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Teen Troubles: Getting Serious about Sleep

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It is easy to believe that as long as there have been parents and teenagers these two groups have disagreed about when the latter needs to go to bed and how much sleep they need.  Parents often struggle between what they were taught by their parents, what the latest research says, and what their teenager wants.  It can be hard to know which answer is the right answer for your child and how to recognize and address problems when they occur.  To help parents everywhere understand the basics of teenagers and sleep, we pulled together information from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the NSF’s Annual Sleep Poll, and the Journal of Sleep.

1.       Teen Sleep Habits

For many parents there is no question that today’s teenagers are suffering from long standing sleep deprivation.  In fact, more than 60% of the teens in a recent NSF Sleep Poll reported experiencing daytime sleepiness and 15% of them had fallen asleep in school.  The trouble with teens and sleep is two-fold.  First, teens are still growing and while their sleep needs have decreased, they still require an average of 8-9 hours of sleep every night.

One of the reasons teens are sleep deprived is that they stay up too late to get all the sleep they need before they have to wake up for school.  It seems like the answer is simply to make them go to bed earlier.  But it isn’t quite that simple.  According to the NSF, it is normal for teens to be awake until 11pm or even later due to changes in their biological sleep patterns.  So, if your teenager can’t really fall asleep until 11:30pm, needs 9 hours of sleep, and has to be at school at 7:30am, it’s no wonder he is impossible to wake-up and barely functioning until long after the school day begins.  Even losing an hour or two of sleep a night like this example can cause serious problems as sleep debt accumulates by 5-10 hours each week.

Second, teens don’t really help themselves out in this area either, commonly staying up late and sleeping in on weekends and vacations.  While it might seem like an effective way to try and catch-up on all that sleep they are losing, the longer term impact of erratic wake-up/sleep times is more harmful than any benefit they are getting from the extra sleep.  When teens get up and go to sleep at different times every day, it can upset the normal functioning of their internal biological clock and decrease the quality of whatever sleep they are getting.

2.      Impacts of Sleep Deprivation

The most immediate and obvious consequence of long term sleep deprivation is the impact it has on teenagers ability to participate at and learn in school.  Sleepiness impedes concentration, limits their ability to problem solve, impacts retention, and compromises even short term memory.  Teens who go to school tired, remain tired all day long, which impacts their performance and their capacity for learning in all their classes, not just those that are first thing in the morning.

It can also impact interpersonal relationships and complicate their social interactions because sleepy teens are often grumpy teens.  Being overtired can result in aggressive behavior, impatience, and moody outbursts with friends and family.  According to the NSF, there is also a link between depression and sleep deprivation that can have a significant negative effect on teenagers.  People who are suffering from depression often have trouble with sleep.  Lack of sleep affects mood in such a way that it can enhance feelings of depression.  This sets up a vicious cycle that can be devastating to teens and their families.

3.      What Can Parents Do?

While it may seem as easy as making teens go to bed earlier, any parent who has been through the teen years knows that making teenagers do anything they don’t want to do is a challenge all by itself.  The best advice is to openly talk about sleep as a health concern during family discussions.  Stress to your teens that sleep is as important to their health as eating right and exercising.  Work with your local school board to get the start time at your local high school changed to be more accommodating toward teens natural sleep patterns.  Help your teens develop healthy habits like bedtime routines, consistent sleep/wake times, management of sleep debt, and making bedrooms their sanctuaries for sleeping.  Most importantly, make sleep a priority for everyone in your family and lead by example to show your teens that you are serious about everyone in the family getting the sleep they need to succeed.

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