I remember telling myself when our oldest children were little that some day I’d miss their chatter and I wouldn’t be so excited for bedtime because I would miss them so much.
I was almost right. Except that “bedtime” isn’t what it used to be and often their chatter now happens mostly after bedtime.
Here’s how it goes these days: the dishes are done, the floors are picked up and swept, my computer is closed and work is finished for the day, homework help is wrapped up, it’s past my older kids’ bedtime and approaching mine, and I’m cuddling up with my love to most likely to fall asleep watching Grace and Frankie on Netflix.
Cue… the 12-year-old. If not the 19-year-old. Or the 14-year-old.
One of them shows up and says hi as if we haven’t all been in the same house for the last six hours or had dinner together.
I know what’s coming and so does my partner. The child wants to talk. They’re seeking connection and maybe wanting to run some things by us and get our take or even looking for advice.
Do All Adolescents Crave Conversation at Bedtime?
I know what’s coming with my kids because I was the same way. It takes me back to my own tween and teen years when my mom and I would begin in-depth conversations either just before or just after bedtime. Never intentional, it just seemed to happen that way.
Issues that were too much to tackle mentally during the day when there was a schedule to stick to, work to be done, people to be around, and just not enough quiet to work through suddenly would press in on my mind, overwhelming me as I tried to sleep. So I’d go find my mom, hoping that a “quick conversation” would make me feel better and I could sleep.
Though it was rarely actually quick.
For years I thought it was just me and my offspring. My husband didn’t do this with his parents and he doesn’t remember his siblings doing it either. Yet all of our children so far have done this at that age and it has even continued to some extent with our adult children.
I’ve checked with friends and our private group and found that this phenomenon happens with the overwhelming majority of parents with tweens/teens. When my husband and I became relationship and parenting coaches, we found that many of our clients experienced the same thing! And those who didn’t found that they did as they began to shift their family’s culture of communication.
In fact, for some, our clients’ teens never seemed to talk to them at all about anything. But, as they worked on changing to more connected parenting, their teens suddenly started initiating evening conversations all on their own.
What’s the deal with this? And why can’t our older kids talk during daytime hours like normal people?
Why Bedtime Is When Your Tween or Teen Opens Up
Your adolescent’s sleepy time need to talk starts with the normal physiological components of sleep present at all ages. This includes lower cortisol levels (AKA the stress hormone) at night that allow for contemplation, reflection on the previous day when all is calm and quiet, and thoughts of topics that have been held at bay due to daytime demands and distractions.
Lower cortisol levels at night are important for allowing us to fall asleep but this cortisol drop also lowers our guard and may permit thoughts that trigger anxiety and keep us awake (ironically by triggering the release of cortisol).
The world is quieter at night, too. There are less disruptions, maybe younger siblings are in bed, homework is done, and the pressure of the day has finally let up. There’s more freedom and privacy as night settles so it’s easier to reach out. Time for those questions about life, wondering how to handle situations, and feeling out opportunities (can they spend the night with a friend?) finally have the space to bubble to the surface.
Puberty Is a Big Factor, Too
There are the changes that happen during puberty and adolescence that impact the circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. Prior to puberty, the body typically sends sleep signals between 8 and 9 p.m. After the start of puberty (sometimes as early as 8-years-old), that can begin to shift to between 10 and 11 p.m. (more on sleep and adolescence here).
In other words “my brain’s awake so I’m awake,” which makes going to sleep earlier more challenging. There are steps that can help that such as having a solid morning routine. But, in general, know that as hormones flood the system, tweens and teens may suddenly find themselves unable to fall asleep or stay sleep, making room for ruminations that are best shared.
It’s OK to Love and Dread These Late Night Talks
It’s special and wonderful and … exhausting. You’re not alone in that sentiment. Here’s what you need to know about late night conversations with tweens and teens.
It’s a Good Sign
Congrats, your child trust you! They want to connect with you. Your feedback and conversation with you is important to them. When their defenses are lowest, you are who they turn to. They feel safe with you.
You’re Relationship Building
While the timing may leave a lot to be desired, the timing is in part one of the ways it is such powerful relationship building. Late night conversations often promote vulnerability, empathy and deeper connection. A level of intimacy happens in the dark quiet of night, a sharing that may not happen in any other setting.
They Aren’t Doing it on Purpose
Really. Your tween or teen isn’t trying to stall or manipulate. They probably don’t even realize it is happening. Time-blindness is real and children don’t think of the day in terms of hours and minutes, not even teens. That is a skill that is developing easily given an override by low impulse control.
Boundaries Will Help
It is possible to protect this special time of connection and to respect your own limits. In fact, doing so will not only help you, but help them to see that having boundaries is good and healthy in a relationship.
These late night talks are a good thing, but that doesn’t mean it is easy! When you’re tired and your child is pouring their heart out (yay!), delving into some complicated issues (yay again!), and asking your advice (triple yay!), you really want to be on your game and not brush them off or mess it up. But you’re so tired!
How to Survive This Stage of Parenting
How do you be attentive, engaged, say the right things and stay awake? And what if you still need some of that precious demand-free/kid-free/veg time or time to connect with your partner free of distractions? While our tweens’ and teens’ circadian rhythm may be shifting to later bedtimes, many of us start shifting to earlier bedtimes as we get older. If that’s you (it’s me!) and you’re struggling with late night conversations, there are some steps you can take to protect that connection opportunity in a way that respects your own personal limits.
You’re not going to be much good if you’re overtired and sleep deprived as if you have a newborn all over again. Here’s how to get the most out of late night convos with tweens and teens and still protect your rest:
Thank them for coming to you. Every time. Even times when you need to hold a boundary and ask to have the conversation later.
Show them they are important. Greet them coming to you with authentic enthusiasm and genuine interest.
Set up for success. Get a drink of water, grab a bedtime friendly snack to share, sit up instead of reclining, get comfortable but not too comfortable. Consider multitasking in a way that lets you pay attention but can help you stay awake and engaged like knitting or tinkering with something.
Let them set the pace. Even if they are specifically asking for your advice, avoid lecturing or sermonizing. Answer the questions if they have any but position yourself to ask them questions to get them reflecting and thinking for themselves. If there’s any hint that they may have done something wrong, meet it with curiosity. If they fear getting in trouble, they’re less likely to open up again.
Determine your boundaries. If late night conversations are becoming a pattern and you need more alone time, time with your partner, or just need more sleep, identify and set your boundaries. If you can only do one night a week, that’s OK.
Communicate your boundaries up front. If you have a hard stop for your bedtime, kindly let them know that even if you intend to let the conversation happen. The times that you can’t do it, let them know you want to hear from them but it isn’t a good time and take a moment to determine exactly when will be a good time. This reassures them that you want to hear what they have to share and have a plan to make it happen. Additionally, not only does it help protect your own need for sleep but it also models the importance of having boundaries in any relationship.
Clarify expectations. Share with them that you are so glad they want to talk and you want to as well, but you want to be sure everyone is aware that there is still an expectation to get up on time, manage their morning to-do list, and not be grumpy with others even if they didn’t get enough sleep. You can even bargain a little to negotiate how they can help you later if you all stay up late talking so you can catch a little more shut-eye in the morning.
Open up other channels of communication. Build on the late night conversations by using them to open up additional channels of communication. Text them the next day and let them know you enjoyed talking with them and that if they have any other questions or thoughts about the topic, they can text you any time as well. Initiate a conversation in the car where eye contact isn’t expected and they won’t feel watched. Or, start a shared notebook that lives somewhere tucked away that they can use to share difficult questions or thoughts. Maybe plan to make a meal together or do a project and carry on conversation while you work side by side.
Navigating the changes of the tween and teen years is a lot for our kids. It’s a lot for us as parents too. Cultivating a culture of communication and holding space for that journey to unfold through connection sets kids up for moving through life with confidence that their parents are truly there for them. We may be tired, but we’re there