skill normally associated with monitoring speech, emotion or action, also affects the process of going to sleep. We have to consciously train ourselves to set aside whatever we are thinking about and settle down.

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Several issues complicate the ritual of going to sleep for kids with ADHD. Some kids are sensitive to the medications they take, which may negatively impact their ability to drift into slumber. If your son takes a booster after school to help him focus through homework, this can be especially true.

Or perhaps your energetic child is just not that physically tired. Vigorous, regular exercise could help him nod off more easily. Many teens with and without ADHD also tend to spend too much time on their screens too close to bedtime. Most physicians (and many sleep studies) recommend turning off screens at least one hour prior to bed.

When you factor into the mix the onset of adolescence and its hormonal and psychological changes, it’s easy to see why falling asleep for your son can be so challenging.

Here are a few steps that you can take to help your son get a good night’s rest:

  1. Make an appointment with whomever prescribes his medication. It’s very important that he or she knows what is going on so you can work together to make any appropriate treatment changes or to develop new strategies to address his sleep challenges.

[Free Resource: Boost Your Teen’s Executive Functions]

  1. Reflect on your son’s evening routine. Is there adequate time built in for him to chill out before turning off the light? What have you (or your partner) observed that has helped him in the past? Jot down these ideas.
  1. In a calm moment, perhaps after dinner, talk with your son about the issue of going to sleep. The goal is to collaborate on sleep solutions, not to get into a blame game or an argument. If you find yourself getting agitated or if he starts to become defensive, pause and take some deep breaths together. Begin by asking him about falling asleep. Is he tired? Is he frustrated? What would he like to see or experience that’s different from the status quo? Talk about why you also want a better routine for him.
  1. Discuss the skill of self-regulation and how it relates to his sleep challenges. What does he notice on those nights when sleep comes easily to him? What is or isn’t happening at those times, compared to the nights when it’s tougher? Review his nightly routine and share your observations, too. Should he replace pre-sleep stimulation like playing computer games, using social media, or surfing the Net with quieter brain activities? If he reports worrying a lot before bed, consider seeking counseling.
  1. Brainstorm ways to create a routine that integrates past success with new ideas. Just like you’ve developed ways to get yourself to sleep, he needs to learn this same skill. Set up a new plan for the hour before bed. Listening to music, riding a stationary bike, watching a regular TV show or working on a big puzzle or fun project with a parent can all be good substitutions for computer games and social media time. Once he’s under the covers, if he’s willing to read anything — the sports page, a graphic novel or a mystery, establish an endpoint for that. If he’s not a reader, maybe he would listen aloud to a podcast, a relaxation exercise, or quiet music. Be clear and specific.

[Stop Trying to “Fix” Your Teen]

The time before sleep is sometimes the magic hour when teens are willing to chat about their lives. They seem more open to confide in you and ask for your advice. If you can prop open your own eyelids, I encourage you to sit down for a few minutes and chat.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.