Written by Debra Kidder

My son couldn’t sleep. This wasn’t the first night, either.  I could see the thin line of light glowing from under his bedroom door, and the faint hum of music coming from his earbuds. 

It was after 11pm on a school night, and my 14 year old was definitely wide awake.

What was keeping him awake tonight?  I could only wonder, because I was glued to the floor, frozen with fear, thinking the worst.  Bullying, depression, academic pressures; these are only some of the most common reasons teenagers develop insomnia. 

Other reasons include peer pressure, a heading underneath which you could find alcohol and drug use, or sexual activity.  As young as 12, students report worrying what will happen after graduation–I know mine did, that’s when the college questions started. 

I expected the fun ones, like “What are fraternities like?” and “Is it cool to stay up as late as you want?” But no, my son’s questions were about SAT scores, student loans, and percentiles.

He was only 13 when the questions started.

All of this swam in my head as I cinched my robe closed and prepared for the worst.  Why was he suffering from insomnia, again?

I knocked, he said come in, it was a familiar song and dance. 

What Is Teen Insomnia? 

Insomnia is caused by worries that go round and round in our minds about future events.

There is actually a word for fear of the future: Choronophobia.

For my son, and so many teens like him,  fear of the future and other too grown up worries were high on his hit parade lately, according to his therapist.  Some teens, it seemed, could even be taught to enjoy this fear, to use it as inspiration to define their goals and work towards them.

My son was never one to be motivated by fear, especially about the future.  The worry would roll around his mind until he was convinced he would never amount to anything, but somehow insomnia was the unavoidable answer to it all.

Common Causes of Teen Insomnia

Enter high school.  Ninth grade started with bullying.  Where did we just hear that?  It’s one of the most common reasons teens can’t sleep. 

The bullying was so bad that I had to call the school, after weeks of my kid pleading Mom, don’t get involved, it will go away if I ignore it.  Which it did not, it only became worse.

Some kids fear not having someone to eat with, getting lost in their new school, even fear of not doing well in school–but after that bullying situation, I think that one wins the prize.

Other common causes of Teen Insomnia are:

  • Confusion about Control Over Future Choices
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Too Much Screen Time
  • Lack of Exercise

Nothing makes a parent feel more helpless than not being able to “fix” what is wrong.

How Will the Doctor Diagnose Insomnia?

Your doctor will ask you questions and probably run some tests to rule out certain diseases. Some of the questions you will be asked are:

  • How long has this problem lasted?
  • Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?
  • If you wake up during the night, how long does it take you to fall asleep again?
  • What time do you go to bed on weekdays and weekends?
  • What time do you wake up in the morning?
  • Do you snore?
  • Do you exercise regularly?
  • Do you take medication? Herbal remedies?
  • Do you use drugs or alcohol?
  • How many caffeinated drinks do you consume each day?
  • Do you feel safe at home?
  • Is there a new problem or stress in your life?
  • What is your sleeping environment like? Dark? Calm? Cool temperature?

In my case, we had been to his pediatrician to start.  This doctor ran all the ‘just in case’ tests to rule out physical issues, like hormonal imbalances and tumors and very scary diseases. 

We discussed with him the intrusiveness this insomnia was causing, and the pediatrician suggested some lifestyle changes (more exercise, less screen time before bed) and over the counter melatonin, the naturally occurring hormone in the human brain that is released when we sleep. 

The lifestyle changes were useless; my kid was already extremely active and unlike his peers, had little interest in gaming.  But for a little while the melatonin helped, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

But as I entered my son’s room that night, knowing that the terrible bullying situation was behind us, I knew he was awake for a more adult reason. 

My 14 year old–14 going on 40–told me he had started to ‘gain some perspective’ lately, through this pandemic, and I thought that was a good thing.  No. 

He was keeping himself anxiously awake with bigger, more mature problems now: Covid, college acceptance/student debt (and the accompanying vicious cycle that one created), and being alone….forever.

What Helps Reduce Teen Insomnia?

Feeling helpless when are kids are uncomfortable or in pain is part of parenting, but we can take steps to make insomnia better.

I asked Heide Bringman, a Licensed Professional Therapist from Portland, Oregon.  While she does not know or personally treat my son, she does work with clients learning stress relief techniques, and was willing to share this helpful advice:

“As with any kind of stress, it is important to take breaks from whatever is causing the worry.  When we are discussing a pandemic, that’s an awfully tall order. Recommendations for chronic stress relief include guided meditation, physical exercise daily, time in nature, progressive relaxation, and grounding exercises such as intentional breathing.  It can also be helpful to journal one’s worries, talk with a friend (from a safe distance, of course), or–if the issue is impacting one’s life to a serious degree–consult a therapist.”

Of course, listening more than we talk is easier said than, well, listened to, but it is so important for these insomnia-riddled kids.  Sometimes just putting words to their worry makes them feel lighter, makes the worry seem manageable. 

How I Helped My Son Deal with Insomnia

That night I sat on the edge of Brandon’s bed and listened as he bounced from topic to topic and back again.  He talked about a bad test grade in math, and how that would keep him out of college.

(He built a word bridge that all made sense to him in his head, but in the end it was one bad math test.)

He talked about the betrayal of a best friend over a girl. He talked about how his his ADD medication made him feel hungry all the time and his braces hurt and when would Covid be over and … and … and…

I listened until he asked me to talk.  I reassured him that insomnia is a normal experience that everyone has from time to time.  He is certainly not alone.  Worries lead to insomnia for everyone.

The best way through it is together.  I encouraged him to think of ways to relax.  He named some music (I, of course, had never heard of) he found relaxing and played some for me and I agreed that would be useful.

We wrote down some acute worries–exams that were fast approaching, a school dance, an awkward conversation he felt he needed to walk back with a friend.

Brandon felt once the worries were written out he could ‘put them away’ for the night, like they were out of his head.

Fast forward to the end of the semester….Brandon is sleeping better using the techniques on a consistent basis, he is making a conscious effort to live (more) in the moment, and spends more time outdoors. 

As a result, his grades went up, and the insomnia…didn’t disappear altogether, but it lessened, a lot. 

That’s all we can hope for.