Just a Little More Sleep for Teens

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The alarm on the teen’s phone has gone off four times already. His mother has yelled down the hallway twice for him to get up and get ready for school. Yet the teen remains in bed, trying to squeeze in a couple more minutes of shut eye.

Many parents wonder what happened to that bright-eyed little child who used to be the one that woke up the parents in the morning. The answer is puberty and its’ impact on the sleep-wake cycle in adolescents. Puberty pushes the time adolescents start feeling sleepy to later in the night. This means most teens don’t want to go to sleep until 11pm or later.

The problem is that the school day continues to start relatively early in the morning. Most schools start by 8am or so meaning that adolescents are not allowed to get enough sleep during the week. The recommended amount of sleep for adolescents is 8½ to 9½ hours per night.

The combination of early school times and later sleep-wake cycles result in the vast majority of middle and high schoolers getting less than the recommended amount of sleep that they need. The on-going sleep deficits during the week cannot be compensated by sleeping in on the weekends, napping, or consuming caffeine.

The sleep deficits start showing their effects in adolescents’ behavior. Sleep deficits contribute to higher rates of depression and increased obesity. It makes it more likely that adolescents will get into auto accidents due to drowsiness and weakens their academic performance in school.

Yet it can be difficult to get adolescents to go to sleep in a timely manner. This is a period of life that is full of outside activities, homework, after-school jobs, and keeping up with what is happening on social media. Sleep often ends up being the one that is sacrificed so everything else can be accomplished.

Parents will need to step in and stress to adolescents the importance of consistently getting a good night’s sleep. The first step in achieving this is to sit down with the adolescent during the weekend and discuss a plan on how he will get the recommended amount of sleep on a nightly basis.

There are a few general guidelines that can help with getting to sleep in a timely manner. First is to limit caffeine consumption in the evening. Caffeine can delay the body from becoming drowsy and result in adolescents staying up later in the evening.

Second, parents should set a media curfew an hour before bedtime that includes smart phones, laptop computers, and television. This allows the brain to disengage from constantly receiving new information and start the sleep cycle. Parents may need to keep an adolescent’s smart phone in their room to ensure the curfew stays intact.

Third, a routine should be developed where the adolescent goes to bed at the same time each night. The room should be dark, quiet, and have minimal distractions. This allows the body to get used to a pattern of falling asleep which can mean getting to sleep more quickly and soundly.

Getting a good night’s rest is all too rare for adolescents. However, adolescents who do receive enough sleep each night have an inherent advantage over other adolescents. Parents can help their adolescent get that advantage by sitting down with him and discussing the importance of getting enough sleep and making a plan.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on August 31, 2014.

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