Monthly Archives: January 2014

Running on Empty (teens in need of sleep)


Everyone knows that sleep is essential and that getting enough of it can make a huge difference in a person’s attitude, appearance and performance.  So it seems like a cruel biological reality that the extra sleep needed by a teenager ~ whose body and mind are growing more than ever ~ is nearly impossible to get.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need at least 8-1/2 hours of sleep each night (9-1/4 for most teens to function at their best).  But since their internal clocks change in adolescence and as a result they don’t get tired until late at night (11:00 or later), teens who have to rise early for school are not often adequately rested.  On top of changing sleep cycles, teens who may wish to go to bed early are usually forced to stay up late studying and trying to finish homework after part-time jobs, sports, and extracurricular activities.

I never allowed my kids to have a television in their bedrooms.  It made it easier for me to know what they were watching and how much they were watching if I could see them in our family room.  My decision was a good one for me.  But now, it’s becoming apparent that TVs in bedrooms are just one of many forms of over-stimulation wreaking havoc on teenage sleep.  Today, over-stimulation, which delays sleep or impedes natural sleep cycles, also comes in the form of texting, social media viewing, laptop/computer usage, and even listening to music on headphones before going to sleep.  Both quantity and quality of sleep are at-risk unless teens unplug well before sleeping.

Although numerous research studies have confirmed that teens need extra hours of sleep and that implementing a later school start time for teenagers would be beneficial in many ways, the traditional early start time continues in most school systems.  The younger children whose internal clocks require earlier bedtimes and who tend to wake up much earlier than teenagers would be perfect candidates for a 7:30 start time.  We all know this but for a variety of reasons, including after school sports schedules, hours of sunshine and bus issues, not much has changed.

If you’re a parent, you may remember how uncomfortable sleep deprivation felt when you were woken by a crying infant in the middle of the night. (Some parents confess to pretending to be in deep sleep so the other parent has to get up for the baby!)  If rising out of a warm bed to feed a tiny, sweet-faced infant can be so exhausting, it’s easy to understand how a sleep-deprived teenager must feel getting up and ready for a day filled with precalculus, Romeo and Juliet and speaking conversationally in French or Spanish with other sleep-deprived teenagers.

Parents are usually highly attuned to the signs that their teenagers are exhausted.  Each of mine expresses fatigue differently.  One feels sullen and overwhelmed. One is stubborn and unreasonable.  The third can be found holed up in her bedroom, or snapping at a simple request.  It’s ugly but it’s reality.  And, thankfully,  it’s completely different when they are well-rested.

Maybe you can relate to this scenario:  The  kids emerge from their bedrooms on a school morning, barely uttering a word to each other or to me.  Few if any smiles, they try their best to take a couple of bites of something that they really have no desire to eat. Then they brush their teeth and they’re out the door.  None of them have been the type to rise super early to spend time on their appearance.  (It is what it is, when you choose to sleep until the last possible minute).  I used to send them off with a cheerful Have a great day or Try hard in sing-song voice until I realized I was getting nothing in response to my well wishes (except probably eye-rolling that I couldn’t see).  At least I can count on some smiles and a story or two after they return home, at a more reasonable time.

So,  if sleep deprivation is so common in teenagers who need to be alert in order to perform at their best, feel good and stay safe (behind the wheel of a car or on a soccer field or ice rink), how can we help them do their best when they are running on empty?

You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, you just might find, …..  you get what you need. ~ Mick Jagger

Here are a few tips that may help teens feel more refreshed so they don’t have to rely on those occasional snow days for a break:

  • Sleep in on the weekend.  Although I was never one to sleep late on weekends, I will never confuse sleeping late with laziness when it comes to teens.  I encourage my kids to sleep if they are lucky enough to not have to work or play in some kind of sports game.  Note: Some experts recommend limiting sleep to one additional hour on the weekend in order to avoid pushing nighttime sleeping later.  (This may take some experimentation — I like to see my teens sleep until 10:00).
  • Shower in the morning, if possible.  This is an easy way to perk up (particularly if the last 10 seconds are cold water).
  • Eat something for breakfast, even if there is very little or no appetite. It is essential to getting energized and alert for thinking.  Slices of an orange or an energy bar are all that my daughter can stomach early in the morning.  Still, they are better than nothing.
  • Unplug one hour (or even 30 minutes) prior to going to sleep to reduce the effects of over-stimulation.  Eyes that are tired from checking Instagram do not mean that deep, peaceful sleep is in order.  The effects of over-stimulation are still present.
  • Exercise during the day for restful sleep.  Everyone knows that exercise is great for reducing stress and feeling good.  It has the added benefit of  inducing sleep, as long as it is done well in advance of bedtime.  (Exercise will energize and keep you awake right before bedtime).
  • Nap.  My kids used to make fun of me for taking a short nap every day.  Now they see the value in it.  Limiting the nap to 20 or 30 minutes at most ensures renewed energy rather than a craving for more sleep.
  • Limit caffeine and sugar, especially in the afternoon and evening.
  • Keep the bedroom slightly cool and dark.

Finally, it helps to practice what you preach.  I recently stayed out much later than my usual bedtime, enjoying a movie with friends.  I wake up once or twice a night regularly, but that night I worried all night about not getting enough sleep.  Guess what?  I barely slept a wink and had to get up to go to work.  Needless to say, I looked terrible and felt sluggish all day long, despite the fact that I really need to be enthusiastic to work with very young school children.  Lesson definitely learned.

A Rare Kind of Popular


Something happens to students upon entering middle school.  It was only 7 months ago that I watched fresh faced kids, including my own, in their best attire, smiling broadly as they received certificates for completing elementary school.  Now, as some of these same faces arrive for Monday night CCD class, it’s as if someone flipped a switch and they officially became teenagers who walk, talk and dress alike.

Clusters of girls in skinny jeans, wearing UGG’s and North Face jackets and sporting pony tails, walk in tight groups, practically tripping over each other.  They’re chatting and laughing excitedly, their eyes darting around the room, assessing the others. The boys sport their own “uniform” – mostly North Face jackets, jeans and sneakers or work boots.  More clustering and more scoping out the scene. Just one year ago as an assistant,  I would have received many more  hellos from these kids.  Now they barely register that I’m present.

Although the “look” is not unfamiliar to me, as I have two kids who have gone through this stage already, it’s still remarkable to watch it in action.  It’s no longer easy for me to pick my girl out in a crowd of seventh graders as she, too, has the “look.”  Occasionally our eyes meet and I am rewarded with a sweet, if not sympathetic, smile. (She still likes me).

Tonight’s topic is social justice and how God deeply loves everyone in the world, regardless of their appearance, achievements or possessions (or lack thereof) and how God expects us all to extend that same love to our neighbors.  We have a responsibility to love and to take care of each other, particularly those who are the poorest and neediest among us.

Close your eyes and imagine what this room would feel like if we all loved each other unconditionally, the same way God loves us.  How would it feel?

It’s a question that appears to have caught them off guard.  It’s clearly a moment of thinking outside the box for these middle school students, most of whom spend each day trying to dress right, feel good emotionally and physically, and fit in with their peers while projecting an image of having everything figured out. Love one’s peers?  Whoa.

“It would feel gooooood,” said one boy, fluttering his eyelashes and wrapping an arm around the shoulders of the boy next to him.

“Amazing!” shrieked another boy who likes to get a reaction (and he got one).

“Good,” replied my daughter, when I asked her later, in the privacy of our home. “’Cuz there’d be no meanness, no sarcasm… no bullying.”  Aha.  The original question at the group meeting was meant to elicit such a response but, alas, got none.  Not even from my daughter who apparently had the answer in her head.  I have a feeling others may have had it, too.  Confidence, peace, acceptance and cooperation were some of the ideas I had in my own mind.

If we each could see only goodness in each other, the way God sees goodness in all of us, the lack of judgment and competition could free up individuals to completely and comfortably be themselves.  No one would feel the need to compare himself to others, but would just be somewhere along the path of his own journey.

But typically for teens (and for many adults), that’s not the way it works.   Survival of the fittest takes over, beginning in middle school, when it is of utmost importance to wear the right clothes and own certain gadgets.   They desperately want to be liked by others.  They want to fit in, to be smart, to make the right team, to look attractive, to make people laugh.  They want others to believe they have everything under control but in reality, underneath the “uniform” and the giggling and the silly responses to serious questions, they all have limitations that they try to hide from others.  Sensing they belong is sometimes more important than sensing the need to show compassion for someone else.

The same kid in this seventh grade CCD class who only a few years ago was shy and polite in class, tonight appears to be the ring leader among the guys, even showing no remorse for failing to save his long-time friend a seat with the group. I watch as the friend without a seat shrugs his shoulders, red faced, and searches for a free chair away from his peers. It’s similar to the second question posed tonight.  If you saw someone sitting alone at a table in the school lunchroom, would you sit with him or even ask him to join your table?

Many teens know the discomfort of sitting alone, if for no other reason than seats at a table are unavailable.  Regardless, sitting alone is not enjoyable for most teens.  Even self-assured teens don’t enjoy sitting alone.  Would you join the kid sitting alone?   It depends, they say.   How many teens would sit with a friend who was alone?  How many would sit with someone they didn’t know who was alone?  How many would sit with someone who had few friends?  God asks us to take care of each other.

Not long ago, another mom and I were talking about how fantastic the bonding is that typically takes place for the sixth grade students in our town at a week-long overnight camp.  This year, however, one student made the long trek home to sleep each night and returned in the morning.  When some of his cabin mates joked about the student’s need to go home, one student not only refused to join in but verbally questioned the integrity of the group for ridiculing this child and for doing so behind his back.  Speaking up takes tremendous courage for someone so young.   Even adults have trouble putting an end to idle gossip.  It’s much easier, although cowardly, to remain silent.

* * *

Teens might be surprised to know that everyone is more or less fighting some kind of battle.  Even those who seem to have everything going well for them oftentimes are struggling in some way.  Consider these situations:

  • The academically driven student who is secretly hurt when others criticize her for trying too hard.
  • The student who wants to succeed but just doesn’t have the passion and/or skills to do so and develops an attitude to mask his discouragement.
  • The rule-following student who doesn’t understand why the disrespectful behavior receives more approval by peers.
  • The kid who has lots of friends but feels enormous anxiety about the dysfunction happening at home.
  • The kid who will do anything to feel accepted in the “popular” crowd, even if it means severing old, established friendships
  • The kid whose family is struggling to make ends meet, and cannot afford fancy gadgets or brand name labels and feels inferior.

Things are not always what they seem.   Extending compassion and acceptance to others — regardless of how they look or act — could be habit-forming and could be life-changing for the giver as well as the recipient.  Be kind to enemies?  What is there to lose?

All teens have the potential to be popular.   By popular teen I mean those rare people who are genuinely kind to everyone with no expectation of kindness being returned.  These are the teens who smile and talk to everyone – the wallflowers, the know-it-alls, the athletes, the band geeks, the Queen Bees and even the rough-around-the-edge rebellious types.  Maybe some day, this kind of popular will be the norm.

* * *

I recently stopped at the local pizza parlor to pick up dinner.  While there, I was approached by a beautiful girl who goes to the same high school as my children.  Without hesitation, this girl approached me with a big smile, saying hello and asking me how I was.  She did not have to do anything other than wave at me from her seat yet she came over to me and showed genuine interest.  I am certain that if I were her age, I would not have the courage to do so.  I don’t know this girl well but she made me smile – and did so in front of her peers.  Now that is a wicked good teen.