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Teenagers and Sleep, How to Help?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

If you are the parent of a teenager then you probably know how difficult it is to get them to wake up to go to school each morning. If you have a long memory, as I do, you probably recall how hard it was to wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 AM to get to school in time for classes. I clearly remember how cozy, warm and comforting both bed and sleep were.

The September 17, 2007 edition of Newsweek magazine ran an article about teenagers and the lack of sleep entitled "Homeroom Zombies." The article states that adolescents need as much as 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to feel fully rested and be able to concentrate on school work. Yet, most American teenagers get only 6 to 7 hours of sleep each night. The lack of adequate amounts of sleep make them weary in class each day, unable to focus their attention and liable to fall asleep in class if film strips, slide or movies are shown by teachers in a darkened room. In fact it is said that some youngsters are incorrectly diagnosed with ADD because they are too tired to concentrate in school.

Now, many teenagers are buying drinks with high caffeine content, further complicating their sleep difficulties. Larger doses of caffeine available in many drinks make it more difficult to fall asleep at night, causing more exhaustion in the morning.

More than a few High School teachers have commented to me that their morning classes tend to be very quiet and uninvolved in classroom activities. Only later in the morning, around 10 and 11 AM do the students come alive and involved in what is going on in school.

The tiredness experienced by so many teenagers is further complicated by the fact that after school they participate in a variety of vigorous activities including athletic team practices and play, working part time jobs and the, going home to do homework.

The Newsweek article also stresses the fact that at the adolescent stage of development there is a natural biological clock that is ignored by most school systems. Teenagers do not start to feel tired until 11 PM at night. If they have to be in homeroom by 8:15 AM many of them must awake at 6 to 6:30 AM. If they go to sleep by 11 PM (and that is a big if) they are not getting more than 7 hours of sleep and that is not enough at that age.

The authors of the article make some very good suggestions to parents how to help their teenage children with sleep issues:

1. The entire family should practice healthy sleep behaviors such as going to sleep at the same time each night and limiting caffeine intake all day.

2. Naps are healthy after school but not in the evening and not too long.

3. Parents should keep the television and video games in the living room of the house in not in separate rooms in order to discourage late night activities that delay getting to sleep.

4. Household rules should include no going out after 11 PM on week nights when there is school.

5. Be alert to sleep disorder such as sleep apnea. This is a breathing disorder caused by some type of blockage that causes constant awakening all night.

Of note is the fact that some school districts that have begun to experiment with later openings for teenage students with some success reported in attendance and improved grades.

What are your opinions about this issue?

1. Should all High Schools open later in the morning?

2. Do these suggestions to parents make sense?

3. How can parents help without getting into unwanted struggles and conflicts with adolescent youngsters already struggling with needs to be autonomous?

Your comments and ideas are encouraged.

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