Let them sleep!

Remember the Spirit of Christmas Past? No, not the one from Scrooge– the one in your own household? Roughly a decade ago? When the kids woke you up at dawn, eager to open the Christmas presents?

Fast forward to today – and now it’s your turn to wait under the Christmas tree for the “kids” to wake up. Eleven o’clock, half-past, lunchtime… yet still the teenagers sleep. And it’s not only holidays and weekends: every school morning is a battle. Teens have this uncanny ability to sleep through alarms, open curtains and duvets being pulled off them by resourceful parents.

So what’s going on – the physiology

Experts agree that teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep every night. Sleep helps to fuel our body and our brain, enabling us all to function. In addition, teenagers need more sleep than adults because they are growing and their brains are developing fast.

There are two main reasons humans feel sleepy: our sleep-wake balance and our internal body clock. If our sleep-wake balance is in deficit because it’s been too long since our last good-quality sleep, we will feel tired. In addition, sleepiness is controlled bythe “circadian rhythms” or our internal clock, which releases melatonin that tells the body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be alert. During puberty teenagers’ bodies change: melatonin is released later in the evening, around 11 p.m.  This shifts the teens’ circadian rhythms to a couple hours later than they’re used to. This is called “sleep phase delay” because their need to sleep is literally delayed till later in the day.

So what happens? Teenagers don’t feel sleepy, so they go to bed late. They don’t get enough sleep and are tired in the morning. They are now in sleep deficit. By late afternoon they recover, get a new spurt of energy and go to bed late that night. Come the weekend, they’re exhausted and they sleep all Saturday and Sunday to recover from the sleep debt they’ve accrued. By staying up late on school days and catching up on weekends, however, teenagers throw off their body clocks. This makes it even harder for them to fall asleep and wake up on time when the new school week begins. Psychology Todaywarns us that:“this erratic sleep schedule causes a vicious cycle, in which teenagers spend the week coping with a growing sleep debt, struggling to stay alert during the day, growing more and more tired as the week goes along. By the weekend they’re exhausted and ready to sleep in—and the cycle begins all over again.”

When their internal clocks are out of kilter, teens can feel very sleepy when they should be wide awake (at school, at work, or while driving). Using a lot of caffeine to stay alert during the day will make it even harder for them to go to bed on time and get quality rest.

So what’s going on – the environment

Of course, it’s not only biology that’s keeping our teenagers up at night. Today’s teens lead super-busy lives. There is school, homework, sports, cultural and art activities, part-time work, socialising, household chores. There is all this pressure to look good, to act cool and to know the “right” music. There’s the fear of missing out if they don’t check what’s happening on Instagram, or don’t participate in the group chat that discusses the next hang-out.

How parents can help

We’ve all heard about the blue light emitted by electronic devices, and we all feel guilty about how much time we allow our teenagers to spend on YouTube and on the social media. We’ve all heard that gaming stimulates the brain, making it hard for the teen to unwind and fall asleep for several hours afterwards. Most of us feel powerless trying to impose the textbook rules of “no phone in the bedroom”, “no games after 8pm”, “only 2 hours of screen time a day”.

Of course, in an ideal world, we’d ban all electronics in the evening. Realistically, though, the older our children get, the more difficult this becomes: they are legally allowed to drive and to have sex, but they can’t use the phone? Also, the older they get, the more important it is to teach them time management and good sleeping habits instead – because, you know, soon they’ll be leaving home to go flatting or away to uni.

So, what can we do?

  1. We can find a non-preachy and non-lecturing way to educate our teen about the importance of sleep.
  2. We can encourage them to turn their phones off or switch modes to “do not disturb” between 11 at night and 7 in the morning. It’s truly frightening to see how many teens message one another at 3 a.m.
  3. We can help them keep their rooms dark at night (thick blinds, no charging stations), not too hot but not freezing, and free from disturbances such as a washing machine running a spin cycle.
  4. It’s not always possible to limit exercise in the evening, but it’s useful to remember that strenuous physical activity raises your core body temperature, making it difficult to fall asleep afterwards.

Last thoughts

If your teenager still cannot get enough sleep despite cultivating good sleeping habits, it may be an idea to talk to your GP in order to rule out factors such as stress, anxiety, or physical conditions.

The consequences of not getting enough sleep

During sleep, the brain consolidates memories, processes emotions, builds cells and eliminates waste materials. Lack of sleep often leads to one r more of the following:

  • Mood changes and increased grumpiness.
  • Increased anxiety and depression.
  • Inability to concentrate sufficiently at school or when driving.
  • Memory loss or inability to remember new facts.
  • Poor decision making.
  • Weakened immunity.
  • Weight gain (because sleep deprivationmesses up hormones that regulate hunger, lack of sleep makes you more likely to eat more).
  • Not growing as tall as your genetics dictate. Sleep deprivation messes up all your hormones, not only the appetite ones. You need to get enough sleep in order to allow your brain to release the growth hormones.
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