“I could be a morning person if morning started around noon.” ~ said every teenager, everywhere.
Anyone who’s ever tried to wake a snoozing teenager knows it’s best to let sleeping teenagers lie. Unfortunately, early school times have us waking our teens at the equivalent of 4 a.m. in adult circadian rhythm time. Not only are we cutting off their deep and healing REM sleep, parents admit to doing so by yelling “fire!”, pouring cold water onto serene faces, yanking blankets off, and hitting the lights.
Sleep deprivation among American teens is an epidemic. Only 1 in 10 teenagers is getting the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. And before you think, “phew, mine are getting eight most nights,” – that’s the bare minimum and doesn’t account for the time it takes to fall asleep and disturbances during sleep cycles.
According to sleep researcher Wendy Troxel, many of the characteristics that we chalk up to “being a teenager”: irritability, moodiness, laziness, depression – could be products of chronic sleep deprivation.
She says that the adolescence phase is crucial in brain development, especially around developing more complex thinking abilities like reasoning, problem-solving, and good judgment. The point here is that these are the same tools required to reign in impulsive and risky behaviors, adolescence characteristics that many parents find terrifying.
How Teenagers Sleep Differently
“There’s a biological shift forward in terms of sleep in teenagers,” says Neuroscience professor and sleep expert Matthew Walker. “They like to start to go to bed later and wake up later. This isn’t a choice for them. It’s not them being difficult. It’s genetically hardwired and has to happen.”
Early school start times and family tension:
We lumber our teenagers with incredible sleep debt during school weeks, with some schools starting as early as 7:30 a.m., the equivalent of 5:30 a.m. in teenager time. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Walker explains that 11 a.m. is the natural start time for the teenage brain to absorb information.
Come the weekend, the exhausted adolescent body and mind are desperate to gain back lost sleep and do so at a biologically desired time. Also known as far later in the day than most parents are comfortable allowing.
There’s a vast mismatch between belief and objective data. Walker shares that in one survey, about 72 percent of parents of teenagers suspect that their teen is getting plenty of sleep, but when you look at the numbers, only 11 percent are getting the sleep they need. This belief creates a stigma and translates into parent-to-child sleep neglect. He implores that we have to break the idea that sleeping enough is lazy or shameful.
The Unconsidered Role of Sleep In Education
Sleep enables learning and memory, and not just for the obvious reasons. Walker explains that we need rest after learning to hit the save button on all the new memories so they’re not forgotten. After a day of absorbing information, teens need a good night’s sleep to ensure fact retention.
Adequate sleep is also required before learning because it primes the brain to soak in new information. In short, sleep is critical on both sides of successful learning because a tired brain cannot absorb or retain information.
Can I Change School Start Times? How Do I Help My Teen?
Findings on the far-reaching and profound benefits of late school start times are unequivocal. At the very least, schools and parents need to be aware of the facts. Raise the topic with your friends and discuss it at school committee meetings and parent-teacher evenings. The research to back you is solid and vast.
Discuss the subject with your teen and normalize their biological changes by explaining what you’ve learned. Consider the current narrative around sleep in your household and decide how you want it to change.
For now, you’re probably still going to need to get them out the door by 7 a.m. on school mornings, but can you relax around them sleeping through weekend mornings? Choose to shift the household sleep narrative from punitive to empowering by:
- Accepting your teen’s unavoidably different sleep rhythm
- Leaving them to sleep in on the weekends and whenever else you can
- Explaining to them that you better understand their sleep needs and want them to know that you support and accept them sleeping in more
- Educating yourself and your family about what good sleep hygiene looks like
- Lighten up about the subject and drop the narrative that sleeping in is lazy, slothful, or for losers
It’s time to embrace a sleep-positive approach. Your teenager will thank you.
Written by Roxana Bouwer
Top image by nrd on Unsplash
Second image by Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash