Running on Empty (teens in need of sleep)

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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.

One response »

  1. Hi Ellen,

    Even though I may not comment on every blog I always find your pieces interesting and relatable. There has been concern and talk in reversing school hours for elementary and high school for quite some time, but public schools seem to be at a stand still when it comes to seriously addressing the issue. Maybe one day someone will be bold enough to take the plunge and experiment.

    Hope everyone in the family gets a restful sleep tonight!
    Lois

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