How can my 13-year-old stepson get to sleep?
March 11, 2009 9:35 AM   Subscribe

How can my 13-year-old stepson get to sleep?

My stepson has been having terrible trouble getting to sleep. He's often up till 4 in the morning, even though he can't play video games or read on his computer after lights out.

He's been suffering a lot of stress. He spent a harrowing spring break at his dad's, where his dad's girlfriend threw things, smashed thing, and made wild threats against his dad and herself. (Why is she still around? You tell me.)

But even before that, he was having a lousy life. He doesn't like school. His best friend turned on him. His girlfriend is being, well, a 13-year-old girl. He's been suspended three times in a month, for shouting at his teachers and slamming doors.

Obviously the stress is not helping. But the not sleeping is not helping the stress, either. He won't touch melatonin. He doesn't drink coffee, so that's not it. We've suggested he write in his diary if he's up nights, but I doubt he'll do that. Mostly he paces a lot, and frets.

What can I tell him that might help?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
perhaps in the afternoons do a physical activity, to get his body tired. It might also release some stress. I have a sister at a similar age, who also finds it difficult to sleep sometimes. She listens to some relaxing music whilst in bed. Hope things get better.
posted by angel29 at 9:39 AM on March 11, 2009

Is he sleeping in in the morning? If he is, get him up and out of bed.

Having a regular waking time was the only thing that cured a 12 year insomnia habit for me.
posted by Solomon at 9:47 AM on March 11, 2009

I can't imagine a non-creepy way to suggest this, but an orgasm can put many men out like a light.
posted by kate blank at 9:48 AM on March 11, 2009

I can't imagine a non-creepy way to suggest this, but an orgasm can put many men out like a light.

"Forgetfully" leave a few copies of the latest Victoria's Secret catalog lying around?

Nope, still creepy.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:51 AM on March 11, 2009

My kids (12 and 8) are both having a difficult time with the time change (curse you, daylight saving!) so last night I made comfort food for a late-ish dinner (meatloaf, potatoes, broccoli, salad) and they both took long, hot showers after dinner and went to their low-lit rooms (no harsh lighting) where I read to them a bit. Lights were out by 9:00. When I went to check on them both at 9:30, they were sound asleep.

I know the time change is nothing compared to the stress that your son is going through, but some comforting night-time routines might help. Seconding physical activity, also.
posted by cooker girl at 9:53 AM on March 11, 2009

Seriously speaking, as a former 13 year old boy I rather doubt there'd be any deficit there. If that would do the trick, the problem would have taken care of itself already.

If this has become a serious enough issue that you're posting to AskMe, why not go to his doc and ask for a low-dose Ambien generic? Better than a bunch of OTC hocus pocus and he might be more amenable.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:56 AM on March 11, 2009

his life sounds pretty screwed up. some of it normal, some of it not. if his brain is racing too much to sleep because legitimately shitty things are happening to him, he needs to work through those shitty things. this can be done with the help of a therapist or a trusted family friend. is there a male in his life that isn't his father that can take him fishing, or to shoot hoops, or to even play video games (also, a male that you're not sleeping with - someone neutral).

i remember as a teen i couldn't sleep and i couldn't eat. i got through it mainly in a zombie like state. for me, no amount of orgasms (tried it), working out (tried it), dietary changes (tried it) worked. i had to sort out my head and figure out how to cope when shitty things happened.
posted by nadawi at 10:00 AM on March 11, 2009

I know it's a standard AskMe response, but if your stepson is that stressed, therapy sounds like a good solution. It probably won't provide an immediate resolution, but will likely get at the root of the problem(s) and will help him learn to deal with stress in different, more productive ways. His school may offer a decent counselor, though you might need to look outside the school if the counselor there isn't able to help.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Better yet, go to his doctor and ask for a depression screening. The anger issues (slamming doors and shouting) coupled with the sleep and stress issues sounds like depression to me (and I'm speaking as someone whose depression manifested with similar symptoms).
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 10:03 AM on March 11, 2009

Seconding what nadawi said, basically.

When I was that age, I didn't sleep nearly enough, and while part of it was stress based insomnia, I think a large part of it was that it maximised the time I was awake that I wasn't at school. It felt like I'd get up and go there, then get back and before I know I was going out for school again, and I hated it.

As for insomnia, I've had some relief by using self hypnosis techniques, imagining putting all the things that are keeping me awake in a big box labeled 'don't care' and locking them away, but it took real focus, and hasn't really worked for me in a while. It's a very subjective thing.

But I'd say, excercise, meditation and reflection, and possibly having time when he can relax more and possibly talk to someone about the things bothering him. No one thing is likely to be a magical fix.
posted by opsin at 10:05 AM on March 11, 2009

Oh, and what LOLAttorney said too, since a lot of why I hated school so much and the other issues were probably more a reflection of my depression, but it never got ascribed to that back then.
posted by opsin at 10:06 AM on March 11, 2009

I'd suggest meditation.

I mean, there's no need for him to start meditating regularly, or to get involved with the religious aspects of it, or anything like that. (Although I guess it probably wouldn't do him any harm if he did, and some teenagers take to that stuff.)

But either way, meditating can be a good way to clear stray thoughts out of your head. It's what I do when I'm stuck on something stressful and it's keeping me awake, and it sounds like it might help in this kid's situation too.

(And yeah, if he's amenable, therapy might help too.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:09 AM on March 11, 2009

I think exercise is the best way to deal with this--if you can drag him on long walks, that would give him the opportunity to unload and work off some of the excess energy. Also, watch out for hidden sources of caffeine--soda (not just colas but stuff like Mountain Dew), chocolate, coffee flavored yogurt, etc.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2009

Maybe there is some sort of non-school social activity you could get him involved in? Something like little league sports, community theater, or a religious youth group? When I started hating school and losing friends (around that same age incidentally), meeting new people and getting into new social situations through my synagogue really helped me from bottoming out.
posted by gnutron at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2009

Things I've tried in going on 14 years of insomnia:

-- lavender aromatherapy. Now, I hate the smell of lavender, but I've had such success with it that I use it on a regular basis. A few drops of aromatherapy oil in some water in the top part of an oil burner [the kind with a tealight in the bottom], and half an hour or so later, I'm struggling to keep my eyes open.

-- music. Over the years I've put together hours of mellow-type music that helps me relax as I'm getting ready for bed / laying there staring at the ceiling. What kind of music is dependent upon individual tastes, but mine is mostly piano- and guitar-driven acoustic-type stuff.

-- valarian. Can be taken in either pill or tea form, but the effects don't show up immediately, and it doesn't work on everyone. Also? It smells. Terribly.

-- excerise. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't. If the sleeplessness is stress-related, it might help if it exhausts him to the point of taking his mind off of things.

-- diet. I've noticed a change for the better in my sleeping habits since I started taking vitamins and drinking more water.

Your stepson is the same age as my sister, and she's had her own sleeping issues lately. She can't explain why she's up half the night, but when we get to talking [what else are we going to do when it's 4am and she knows I'm most likely awake, too?] she ends up talking about drama with her friends and her classes and all sorts of middle-school angst, and she usually drops off soon after. So I support the idea of getting someone nonjudgmental for your stepson to talk to, because it's hell having so many thoughts in your head and not being able to shut off your brain, and finding away to let them out might be the best option.
posted by alynnk at 10:31 AM on March 11, 2009

If he has an mp3 player, you might try getting him some audiobooks. I generally try to find ones that I've already read already since otherwise I'm tempted to try and stay up and find out what happens.

Libraries are a great cost-effective option for audiobooks, and some even have online programs where you can download from home. And if you wanted to go the meditation route, you could probably pull this off with an mp3 player, too.

Your mileage may vary, but I find that having something to focus on keeps my mind from wandering further and keeping me up as I wait for the sandman.
posted by miratime at 10:47 AM on March 11, 2009

I'd suggest this:

- A low-carb, high-fat, high-protein late dinner, like eggs and meat, works great for me. Think Thanksgiving dinner nap effect. It might give other digestive upset, so YMMV.

- Kava kava tea. Yogi sells it as "Kava Stress Relief". I don't bother with herbal stuff but I can tell you this tea is potent and very calming. I'd say find a box online and just try it to see if it helps.

- If I was feeling lots of stress, overclocking mind, and jittery at bedtime (common with PTSD), it's indicative of an overactive adrenaline system and I'd be looking down the path of off-label beta blockers like Betaloc. This is the only substance that is directly an adrenaline antagonist. But of course there are medical considerations and adverse drug interactions, so it's not something one would just want to start popping like Mentos.

-Seconding exercise, though for some people it will help mediate adrenalin and other hormones while for others it might have a different effect. Maybe a weight bench and some weights would be a great gift, along with time to work out in the evening.

-If it's depression, this centers around issues dealing with the serotonergic system. There would be enormous benefits from exercise, so again that would be one of the first things to pursue. So I'm seconding that before messing around with SSRIs or anything in that spectrum.
posted by crapmatic at 10:49 AM on March 11, 2009

Great advice above...I will add my two tried and true methods for falling asleep, which I think work remarkably well in the short term immediate sense and might work with a 13 year old as well.

I either lay there and imagine myself building my dream house from scratch, including furnishings and fixtures, or I imagine myself hitting the lottery and get straight away to spending my money in my head. Both ways put me out like a light.

Good luck. Insomnia is a bitch.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 10:49 AM on March 11, 2009

Melatonin. Melatonin. Melatonin. Get some. I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for this stuff. It's completely natural and knocks me right out within a half hour. It's non-habit forming and can be taken consecutively for months without negative side effects. Many people (myself included) experience unusually vivid dreams from taking it, but they aren't any more nightmarish than normal and I consider it a small price to pay for the blissful sleep that it brings. The other suggestions regarding diet, exercise, etc. are all worth pursuing, but taking 3-6mg of melatonin every night got me through a really hard time recently.
posted by baphomet at 11:37 AM on March 11, 2009

This sounds familiar. I don't think it's strict insomnia, I think it's more likely depression related.

I was this kid. Nothing helped. It was the stress. When I started settling down for the evening, my thoughts began racing and racing and racing. Sleep time was when all my teenage worries, embarrassments, and stresses started crashing around in my head.

I saw a psychiatrist, not expressly for this but for other things that were going on in my life at the time, and that helped somewhat. Really, though, the only thing that truly helped was growing up, graduating from high school, and working to find myself in a life that I loved. I sleep like a baby now.

In the mean time, he should try to find something to do that doesn't keep him from falling asleep, but keeps his mind from racing. I used to listen to talk radio, at a volume I could barely hear. My mind would be occupied trying to make out what was being said, until suddenly I was asleep. The key was to set the volume as low as possible so that I had to concentrate to understand the words.

Good luck to your kid. It's really hard being a teenager.
posted by raygan at 11:46 AM on March 11, 2009

Also, he's got to cut out the pacing. He'll never get to sleep if he's standing up! My grandmother always told me, "If you can't sleep, you should at least rest." In bed, clothes off, covers on, eyes closed, for as long as it takes.
posted by raygan at 11:48 AM on March 11, 2009

Also, he's got to cut out the pacing. He'll never get to sleep if he's standing up! My grandmother always told me, "If you can't sleep, you should at least rest." In bed, clothes off, covers on, eyes closed, for as long as it takes.

I don't mean to criticize well-meaning advice.... but as someone who has dealt with insomnia for years: There is a feeling of helplessness and restlessness that comes with laying in bed unable to sleep that makes staying there nearly impossible after some amount of time. That amount of time may be 20 minutes or 2-3 hours, but eventually, the stress becomes too much... and you simply can't "at least rest"...

In any case, insomnia seems to be a symptom / effect, not the problem. Treat the problem.

The problem is the boy needs an improved environment. Getting him involved with activities he likes to do is a great start - whether it's a sport, a martial art, or a fine arts class. He needs to be socializing in positive ways.

Any way a parent can facilitate that (without being overbearing) is a good thing.

I wouldn't ditch the idea of therapy, either, though I think trying other things first is a better approach -- that's entirely my personal opinion, though. If I were a kid, I wouldn't want it to just look like "well, you're broken, let's put you in therapy..."
posted by twiggy at 11:58 AM on March 11, 2009

It's possibly that a few nights of "regular" sleep would get him back on track. Have you considered giving him something like Simply Sleep (or Benadryl, which is the same stuff) for a few nights?

Because of other mental health issues, I sometimes have prolonged bouts of insomnia, and while it's certainly not a cure-all, sometimes a few nights on a regular schedule is enough to bump me out of it. If he's reluctant to take sleeping medication, the Benadryl isn't a bad way to go--it's the exact same stuff (Diphenhydramine) and you can claim that it's to help with seasonal allergies or whatever.
posted by MeghanC at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2009


Possible, not possibly. Sorry.

posted by MeghanC at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2009

A long warm bath, ideally with bath salts near bedtime can help. Warm milk - add a few drops of vanilla and some honey and cinnamon.

And my stand-by, rarely fail method is to tell oneself a long dull story. Not a lot of plot but a lot of details - clothing, equipment - like Grinxtder's house design. It becomes a familar way to find a state of mind like meditation.

My insomniac teenaged children use all of these plus ipods playing quiet music to settle down.
posted by leslies at 12:07 PM on March 11, 2009

Tell him he can sleep anywhere he falls, sometimes it helps just to change where you are, kip on the floor of another room, or in a sofa or chair or whatever.

Go do yoga with him, physical and mental workout might help.

Have him keep his socks on. There is mounting evidence saying that bad circulation to hands and feet can exacerbate insomnia. Especially in young men who are growing actually. Basically the body goes "are my extremitys warm? yes? well then I won't freeze to death in my sleep, goodie!". Have him try mittens or socks on his hands too.
posted by Iteki at 12:08 PM on March 11, 2009

I would definitely recommend a static wake-up time (apply it to weekends too.) Also, try having him listen to some audiobooks with a good narrator. At first it just gave me something to do while since I was awake anyways, but kept me in bed and lying still. Also, I found it engaged me to a degree where I couldn't fret about day-to-day things while keeping up. Now it puts me to sleep in 15 minutes, if I'm tired, or an hour if I've had a light day. I only worry that at 26 I basically need to be read a bedtime story. I guess there are worse things.
posted by syntheticfaith at 12:14 PM on March 11, 2009

Sign him up for a team sport that he can do in the afternoons. Lacrosse is really fun, and it will use up a lot of energy he would have spent worrying.
posted by BobbyDigital at 12:20 PM on March 11, 2009

Therapy and melatonin. Seriously. The therapy may lead to other things, but it can definitely help. The behavior issues at school are being made worse by his lack of sleep.
posted by onhazier at 12:58 PM on March 11, 2009

There have been many AskMe threads on insomnia. Regular sleep/wake schedule, no caffeine after 12 noon, regular bedtime habit, and much more. Your son had a traumatic visit (dad's girlfriend threw things, smashed thing, and made wild threats) that meets the criteria for reporting to Child Services, and it's good that you're taking it seriously. He paces, frets and has a lot of difficult events to cope with. He should be screened for depression. Sleep disturbance is one of the signals of depression.

You sound like a good step-parent, and it's a hard job. Let him know you're available to help, and encourage his parent to get him to the doctor.
posted by theora55 at 2:09 PM on March 11, 2009

I don't think therapy is the right thing to do in this kind of situation. Sure when you're an adult it's one thing if you want to get therapy. But your son is pretty stressed as it is so to sign him up for therapy could possibly make him think there is something "wrong" with him which wouldn't be helpful.

The best thing you can do is just be there for him. It sounds like you are the one he goes to talk to so make sure you keep that relationship stable. Buy him some books to read when he can't sleep and offer to go for a jog with him before bed.
posted by Allan Gordon at 3:06 PM on March 11, 2009

Your stepson sounds like he is suffering from depression.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:16 PM on March 11, 2009

I would totally N-th Valerian with the same "it doesn't work for everybody" disclaimer. Doesn't knock me out, but makes my mind stop racing about and allows me to just nod off. Melatonin is better for jet lag type of things, does a good 'reset' of body clock, but not sure about using it for sleep. Or.... give him a beer or a glass of wine and let him pass out, (teaching responsible drinking of course).

Kava is pretty good, it's like beer without drunk. (but doesn't taste very good). A Benadryl might also work. Everybody in my family was taking them since way younger than 13, without caffeine or other stimulants, makes you really drowsy.

IANYD, but I take Valerian when I really want to sleep and can't.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:49 PM on March 11, 2009

A counselor would help. A good counselor could help him learn to handle his thought life which I guarantee is causing the insomnia (I went through this as a child and teen and it is hellish.) Also exercise-a sport or something-which also helps work out the stress hormones. There are good counselors who specialize in teens and who will be able to help him know there is nothing wrong with him.

And also a regular wakeup time even on weekends. Yes, that sucks for him, but he needs good sleep hygiene.

At the very least you need to let the family doc know what is going on. And kudos to you for caring enough to want to help him.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:02 PM on March 11, 2009

At that age, reading worked for me. Books, not computer screens.
posted by Hogshead at 11:03 AM on March 12, 2009

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