Teenage dreams

It’s no secret that teenagers can be a huge source of frustration for parents. 

They all of a sudden become intermittently lazy, selectively deaf and rather forgetful! 

My own son, for example, despite being a fantastic basketball player, ironically can’t seem to land one item of clothing in the washing basket!

One of the biggest changes I noticed in my son when he became a teenager, were the changes in his sleep pattern. 

He all of a sudden wasn’t tired at his regular bedtime and woke up far later than he used to. It’s easy to dismiss this case of not wanting to get out of bed until mid-morning as another example of classic teenage laziness – but it is, in fact, rooted deeply in their biology. 

The unique teenage brain

A child’s circadian rhythm, (the body’s internal clock or sleep/wake cycle), experiences a dramatic shift as they hit their teens. 

When they were once happy going to sleep by 9pm and waking easily by 7am, they now struggle to feel sleepy before 10pm and if woken at 7am are grumpy and will struggle to achieve mental clarity – not ideal for the school day ahead! 

It’s a very unfortunate fact that the school system doesn’t support teenagers’ sleep needs, and it’s no wonder they sleep in so late on weekends – they’re trying to catch up.

Sleep – it’s life or death

Sleep is extremely important for us all, but possibly even more so in the growing adolescent. 

It plays a large role in a teen’s brain development and lack of it can become an issue. 

Matthew Walker, (PhD author of “Why We Sleep”) noted there was a recent study examining insomnia symptoms in early adolescent girls, aged 9-13, showing “increased depression, anxiety, vigour, and fatigue following sleep deprivation. Furthermore, sleep loss is associated with both increased negative mood and issues with emotional regulation in adolescents.” 

There was also a link between “sleep deprivation and depression, ADHD, impulse control disorders, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, indicating the key role of sleep in adolescent mental health.”

Unintentional death is the leading cause for death for adolescents, with about two thirds of these injuries involving car crashes. 

A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that under slept teens were more likely to text while driving, drink and drive or drive or ride in a car with a drinking driver, not wear a seatbelt and rarely wear a bike helmet. 

Developmental neuroscience has confirmed that teens are already predisposed to risk and it’s no surprise that lack of sleep doesn’t help.

All this to say – there is plenty to be gained from helping your teenager get their sleep back. 

They just aren’t getting enough – but they are getting too much of one thing

Alarmingly, only 11% of teenagers are getting the correct amount of sleep. 

With early school start times as well as weekend sports, coupled with the abundance of technology surrounding them, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to get the amount of sleep they require.

Technology is a huge factor in adolescents’ lack of sleep. 

The bright lights emitted from phones, tablets and TV’s can impede sleepiness due to the fact that they delay our melatonin (aka the sleepiness hormone) from rising causing our bodies think it’s still daytime. 

Having a teenager detach from their phone at a reasonable time each night is a good idea if you want them to fall asleep at the right time.

And yes – I personally know this can prove almost impossible at times but for the sake of their health it’s worth holding a firm boundary in this area. 

So before we pass our teens off as lazy, let’s remember this shift in their internal clock and try to support this. 

How to support healthy teenage sleep

Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep a night. Try to be understanding that your son or daughter is no longer ready for bed before 9pm, but because they need to be up early for school they will need to have a wind down routine that starts early enough for them to get enough sleep before school the following day. This wind down routine could be having a warm bath or shower (which are both shown to have positive effects when it comes to sleep), reading a book, listening to calm music or even meditation if they’ll entertain the idea!
  • Come up with a plan together that allows them to sleep as late as they can in the morning before school. When my son hit 14 he started riding to school (something that I couldn’t previously get him to do as it was apparently so tiring – go figure) so he could get up 20 minutes later 
  • Let them sleep in on weekends wherever possible. Don’t accuse them of being lazy for wanting to sleep in. 
  • Aim for them to stay up a little later on weekends and sleep in where possible as this will coincide more with their natural circadian rhythm. I’m not talking crazy times but perhaps 11pm-9am is suitable. 
  • Have them switch off technology at least half an hour before bed. In a perfect world it would be 2 hours but that would likely prove difficult for most parents and life can be tough enough parenting teens! 
  • Make sure they don’t sleep with their phone in their bedrooms as this can keep them awake at night time wanting to check messages through fear of missing out. Just having a phone in your vicinity is proven to raise anxiety even if it’s face down on silent. 

It’s a tough gig, parenting, but armed with some additional knowledge about how to best support your teenagers natural body rhythms, hopefully the whole family can start sleeping that little bit better!

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