The original version of this column was published on Oct. 2, 2016. This publication has been updated to reflect the end of Daylight Savings’ Time in 2018.
As the lazy days of summer start fading into the rearview and are replaced with cranky kids catching the bus in the dark and actively resisted homework sessions, we expect that our children will pull it together and get into some sort of routine. But there’s a catch.
For those of us who are around tweens and teens often, either your own or from your inner circle of friends and family, one single descriptor applies to them all-Sleepy. Dedicated kids, unmotivated kids, healthy, snarky and athletic kids, they are ALL tired. If given the chance, they often fall asleep immediately after school, some, even on the drive home. These same teens are also asleep on their desk during the first period of the day and sometimes thelast.
Many parents and teachers blame laziness, lack of commitment, defiance, but what is at work here is a combination of externally structured dynamics that teens are being forced perform within and biology. This combination goes against everything we know about how the adolescent brain functions at this age. Its science and we are punishing them for not proactively overriding their own biology. Not only is it pointless to be upset with them, its straining our relationships.
The end of Daylight Savings, coming Nov. 4 this year, will offer the tiniest bit of help, only to have a horrible crash landing come next March. We will then spring forward at the worst possible time since kids are already counting down to the last day of school with a terrible case of spring fever.
One dynamic in play is that their circadian rhythm shifts as they enter the teen window. Add to this that they also now need at least nine hours of sleep with nine hours and fifteen minutes being the ideal. With their brains not releasing the sleep hormone melatonin until around 10:30 p.m. and assuming they’re not narcoleptic, they won’t be winding down and sleeping until 11:30. Keep in mind this adjustment pushes all sleep cycles back, including the most important, R.E.M., the infamous dream state, that doesn’t end for most teens until 7 a.m.
Now lets add anabsurdly early school start time(7 a.m. start in our house, leave house at oh dark thirty, that means teen is up at 5 a.m. for primping. This will slide to 5:45 a.m. by years end). So lets recap. Teen doesn’t get tired until 11:30 p.m. and gets up at 5 a.m., that’s five and a half hours of sleep and no R.E.M., for a teen who needs, at the least, nine. They do this five days a week. That puts them at 20 hours short on sleep by weeks end. We expect them to perform well all day at school, do homework to the best of their ability, be a committed team player for after school activities and then drag them to what ever we signed them up for on the weekends to keep them busy and participating. And this is only what’s going on in the home.
Are you starting to see what we’ve created? The zombie apocalypse, well sort of…
Then we add the social demands, the 24/7 access to technology (read: peers) and a less-than-amazing diet and it is hard to understand how they are functioning at all. So how are teens functioning? On average, poorly, but there are exceptions. Teens can all name their super-perky-first-thing-in-the-morning friend, though usually not kindly.
According to Dr. Carskadon, director of chronobiology/sleep research at E. P. Bradley Hospital in Providence, R.I., and a professor in the department of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University School of Medicine, even the most well-rested teen is inherently emotionally turbulent, add feeling perpetually sleep deprived, of which 87% of teens are and you now have increased anger, depression, hostility, sadness and fear, a dangerous combination.
Dr. Carskadon notes that “Researchers have not yet quantified the academic cost of sleep deprivation by charting waking times with grades or test scores. But it is known that sleep deprivation interferes with cognitive functioning — particularly that part of the brain needed for creative thinking. It is also established that lack of sleep affects reaction time. Not only is this relevant to teen-agers’ studies but also to their safety when driving. Exhaustion and alcohol are another dangerous mix.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) compiled results of research to add to the list of consequences of sleep deprivation noting having found additionally the increase in health issues like obesity, diabetes, mood changes and behavior problems.
So this is probably feeling a bit hopeless, but there are things we can do to support them.
The UCLA Sleep Centersuggests:
- Parents should create a calm atmosphere in the home at bedtime.
- Teens should have a regular, relaxing routine just before bedtime. They often have busy, hectic schedules. They need a chance to unwind at night.
- To help them relax, teens should avoid activities that will excite their senses late in the evening. They should find another time for computer games, action movies, intense reading or heavy studying.
- They should not have anything with caffeine (including soda and chocolate) after 4:00 pm.
- They should also avoid smoking and drinking. Along with hurting their health, nicotine and alcohol will disturb their sleep.
- A regular exercise routine and a healthy diet will help them sleep better at night.
- Keep the lights dim in the evening. Open the curtains or blinds to let in bright light in the morning. This helps keep their body clocks set at the right time.
- If they must take a nap, they should keep it to under an hour.
It can be hard for teens to get enough sleep during the week. They may need to wake up later on weekends. But they should not wake up more than two hours later than the time when they normally rise on a weekday. Sleeping in longer than that will severely disrupt a teen’s body clock. This will make it even harder to wake up on time when Monday morning arrives.
Another even more significant step would be to move start times for high school later, a move the American Academy of Pediatrics has been suggesting for years. It’s silly to have elementary not starting until 8:30 a.m. when those kids are waking up at 5:30 on their own then watching TV for hours until school starts, while 87% of teenagers are sleep deprived according to the National Sleep Foundation, driving to school mostly asleep in the dark and 40% of them going back to sleep on their desks.
I dare you, I double-dog dare you, to drive into a high school parking lot 15 minutes before classes start. Personally, I’d rather walk blindfolded across an intersection in India, it would be less risky.
For school systems that have done this, moving the start timejust an hour later, they found student car accidents dropped 70%, mental health increased by 34% and 20% more students were getting the actual requisite amount of nine hours of sleep. This was from just pushing it back one hour, if we pushed it to a 9 a.m. start, we may well not even be able to recognize our own children. The improvement from academics to demeanor would be profound. If only we could acknowledge that the path of least resistance in doing nothing is in no ones best interest and our children are bearing the brunt for no reason. They could be excelling beyond our wildest dreams… but this would require being able to sleep long enough to dream.
Since another year has passed and no changes to start times were made, let your teen nap, let them sleep in on weekends, feed them nourishing foods, don’t overload them with conversations after school and create a peaceful evening space without the drama of TV or computers. It’s the least we can do since they are being forced to swim upstream in an already challenging time.
Have ideas you’d like to add? Need more suggestions? Or want to share your experience? Let me know!
Julie Koester is CEO of Life with Moxie, a Lifestyle Revolution Company www.lifewithmoxie.com, CEO of Moxie Creed www.moxiecreed.com, skincare beyond chemistry. You can reach her at Julie@lifewithmoxie.com
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