How to Save Your Teen From Sleep Deprivation?

Raising Night Owls

My son was never a morning person. That wasn’t a problem when he was young because I could have him in afternoon preschool and kindergarten. Even elementary school wasn’t too bad because the school didn’t start until 9 a.m., and little boys don’t need a lot of time to get ready.

Then came middle school. Suddenly, he had to get up at 6:30 a.m. to catch a bus in the dark to be at school by 7:30. Worse yet, this was after a long, lazy summer of getting up midmorning and staying up until whenever. In addition, there was basketball.

Now, two years later, the only thing that’s changed is that he’ll have to leave half an hour earlier when he starts high school. This is a trend that, sleep experts say, is moving in the wrong direction.

The Teen Biological Clock

Some biological changes during adolescence exacerbate my son’s problem of being a natural night owl. Years of research in sleep have conclusively shown that as children enter their teen years, they need more rest than they did in elementary school, not less.

Dr Richard Simon, director of the Kathryn Severens Dements Sleep Disorders Center in Walla Walla, Wash., has extensive experience in teens and sleep – both as a doctor and a father. He explains that this need for increased sleep is complicated because teenagers have other issues that keep them from getting enough sleep, such as sports, jobs and social life. This leads to a vicious circle that leaves teens in a constant sleep deprivation that Simon believes is responsible for much of the negative behaviour often associated with teenagers.

Dr Simon explains that every human has a natural biological clock that, among other things, tells us when to sleep and when to wake. This “clock” is governed by the sun, not by the alarm clock. In addition to requiring more sleep than children or adults, teenagers typically have altered biological rhythms that vary the time of night they sleep well and times during the day when they’re most alert. These rhythms operate on a roughly 16-hour on, eight-hour off phase. In other words, when the clock is “on”, we’re awake; when it’s “off”, we’re supposed to sleep. Teens have a longer “off” time, and because of their schedules, their biological clock is programmed by those schedules to turn on and off on its unique plan.

This is how it works. Typically, during the week, teens don’t get much sleep. For example, if a teenager goes to bed at 10:30 p.m. and wakes up at 6:30 a.m., that’s eight hours of sleep. However, they need nine to 10 hours. Then on Friday and Saturday, he stays up until midnight or later and sleeps until noon the next day. At noon, they finally are exposed to their first bright light of the day. This tells the biological clock that the day starts at noon. Well, if the day begins at noon (the biological clock figures), then it should end about 14 hours later at 3 a.m.! Then Sunday night rolls around, and Mom tells him to go to bed at 10:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the teen’s biological clock won’t turn off for four more hours, so it’s nearly impossible for him to fall asleep, so he tosses and turns, sneaks on the TV, calls his friends or hides under his covers with a good book and a flashlight. Gee, wonder why he’s so tired at 6:30 when it’s time to get up for school?

Based on these facts, the ideal time for them to go to bed would be 9 p.m. every single night and to stick with that schedule. However, even if they have nothing else to do, I know from personal experience that a teen feels entitled to a later bedtime simply because they’re older. No amount of scientific argument will ever convince a 13-year-old that he should go to bed at the same time as his 9-year-old brother.

Waking Up Schools

Some schools have finally acknowledged the overwhelming evidence and adjusted their school schedules accordingly. There’s been no formal study of the effects of these schedule changes. Still, Dr Simon suspects that if there were, the findings would include less depression, minor juvenile delinquency and a decrease in absenteeism and tardiness.

Still, says Dr Simon, it’s not enough. He says that school schedules are made for the convenience of the adults, not the children, and making a change of that magnitude is not something most districts want to attempt. Furthermore, the problem goes deeper than just school or schoolwork. From the time children are old enough to sign up for their first organized activity, our entire society is so heavily scheduled that sleep deprivation is almost a given.

Ironically, in direct contrast to the consensus that a busy teen is too busy to get into trouble, Dr Simon says studies show that the super-achieving teens, heavily involved in sports, academics, have jobs and volunteer, are the most likely to use drugs. The next most likely is highly-achieving teens who may be applied only in sports, academics and work a few hours a week. After that comes the group that has maybe only a couple of extracurricular activities. The least likely group is the teens who do nothing but go to school. One theory for this is that tired teens are more likely to use drugs to keep awake.

Even more alarming is the rate at which teens are involved in car accidents. How much of this is attributable to sleep deprivation?

Mitigating Sleep Deprivation

What can a parent do to help their teen stay rested? It seems the ideal scenario would be to allow your teen to do nothing – as if! Instead, help your teen take a look at their schedule and see how sleep can be fit in to cut down on incidences of sleep deprivation. Since energy levels usually dim in the afternoon, instead of coming home and plopping down on the computer for an hour to “chat” with friends, encourage your teenager to put up an away message and take a nap.

Even if you prefer not to have a strict bedtime, you can have a room curfew where your teen has to be in their room by a specific time. Banning TV, video games and computers after this time will encourage quiet activities that may promote sleep. Will they like it? Probably not, but when was the last time they wanted anything you did?

In addition, educate your child about sleep deprivation, particularly as he heads toward the college years. If you know he’s tired, don’t let him drive, and explain why. As he guides toward college, hopefully, this lesson will sink in enough, and he’ll be less likely to make dumb decisions when he’s sleep-deprived.

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