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If it seems like your teen's body
clock went berserk when puberty hit, that's because it did. Yes, teenage-dom is
a time of texting marathons and mountains of homework, but there's something
else keeping your kid up: During the teenage years, brains are actually wired to stay up late.
"There's this change in their body clocks in puberty that leaves teens out of
sync with society," says Dr. Helene Emsellem, MD, author of Snooze or Lose! and Director of the Center for Sleep
and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, MD. She explains that the average teenage
brain starts releasing melatonin–a chemical that gets us ready to sleep–several hours later than little-kid brains. It's biological.
The problem is, teen brains are also
wired to sleep late. Research shows that the average teen needs a whopping 8.5
to 9.25 hours of sleep each night. This means if they hit the sack at 1 a.m.,
they'd need to sleep until at least 9:30 a.m. to be fully rested. In summer and
on weekends, that's okay. On school days... not so much. "Let's say a kid gets seven hours of
sleep a night. By the end of five days of school, they've built up 7.5 hours of
sleep debt," says Emsellem. No wonder they sleep through lunch on Saturdays.
A sleep-deprived kid doesn't always look sleepy
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Building up what Emsellem calls
"sleep debt" can have big-time negative effects. For example:
lack of z's can lead to poor school performance, especially if students are
sleeping through class, or are so tired they routinely play hooky.
Behavioral Problems"These kids come in, and they don't have any idea what they've been
yelling at their parents when they try to wake them up," says Emsellem. "They have no clue. If someone went
in your bedroom in the middle of a sleep cycle—say, 4:30 a.m.—you wouldn't
be very pleasant either."
ADHD Symptoms"A sleep-deprived kid doesn't always look sleepy," says Dr. Ruchir
Patel, MD, Director of the Insomnia and Sleep Institute of Arizona. "Sometimes
it's the opposite. They're bouncing off the walls. We see a lot of adolescents—particularly young teens—who have been given an ADHD diagnosis, when really
they're just exhausted."
deprivation weakens the immune system," says Dr. Patel, "making us
more prone to getting common infections, like colds."
Spontaneous Sleep"Some of these worn-out teens are coming in and presenting with the
exact symptoms of narcolepsy," says Patel. "When they get into a
sedentary position–in class, on the couch, or even behind the wheel–their
brains are dropping directly into R.E.M. sleep. They don't have narcolepsy;
it's just that the brain is taking the opportunity to recover lost sleep."
Drowsy DrivingRead that last paragraph again. The BEHIND THE WHEEL part. It's one
thing to nod off in chemistry class. But these kids are driving to school–or
home from a party–with a brain that is desperate for sleep. That's bad.
"I believe that if you are
educated you can make better decisions for yourself. The changes are not
intuitive," says Emsellem, who stresses that teens need to be made aware of how
much sleep they need–and how to help their bodies turn off a little earlier
in the evening. Here are a few tips to help your kid hit the hay:
"Sleep ranks right up there with eating right and exercising. Make sure it's something that is really valued in your house"
Get in the Dark"We live in this 24/7 lit
society," says Emsellem. "Teens and parents really need to understand the
power of light. It's a huge signal to the brain to stay awake." She urges parents to enforce a nightly "lights out" time at least 8.5 hours
before their child needs to be up for school.
think if you're nestling in bed with an iPad, that's not a lot of light, but
it's a real problem. Plus, this generation is literally texting in their
sleep," Emsellem says. Consider designating a spot, perhaps in the
kitchen, where everyone plugs in their gadgets before bedtime. Patel agrees,
saying, "Get the TV's, the computers, the phones, the video games out of your
kid can't switch from a 2 a.m. bedtime to a 10 p.m. bedtime in a week,"
says Patel. Their brain won't let them. Both Patel and Emsellem recommend that
teens slowly adjust their bedtime, focusing on controlling their exposure to
light and other stimuli, and settling down a little earlier each night.
Cut CaffeineIt takes five to seven hours for half of the caffeine from a soda or
coffee to leave your system. That means a little jolt in the morning won't hurt
nighttime sleep, but a late-afternoon soda could keep your kid up. Patel
recommends skipping caffeinated drinks after 4 p.m.
Encourage RoutinesRemember that bath-brush-story-sleep routine from when he was a baby?
Resurrect it. (Well, sort of.) "Routines help give the brain signals that it's
time to sleep," says Patel. Teach your teen to get homework out of the way
before dinner, and to do the same (dimly lit, relaxing) things before bed each
Back OffGo ahead and let your teen sleep in on the weekend. "They need to make up some
of that sleep," says Patel. "They have to."
Suggest CatnapsEmsellem points out that short afternoon naps can help teens recharge
for homework. "Just make sure they're no longer than 20-30 minutes,"
AdvocateSome school districts have found that later bell times have led to better
attendance, less students nodding off in morning classes and higher grades.
"I really believe that everybody has got to get up in arms about
this," says Emsellem. Consider joining the ranks of parents who are
pushing local school boards for later secondary school start times.
good example," Emsellem urges. Sleep ranks right up there with eating right and
exercising. Make sure it's something that is really valued in your house, and
there's a better chance your kids will take it seriously. Besides, you need
The bottom line is that sleep
doesn't come easy for teens. So cut them (and yourself) some slack. Shift a
little of the blame to biology, and then arm them with tools that will
help them get more rest. If they can latch on to good sleep habits,
they'll be healthier, more focused, and less crabby ... sounds worth the effort